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Study Faults System Dealing With Workers’ Comp Claims

Times Staff Writer

A state-commissioned study to be presented today finds critical problems with the state’s system for dealing with compensation claims for injured workers and recommends more staffing, a new computer system and standardized procedures for all 180 judges hearing the cases.

While the judges of the California Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board are mandated by law to hold an initial hearing on an appeal within 30 days and a trial within 75, the process usually take significantly longer, said Nick Pace of Rand Corp.'s Institute for Civil Justice, the author of the 700-page report.

Once a case is heard, it sometimes takes the judge months to render a decision, according to the study, which was prepared for the state Commission on Health and Safety and Workers’ Compensation.

About a million injured workers in California file compensation claims each year. Of those cases, 200,000 result in disputes over issues such as whether an injury in fact occurred at work, whether medical treatment is necessary, and the extent to which an injury poses long-term health consequences for the worker. These end up with the appeals board and its judges.

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Pace said the Rand study found that understaffing at the clerical level “creates a serious bottleneck in the system,” and he noted that the state has long had a policy of allocating enough money to hire only about 80% of the staff authorized in the budget.

There are few standardized procedures for how the hearings are held, according to the study.

“Because the rules are sometimes contradictory, vague, confusing or convoluted, many local offices and judges invent their own procedures or evaluative criteria, creating a hodgepodge of largely unwritten local practices across the state,” Pace wrote.

“The study team found that, in some instances, judges took more than three months to reach a decision, even though 30 days is the maximum time established by statute,” Pace added.

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The computer system is so inadequate, it ought to be replaced before any more electronic filing is implemented, he concluded.

Officials of the state commission that funded the study could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.


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