Worked Over

For fifteen years, Dana Line has served Denver as a sheriff's deputy at the county jail. Dealing with inmates can be risky, but Line always assumed that if he were hurt on the job, he would be taken care of.

Today he no longer believes that.
In 1992 Line was injured--not by a belligerent inmate, but by a rusty old chair that collapsed when he sat down, damaging the disks in his back. For the next four years, he fought constantly with insurance adjusters and doctors appointed by the city's workers' compensation office, trying to get medical care that would allow him to return to work.

"I was treated like I was trying to fleece them," says Line. "It was like I was a criminal." In 1996 Line finally had back surgery at the hands of a doctor he trusted. The pain he endured has eased, and he's working full-time again. But he's lost all faith in the system.

"The sheriff's employees think they're insured for injuries, but as far as I'm concerned, they're not," he says.

As a result of the 1991 "reform" of Colorado's workers' comp system, stories like Line's have become common for employees throughout the state. But they are especially worrisome for law-enforcement officers and firefighters, who sacrifice their health and well-being every day to protect the public.

This year the state legislature approved new cutbacks in workers' comp benefits, restricting how much money can be paid to the most severely injured employees. Under the new law, for example, someone who loses four fingers and injures a shoulder in an accident will see his one-time disability benefits reduced from $66,757 to $21,372.

The law has infuriated Colorado labor unions and workers' compensation attorneys, as well as police and firefighters. And they're vowing to wreak political vengeance on the legislators who voted for it.

"The insurance companies and legislators have basically gutted the system," says Dean Tripp, president of Denver Fire Fighters Local 858. "People wonder if it's worth it to risk their lives."

Workers' comp was designed so that injured employees could not sue their employers for unsafe working conditions. In return, workers who are injured on the job are supposed to receive medical care, and disability payments if they are unable to work.

Many companies--and even some government entities like the City of Denver, which insures its own employees--specialize in providing workers' comp coverage. But all of them are governed by the state law, which lays out a uniform schedule of benefits. So a firefighter in Durango who breaks his arm will receive the same compensation as a construction worker in Denver with an identical injury.

The premise of workers' comp is to help people get their lives back together after injuries on the job, but the 1991 law gave employer-appointed doctors more authority over patients' care and made it harder for injured employees to challenge medical decisions made by those doctors. The result, say many injured workers, is that doctors who are under pressure to cut costs deny them necessary medical care.

Line says just walking outside to get the newspaper was excruciatingly painful after his injury. A city-appointed doctor told him the problem was that he was sleeping in the wrong position. "All the doctors said, 'I can't fix you,'" recalls Line. "Later I found a doctor who could fix me because he wanted to." Line's surgery was eventually approved, but he is still bitter over the constant hassles he faced trying to make that happen. "I had to fight them every step of the way," he says.

Since law-enforcement officers and firefighters have especially dangerous jobs, the fate of those injured while protecting the public worries many of the union leaders who represent them. Tripp says firefighters have to be physically fit to keep their jobs, and the multiple risks they're exposed to can easily cause physical injuries.

"Our work is labor-intensive, with heavy lifting and heavy tools," says Tripp. "We have smoke inhalation and knee and back injuries."

If a firefighter seriously injures his shoulder or arm, says Tripp, he is usually given only a few thousand dollars in compensation, even if it means he's out of a job. Although some people can find another job after a serious injury, "if a firefighter can no longer do the work, he loses his career," notes Tripp.

The same is true for police and sheriff's officers, says Denver attorney Marshall Fogel, who represents law-enforcement officers in workers' compensation cases. He says that under Colorado law, a policeman who is shot in the arm and loses the use of his right hand would receive a paltry one-time payment of $6,200.

"If a police officer can't use his dominant right hand, he loses his job," says Fogel. "Why should anybody take the risk of losing their job and family because the insurance companies want to make more money?"

The legislature also restricted treatment for work-related stress to twelve weeks--and in some cases, that's hardly enough time. For example, the law may restrict the length of treatment for the teachers and police officers who found themselves in the middle of the massacre at Columbine High School last week.

"Post-traumatic stress disorder is something that frequently develops in situations like this, and it usually requires more than twelve weeks of treatment," says Dr. Bert Furmansky, a Denver psychiatrist who frequently treats law-enforcement officers. Since this type of stress is also often accompanied by depression, he says limiting treatment to three months could leave some public employees without adequate medical care.

Fogel has organized several meetings of police and firefighter groups across the state to talk about workers' comp and educate their members. The goal, he says, is to get them involved in the upcoming legislative elections in 2000. "They've kicked the men and women in blue," he says. "We're going to publish the names of every Colorado legislator who voted against the police and firefighters. We'll get those names to every voter."

"We're organizing all over the state," adds Tripp. "We're notifying our membership, and we're keeping track of who's voting to gut this system. They'll have to pay when they're running for re-election."

The AFL-CIO is even discussing a November 2000 ballot initiative that would allow people to sue their employers for an unsafe working environment or another possible measure that would raise benefits.

State senator Bryan Sullivant cast the swing vote that allowed the most recent workers' comp bill to pass. The Breckenridge Republican initially opposed the legislation but then changed his mind.

Sullivant says he listened carefully to both sides before deciding how to cast his vote. "This is a very intricate issue that affects some very real people," he says. "I think the proponents of the bill did make a strong case. I have no regrets. I made a thoughtful decision." Sullivant says he's never heard anything about the workers' comp issue from police or firefighters in his district.

While politicians argue over the system, Dana Line is just grateful to be back on the job. To survive during the years he couldn't work, Line had to sell his home and move his family into a smaller house.

"We nearly lost everything we had," says his wife, Wanita. "We had to completely change our lives."

The Lines remember hearing stories about people who abused workers' comp before the legislature revised the law in 1991, and while there may have been problems with the old law, Wanita Line says the legislature went too far when it "reformed" a system meant to protect people on the job.

"We were flabbergasted that the system just doesn't work," she says.

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