THE BIG HURT

TRUTH IS THE FIRST CASUALTY IN THE POLITICAL WAR OVER AMENDMENT 11.

Get past the unending stream of annoying television ads and Amendment 11, the "Workers' Choice of Care" initiative, is essentially a labor-management dispute in which voters are being asked to act as arbitrators. Unfortunately, they'll have to make up their minds based largely on high-priced media campaigns rife with exaggeration, scare tactics and "Jorgie the Jet-Skier," Colorado's overexposed poster boy for workers' compensation fraud.

If passed, Amendment 11 would allow people injured on the job to choose their own "health-care providers," which would mean just about any practitioner, be it cardiologist or herbal healer, to whom workers would entrust their health and welfare. Under current law, Colorado employers have the right to assign workers a primary doctor, which is more narrowly defined as an M.D., dentist, podiatrist, chiropractor or osteopath.

The initiative, drafted by organized labor working in conjunction with workers' compensation attorneys, is neither a radical nor an original concept. At least fifteen states already give employees the right to choose doctors in such cases. But opponents say it could lead to increases in doctor bills and benefit payouts--and, consequently, to higher premium rates for workers' compensation insurance. Those fears prompted Colorado's business and insurance bigwigs to call a temporary halt to their own periodic bickering and form a united front in opposition to Amendment 11.

The amendment was born of distrust and a longstanding power struggle between business and labor, and the specters of fraud and greed continue to drive arguments on both sides. Proponents claim that passage of the amendment would keep unscrupulous employers and insurance companies from cheating workers out of benefits due them. Opponents say it would allow dishonest employees to join forces with unprincipled doctors and unethical attorneys to bilk employers. The two sides combined have spent well over a million dollars to wage the fight. And the truth is still as elusive as ever.

As of late August, the anti-11 forces, known as the Coalition to Save Colorado Jobs, had spent approximately $232,950 on TV commercials. Organized labor, whose TV ads began running last week, has budgeted about half that amount.

Labor's pro-11 ads are simple talking-head productions that at first sound a lot like promo pieces for personal-injury lawyers. "You or your family member might be hurt on the job," an actor begins, stressing that the present workers' compensation system offers "one doctor, no second opinion, no choice." But now, he continues, "it's up to us. It's your health. Shouldn't it be your decision?"

The ads, however, remain mum on the fact that, if passed, the amendment is likely to create an unholy administrative mess that will be left to the state legislature to untangle. It's a virtual certainty that attorneys and legislators will struggle to define the bill's vague language and to determine how it will affect existing law. "It will be a lawyers' feeding frenzy," says one doctor who specializes in the treatment of occupational injuries.

Meanwhile, the ads paid for by business tell viewers that Amendment 11 would allow "health-care cheaters" to decide who treats them for any injury, "even a fake one." One commercial shows video of Jorgie Dalegowski, a Lakewood drywaller, as he makes perfect turns on his Jet-Ski. Jorgie was the focus of an eight-part, KUSA/Channel 9 piece on workers' compensation fraud back in 1990. Though Jorgie had received almost a quarter of a million dollars in comp claims, he was still able to cavort on his Jet-Ski, a fact that enraged viewers. He will forever be known as the bad boy of workers' comp.

What the Jorgie ad fails to mention is that an insurance agency determined there had been no fraud in his case and that a judge concluded that his Jet-Skiing did not prove he was not entitled to benefits. Nor did the ad mention that Jorgie was certified as injured by doctors selected by his company's insurance carrier--not by a doctor he'd chosen himself. And a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Labor says the problem of workers' comp fraud has been exaggerated by the business lobby--which even then, she adds, has tended to point the finger in the wrong direction. "It's really less of an issue than I think the business community would suggest in terms of workers' committing fraud," says Rosemary Marshall.

In fact, according to Marshall, the majority of abuses are committed by employers, not employees. "When you look at the whole pie in terms of fraud in the system, maybe 42 percent of it is caused by employees and the rest is employer fraud," she says. Employers, for example, can cheat the system by refusing to take out insurance. They might misrepresent the number of workers they employ, says Marshall, or they might claim to employ "secretaries" when the workers are actually welders (who face more risk and thus require higher premiums).

"Yet," Marshall adds, "employee fraud is a Class 5 felony, and [when employers commit] fraud, they get a slap on the hand."

Ron Lundquist, for one, would like to see the two sides call a halt to their expensive grudge match and sit down at the bargaining table. Lundquist, who owns a drywall company and is Jorgie the Jet-Skier's former boss, sits on Governor Roy Romer's panel on workers' compensation, formed earlier this year.

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