Saturday’s story

BISMARCK — North Dakota lawmakers said Friday they were generally pleased with a recent performance evaluation of Workforce Safety and Insurance, but said there’s always room for improvement.

The interim Workers’ Compensation Review Committee spent nearly five hours Friday listening to testimony and discussing the recent 197-page report.

Committee Chairman Rep. Dan Ruby, R-Minot, said the report shows WSI is following the law, and its practices are sound.

“I think overall, the real positive things about employment in general and claims in general for the state is claims are going down, mainly because of the efforts of the safety programs and the efforts the agency is working on,” he said.

Sen. Terry Wanzek, R-Jamestown, said “tremendous strides” have been made.

“There’s always room for improvement,” he said. “Hopefull,y we can continue this direction.”

State auditors hired consultants at Sedgwick Claims Management Services to conduct the review, the results of which were made public last week.

Report’s findings

As previously reported in The Forum, findings from the report include:

n The adjusted rate of denied claims rose from 2005 to 2009, from 6.9 percent to 10.4 percent. Clare Carlson, WSI’s deputy director, has said incentives to employers for early reporting of injuries contributed to the rise. Injuries are being reported that didn’t have to be.

n Claims analysts have difficulty deciding whether to award benefits in cases involving aggravating effects.

n Consultants recommend North Dakota relax the threshold for awarding permanent partial disability awards for injured workers.

n North Dakota ‘s use of narcotic painkillers was slightly higher than the national average for workers’ compensation programs , with Burleigh County standing out.

Worker’s view

Sylvan Loegering of the North Dakota Injured Workers Support Group said Friday that North Dakota is out of step with the rest of the country as far as pre-existing and degenerative conditions.

“If we’re going to get in line, we have to do something to cover pre-existing and degenerative conditions better than we are,” he said.

Wanzek said it can be difficult to determine what is job-related and what’s degenerative.

Rep. Frank Wald, R-Dickinson, expressed concern the public wasn’t getting an accurate picture of denied claims statistics.

He thinks there needs to be clarification, saying actual claims should be separated from incomplete claims and those that need not have been filed in the first place.

WSI ultimately accepts 92 percent of all claims, the agency’s Executive Director and CEO Bryan Klipfel said.

Wald also thinks there may need to be tighter controls of the continued use of narcotics. Wanzek agreed.

“It’s somewhat alarming Bismarck is so much higher than the rest of the state and narrowed to a few providers,” he said.

Klipfel said they need to see why that is and discuss additional monitoring.

Wanzek said the report area that stood out most for him is retirement benefits. State law allows disability benefits to be paid for as many as three years for those injured after they reach their presumptive retirement age .

Yet, a worker injured less than one year before his or her presumptive retirement date is not eligible for additional benefits payable because the minimum disability duration to qualify is one year.

Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said he hopes all of the involved groups provide input as legislators decide how to move forward.

“(Last session) we had about 19 bills or 19 different issues that helped the worker, the injured worker,” he said. “Now I know that some probably felt it wasn’t far enough, but you know, we’re moving in the right direction and this will, too.”

Workforce Safety and Insurance will present proposed legislation to lawmakers next month.