Wednesday, January 9, 2013

In Politics, Impropriety Is In the Eye of the Beholder

Georgia doesn't come up often on the workers' compensation scene because, frankly, not a lot of new or exciting things happen in that state, though its gross domestic product of about $395 billion is the size of Austria.

But this doesn't mean that interesting things don't happen at all in Georgia. Workers' compensation trends to have a way of circulating among the states and sometimes a smaller state initiates those trends.

One of the trends that Georgia may initiate is capping medical benefits. In this case, capping medical benefits is in exchange for boosting indemnity benefits.

John Poole, executive director of the Georgia Self-Insurers Association, told WorkCompCentral Tuesday that self-insurers and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce have endorsed a package of reforms agreed to by the Georgia Workers' Compensation Advisory Council in October.

Like most states, Georgia currently requires insurers and self-insured employers to pay lifetime medical benefits for all workers regardless of how catastrophic an injury is. Indemnity benefits are capped at 400 weeks, except in the case of catastrophic injuries. Catastrophic injuries are defined by Georgia law as severe paralysis, amputation, severe brain and closed head injuries, second or third-degree burns and industrial blindness.

The draft legislation would also cap medical benefits at 400 weeks, except in the case of catastrophic injuries.

"Capping medical benefits should give employers better leverage in settlements and should help with the thorny issue of Medicare set-asides," Poole said.

Curiously, the reform package has the backing of claimants' attorneys and has a good chance of passage during the 2013 session of the Georgia General Assembly, which convenes on Monday, according to the report.

Atlanta claimants' attorney Marvin Price, who is reported to have helped negotiate the deal, said claimants' lawyers have accepted the compromise package because business stands to get some reforms from Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and the GOP-dominated state House and Senate.

"It's a compromise, and it's a major change. But we had to agree to it to avoid some other really Draconian changes," Price said.

The maximum weekly benefits under the proposal would increase in 2013 from $500 to $525. Claimants' lawyers sought to index future benefits to the statewide average weekly wage.

I understand the dilemma. Still, is it really acceptable to have claimants' attorneys negotiating away injured worker benefits - particularly something as significant as lifetime medical - when they stand to benefit from the flip side of the bargain, i.e. increased indemnity? Because like most other attorneys representing injured workers, Georgia lawyers work on a contingency basis, getting a percentage of a workers' indemnity award.

This irony was made even more poignant when, as also reported in WorkCompCentral this morning, a disbarred Georgia claimants' attorney admitted in federal court on Tuesday that he pocketed $2.5 million of his clients' money for personal use.

According to the story, Miles Lamar Gammage of Cedartown, Ga., admitted to defrauding more than 50 injured workers out of settlement funds, federal prosecutors told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Prosecutors told the Journal-Constitution that Gammage, 59, didn't notify clients when they received settlements, forged their names on checks and deposited them into bank accounts that he controlled. When clients demanded their money, Gammage would extend them "interest-free loans" or "advance" them the funds, the newspaper said.

I'm not saying that the good claimants' attorneys are not looking out for the best interests of injured workers in Georgia, but I do remember from my ethics classes in law school that the APPEARANCE of impropriety is nearly the same, ethically, as actual impropriety.

Workers' compensation is a political animal made up of special interests negotiating for the preservation and/or expansion of their wants and needs. In political negotiations, I guess, impropriety is in the eye of the beholder.

Just sayin'...

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