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Thursday, September 19, 2013
Andrea Gentry is a personal caregiver who lives in Roanoke County. Claire Pierce is a paralegal who lives in Stafford. Cathy Hockman lives near Chesapeake. She’s a food service manager.
The three women have something in common: For years each has tangled with Virginia’s antiquated, confounding, insufficient workers’ compensation system, on behalf of loved ones who have been grievously injured on the job.
Now they’re taking hard lessons they’ve learned and are trying to help others. Together, they’ve formed the Virginia Injured Workers Network. They launched it in July on Facebook (facebook.com/VAInjuredWorkersNetwork).
It’s a support group and information exchange for injured workers and their loved ones who feel lost in a system that’s supposed to help them. In far too many cases, it does anything but that.
“I want it to be something where injured workers and their families can come and say, ‘This is the problem we’re having. Where do we go from here?’ and get some answers,” Andrea Gentry told me. “Because that’s the problem Mike and I had.”
The ultimate goal is for the network to grow into a grass-roots organization that will advocate for changes to the system.
You’ve read about Gentry before in this column. Her husband Mike was a satellite dish installer who, while working alone, fell off a ladder and landed on his head one day in 2009 during an installation at a home in southeast Roanoke.
He emerged from a coma weeks later, with permanent brain damage. Mike still can’t see straight, he tires easily, he cannot drive, his speech is slurred and at times he gets confused. He’ll never work again.
Compounding those travails were indignities the Gentrys were subjected to while trying to collect benefits they needed and deserved. The family of five lost their car and almost lost their North Lakes home when the workers’ compensation insurance company cut off all medical and income benefits to Mike — because he couldn’t recall the accident.
While a Roanoke church raised money to pay their mortgage, local attorney Matt Broughton fought their case. The process dragged on for more than a year before they prevailed.
Hockman is still fighting an insurance company on behalf of her son, now 27, who was injured five years ago while working part time in a major appliance store in Chesapeake. He fell and landed on his head while trying to retrieve an appliance that was stacked high in a rear storeroom.
He has permanent injuries and still requires periodic medical treatment related to the accident. She says it’s like pulling teeth to get the insurer to pay. One example was $163 compensation for work he missed related to his injuries.
The insurance company and its lawyer spent “months and months and thousands of dollars” trying to avoid paying it, she said. That included multiple depositions and a hearing. “They just wouldn’t pay,” Hockman said.
For another claim, the commissioner twice found the insurer in contempt for not paying, Hockman said. But in the workers’ compensation system, the penalty for that is only 20 percent of the bill — which was chicken feed.
“There is so much hypocrisy and bureaucracy in the system, and so much shenanigans and hoop-jumping,” Hockman told me. “I want people to become aware that it’s a system failure in a lot of cases.”
Claire Pierce’s husband Arthur died in January 2008. He was a retired IBM engineer who was working a temporary job as a dump truck driver. One morning in September 2006, Pierce fell off the top of his truck. He was later found unconscious, on company property. Nobody saw the accident.
Although Pierce regained consciousness less than a week later, he suffered brain damage so severe that he couldn’t walk, talk or feed himself. Because he couldn’t explain how the accident happened, a quirk in Virginia law deemed him ineligible for any workers’ compensation benefits.
That quirk was addressed by the General Assembly in 2011 and again this year. It may finally be fixed — time will tell. But there’s still plenty that’s wrong with the system, said Virginia Diamond. From 1994 to 2011 she was one of three commissioners with the Virginia Workers Compensation Commission . She was chairwoman for six years.
Now a labor lawyer in Richmond, Diamond is advising Gentry, Hockman and Pierce on their efforts with the Virginia Injured Workers Network.
The current system “favors too heavily the insurance industry, and it’s very difficult and cumbersome for workers and their families to navigate,” Diamond told me. “Virginia probably has the most restrictive definition of what is a compensable injury in the nation.
“We need to spread the word about this, so there will be a lot more people who get involved,” she added.
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