Times on Workers’ Comp: Meatball Justice


Commended to your attention is a great read in today’s Times, the dissection of the state’s Dickensian system of Workers’ Compensation.

In the first of three articles, reporters N.R. Kleinfeld and Steve Greenhouse detail a patronage-filled bureaucracy in which injured workers wait years for a form of junk justice. Kleinfeld and Greenhouse spent 18 months watching  this meat market closeup in the compensation board’s busiest office in Jamaica, Queens.

Despite reforms instituted in one of Eliot Spitzer’s early (and few) gubernatorial achievements, those hurt on the job still often wait years for cases to be resolved, and receive less than those in other states. Oh, and New York’s system — dubbed “the Wild West of health insurance” by a top occupational injuries doctor — is also among the most expensive.

A few highlights:

Among the compensation board commissioners with no obvious other experience for their posts are a pal of ex-first state lady Libby Pataki; the wife of a Republican state senator, and the daughter of Pataki’s former top adviser. The sum-it-up quote comes from commissioner Richard Bell, who tells the Times: “It is political employment for the politically connected.” Bell knows this firsthand since he’s married to Pataki’s former executive assistant.

Injury claimants often get their legal services from firms that assign a different lawyer every time the client has a hearing. “During one hearing, a claimant’s lawyer asked his client a question in Spanish. This went poorly, since the man was Armenian.”

Lawyers waiting for cases play pinochle, watch hockey fights on  YouTube, and “study the
‘meat chart’ which lists awards for lost body parts.”

The story of former parks department worker Carlos Pabon, who was accidentally knocked down a flight of stairs is detailed. While waiting for the board to resolve his case, Pabon was evicited from his apartment and wound up in shelters. “This could put someone in a mental hospital,” the Times quotes his fiance saying while the pair wait for one more hearing. “I can see myself sitting in a room in a straitjacket, rocking.”

The Times reports that while fraud exists, it’s thanks to insurance company P.R. that the general public thinks the system is filled with rip-off artists: “Experts believe that far more money is siphoned by employers that illegally underpay premiums by underreporting the size of their workforce or by doctors who fabricate bills.”


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