A voice for injured N.D. workers: NDIWSG commits to Bill of Rights adoption
Sylvan Loegering is on a mission to right what he feels is a huge wrong in the North Dakota's workers compensation system, currently known as Workforce Safety and Insurance (WSI) - laws that are negatively impacting workers injured on the job and their subsequent recuperation and care.
A longtime West Fargo resident, retired from careers in teaching and sales, Loegering has been leading the charge for the North Dakota Injured Workers Support Group (NDIWSG) since April of 2008, prompted by the on-the-job injury of his son, Todd, in 2004.
"It was the injury, as well as other people in the same boat that motivated me to get involved," Loegering said. "I saw them going through the same stuff and thought 'there is something really wrong here.'"
That 'same stuff' pertained to a number of critical issues, including medical treatment and rehabilitation, disability benefits, and the ability to perform or secure gainful employment.
"Getting medical treatment turned into a nightmare of denials and red tape," Loegering said. "We contacted state legislators, but they couldn't help, and calls to the governor and various state departments, all provided the same answer."
Consequently, NDIWSG, comprised of a broad mix of injured workers and staunch advocates, was set up to assist North Dakota workers in two ways: to provide assistance for injured workers who are currently dealing with WSI; and to work for changes in North Dakota laws regarding workers compensation so injured workers will receive the sure and certain relief that has been promised to them.
Toward that end, the group has focused its efforts on the promotion and realization of a Bill of Rights for North Dakota injured workers to be used as a guide to drafting and passing legislation that would provide 'fair treatment' in correcting problems injured workers have been plagued by.
The document emphasizes rights in ten areas pertaining to: workers compensation, treating physician, independent medical exams, benefits, independent review, disability benefits, protection from fraud, offsets of disability income, vocational rehabilitation, and legal representation.
"A lot of thought, research, and interaction have gone into this guide to make it the best that it can be," Loegering said. "Some injured workers still have a problem getting cared for decently, whether it be wages, medical problems or rehabilitations, especially the ones that involve ongoing needs. The Bill of Rights is one attempt to do something about that."
Saying he once considered WSI as "a rogue agency run amok," Loegering said that WSI is following the law but applying the law in its strictest sense results in the denial of benefits to many deserving injured workers.
On that note, he said changes need to be made to the policy changes and poorly worded statutes implemented during North Dakota's 80-year history of workers compensation, in particular, changes put in place in 1995.
Serious changes in WSI laws were adopted in 1995 that only made matters worse, according to Loegering, resulting in poverty, depression, and second class status for many of the state's injured workers. Those changes involved pre-existing or degenerative conditions, with the new revisions making injuries not compensable if attributable to a preexisting injury, disease, or other condition, including when the employment acted as a trigger to produce symptoms, with the only exception being when the employment substantially accelerated or worsened its progression. The same rule was put in place to apply to latent or asymptomatic degenerative conditions.
"It is these definitions, taken together, that have resulted in many injured workers not being compensated," Loegering said. "They took so much away with these changes. If we could go back to 1995 and reverse some of these laws, the system would be in better shape."
NDIWSG's first major attempt at correcting these deficiencies was promoting passage of initiated Measure No. 4 in 2008 that resulted in the change of the management structure of the WSI agency. An appointed board of directors had previously governed WSI. The initiative turned the jurisdiction of the agency over to the governor and restored state civil service protection to the agency's employees as well as using an independent administrative panel of law judges to conduct hearings and make final decisions.
Ultimately, WSI is now Governor John Hoeven's responsibility, providing him the mandate to name the executive director of WSI, which he did in 2008 with the appointment of Brian Klipfel, and to assign the responsibilities and duties correlating with the position.
In what he considers a milestone, Loegering was able to discuss the proposed Bill of Rights with Klipfel and Hoeven late last year, while lobbying for the cause in Bismarck. The three sat down to discuss ways to make the system better, "the first hopeful sign," Loegering said.
At that same time, Loegering presented them with figures from the 2008 performance review covering a change in WSI's philosophy during the years 2005-2007 that revealed nearly 500 more injured workers per year being denied benefits than in pre-2005. Klipfel is now reviewing those numbers as well.
All in all, Loegering was encouraged by this first real opportunity for meaningful dialogue with state officials. "This information really raised their eyebrows and told me that WSI is taking it seriously."
The meeting resulted in a directive from the governor for Klipfel to review the document and to conduct any discussion pertaining to it, with Loegering serving as an advocate for injured workers, which led subsequently to current ongoing discussions between the committee of WSI and NDIWSG. This discussion is focused on searching for ways WSI can implement changes internally and on areas were WSI and NDIWSG can agree on proposed legislation.
Because of NDIWSG's tenacity in their resolve not to give up or give in, and their determination to create awareness about their issue, Loegering feels the acceptance of the concepts put forth in the Bill of Rights is now closer than ever, and that the gap can be closed even further by repeating the process of gathering public support for this document prior to the next legislative session in 2011.
He emphasized that the Bill of Rights is not a proposed law like Measure 4; instead, a statement of philosophy that would govern the writing of laws in the legislature and the application of laws by WSI as a 'live by' document for North Dakota's injured workers. "This is more of a guide, not specific legislation," Loegering said. "Instead it is something to follow as a guideline or reference when law is adopted."
"If the legislature and WSI would follow these principles, life would be better for injured workers and North Dakota would be a lot closer to the workers compensation system that they all deserve. It won't be easy, and it won't happen overnight. But when it does, it will be a valid Bill of Rights for North Dakota's injured workers and will have a significant impact on helping people, by working on how laws are interpreted and enforced by WSI, and in resulting legislation."
Loegering has no plans any time soon of relinquishing his commitment to this cause, with intentions to see it through at least to the completion of the 2011 legislature.
He said he feels fortunate that his own son was able to bounce back from his injuries and experience a career change, in his desire to return to work. His is also bent on seeing that vision become a reality for other injured workers.
"We literally have hundreds of people on our E-mail list and dozens of people actively working on our cause. I like to think we represent every injured worker in the state and we are going to do everything in our power to help each and every one of them the best way we possibly can."
Anyone with questions about this issue or wishing additional information can contact Loegering by phone at 701-282-8714 or by E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about the Bill of Rights, view it in its entirety on the NDIWSG Web site at www.ndworkcomphelp.com.