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The Baltimore Sun’s Coverage of Workers’ Compensation

By Byron Warnken

The Baltimore Sun has upped its game.  Luke Broadwater and Scott Calvert are doing some impressive work.  They are doing real journalism in an age where real journalism does not abound.  Kudos.

In an extensive series about workers’ compensation and it’s impact on Baltimore, Broadwater and Calvert have spotlighted important issues.  The issues were there all along, hidden in the data.  The comp issues aren’t just financial, some are philosophical.

It would be nice if workers’ comp were about compensating injured workers’ and philosophy didn’t have to enter into it.  But for some reason, workers’ comp conversations seem to always involve politics and philosophy.

My politics, to get it out of the way, are summed up in a quote…

“If hard work were such a wonderful thing, surely the rich would have kept it all to themselves.”  –Lane Kirkland

Politics aside, the Sun’s extensive work incorporates data in a meaningful way.  It appears as though, in addition to referencing the Comp Pinkbook, the Sun submitted a significant Maryland Public Information Act request of Baltimore City.  The resultant data set is both large and fascinating.  The top 200 payouts are listed on the Sun’s own page here: http://data.baltimoresun.com/workers-comp/database/.  For each claim, you can learn the Baltimore City department, dollars paid to date, and the anticipated remaining payout.

There were a total of 3731 claims analyzed for FY2013.  Here’s the breakdown for the four most dangerous departments:

  • Police – 30.57% of all claims in 2013
  • Schools – 24.57% of all claims in 2013
  • Fire – 12.38% of all claims in 2013
  • Transportation – 9.62% of all claims in 2013

Together these make up about ¾ of all claims.  The rest of the claims divide into six other categories.

The data also reveals the largest claim from a dollar standpoint is likely to cost the city about $623,898.  There were 18 total claims likely to cost more than $100,000.

In addition to the excellent use of data, The Sun’s workers’ compensation series has human-interest elements, policy elements, and legislative elements.  The series began with a bang in an incredible 4500+ word piece involving workers’ compensation and the danger of being a city schools employee.  Along with  Broadwater and Calvert, Erica Green, the Sun’s education reporter, was on the byline.  The piece was less about workers’ comp than it was about violence in city schools.  Comp was used as the angle to find, from a data driven standpoint, just how many instances there were.  And, in fact, how costly it can be once it’s added all up.  The first piece can be found on the main workers’ comp .data page.

The second article in the series involved firefighters, and the presumption that cancer is caused from on-the-job exposures.  Should there be a presumption under the law that a firefighter’s cancer is caused by on the job exposure?  Without the presumption, we’d have workers’ compensation commissioners and juries deciding whether the cancer was caused by the job, by other risk factors, or by heredity.  With as little as we know about cancer and it’s causes, I don’t think we have any choice but to presume the job caused it.  The Sun’s Firefighter and presumptions story is here.

The story I was quoted in specifically referenced attorney John Hall and another lawyer in his office, Delegate Ben Barnes.  I was quoted more from a standpoint of aggregate workers’ compensation figures than from the substance of the article.  The substance spoke to our part-time legislature.  The lawyer Barnes is also a Maryland lawmaker.  Predictably, Barnes proposes legislation to help the injured worker and also votes in favor of such legislation.  As long as you have part-time lawmakers, I don’t see how you could not have perceived conflicts of interest.  In the article, I was quoted as saying “Very little transparency exists about lawyer experience and performance.”   The article ran on the front page of the Sun on February 27th.  It can be found here.  In addition to citing stats from the Comp Pinkbook on Hall, figures were cited on other top Baltimore workers’ compensation lawyers, including Mitch Gordon and Bruce Ingerman.

Today’s piece is entitled “Local governments confront questionable claims.”  It looks at fraud in the workers’ comp system.  In the story, Carmine D’Alessandro is quoted as saying, “The general consensus is that only 5 to 10 percent are bad apples.  Ninety percent [of workers’ comp claims or claimants] are pure legit.  It’s that 10 percent that muck it up. …When you’re embellishing to get more money, we just try to beat you back.  Now, are those little white lies adding up?  Of course, those are adding thousands of dollars to the system.”

I realize it’s just an off-the-cuff comment and, if given the chance, he’d probably say it differently.  “Thousands of dollars” is a rounding error.  Obviously, fraud in the workers’ compensation system is greater than “thousands.”  But the tone (which is often difficult to ascertain from a few interview quotes), seems to indicate fraud is likely not the problem most people think it is.  If it were an enormous problem, my guess is his reaction would be slightly different – terrible, horrendous, a drain on the system, etc etc, might have been some of the phrasing used.  However, this is just speculation on my part.

I think one thing it’s important for the reader to understand – a lot of scrutiny goes into high dollar claims.  Of those 18 listed Baltimore workers’ comp claims for more than $100,000, all got looked at hard by various people from Key Risk or others tasked with monitoring claims and fraud.

On the whole, excellent work by Broadwater, Calvert, Green and the whole team at the Baltimore Sun.  Data and workers’ compensation go together beautifully.  Combine them with real reporting and the result is significant.  I have already been called by a national workers’ compensation publication for my reaction to the story.  Clearly, people are noticing.  Hopefully, there are more articles to come.

Details of Settlement Published – $35 Million for Stent Patients

By Byron Warnken

One week ago, the Baltimore Business Journal, reported the details of a settlement previously announced by Jay Miller of Miller, Murtha, & Psoras.  The settlement totaled $35.25 million.  The article states the injured “could receive a total of $35.25 million.”  Nothing in the article indicates anything about what the conditions for that sum to be […]