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CURRENT STORIES


Comp on the brink

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

CLARKSBURG -- A growing frustration with the system was the one thing area legislators could agree on when discussing the workers' compensation reform bill that could surface in the interim session that begins today.

"The whole system is about like a wagon wheel," said Sen. Mike Ross, D-Randolph, in a colorful expression of common legislative sentiment. "You take any spoke and it's been abused. Some spokes have been abused more than others."

Beyond that, a survey of North Central senators and delegates done late last week revealed deep divisions that have carried over from the regular legislative session. A mammoth reform bill died on March 8, the final day of the session, and sparked Gov. Bob Wise to form the working group that drafted the newest effort.

Del. Sam Cann, D-Harrison, is the only North Central legislator who is in the working group and who has seen the 245-page draft. Among those interviewed, he was also the most hopeful that the proposed legislation is both passable and productive.

A dire necessity

Cann believes the looming bankruptcy of the workers' compensation system will bring the consensus that wasn't there during the regular session.

"If we don't get this done, we're going to be in such terrible shape financially ... that this (current workers' compensation crisis) will pale in comparison."

If the system goes bankrupt, as it's predicted to do sometime in 2004, Cann said the state's bond rating would plummet. That bad-risk label would, in turn, cause the interest on all state loans to skyrocket, he said.

One highly publicized part of the proposed bill is a $225 million financial package that would keep the system out of such collapse through 2006, although it would not touch its $3 billion in debt. That package would come from such sources as the Workers' Compensation Division's black-lung fund, which actuaries say has more cash than is needed. Other sources would include the state's tobacco-lawsuit settlement and general tax revenue.

At week's end, legislators were still trying to come up with $45 million to complete the package, however. How that gap is filled, Cann and several other legislators said, could spell problems for the entire bill.

One possibility that could spark particular contention is the legalization of table-game gambling at the state's racetracks as a new source of revenue.

"It's been discussed and there are interests out there that want to use that as a way to solve it," said Cann, who opposes that option.

Del. Ron Fragale, D-Harrison, said he was also concerned about a second cigarette tax increase in 2003. That option appeared to be fading as politically unpalatable late last week but, "we're going to have to come up with ... quite a bit of money."

Other issues

Another point of contention among area legislators is the timing of financial fixes and administrative reforms.

Sen. Joe Minard, D-Harrison, is opposed to any large cash influx that would precede significant changes in how the system operates.

"The rampant fraud that's been going on needs to be addressed," said Minard, who was on a Senate committee that drafted a reform bill during the regular session. "I'm talking about the employees, the employers, the medical community, the lawyers. I'm talking about the whole ball of wax.

"If it's just a funding mechanism, then we have not solved the problem."

Cann believes there is significant reform in the bill but said he, too, is unwilling to commit any long-term cash until legislators can see how the reforms are administered by the system and viewed by the courts.

Minard also raised the issue of ensuring state employers that their annual premiums are not going to waste. As owner of a Clarksburg restaurant that employs about 40 people, he is among those who received premium-increase notices in the last few days. His rate will go up 15 percent beginning with the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.

"That's hard to take," he said.

Sen. Ross said Minard isn't alone and similar complaints were pouring in last week. He said the timing of the increase -- which was not done at the direction of the Legislature but by the system's Performance Council -- may contribute to the introduction of the workers' compensation bill being delayed until later in the summer.

Yet another conflict is what percentage of the reform hit various stakeholders will take.

"I want to make sure that injured workers will have the benefits they deserve and they're not footing the whole tab for this crisis that we're in," said Del. Mike Caputo, D-Marion.

He is afraid the focus on fraud is unfairly blaming workers with questionable claims for the whole problem. Caputo said a number of companies have contributed to the woes with the larger-scale fraud of non-payment of premiums.

As a result, Caputo wants to see a reform provision that would disallow the officers of companies with delinquent premiums from shutting down through bankruptcy and then reopening under another name.

Although he pledged to drag his feet on behalf of workers, "my gut is telling me that labor is going to take the brunt of this."

"It's the responsibility of every working person in West Virginia to watch this legislation and to contact their legislators. ... We don't want all of the burden to be put on us."

Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1447 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com.