Parts is parts 

Just compensation for injuries can be a battle

Here's something Colorado construction workers try to put out of their minds every day: If you lose an arm or go blind or deaf because of unsafe conditions on the job, the state won't consider the disability permanent.

"It's not necessarily a jackpot," said Paul Tauriello, associate director for the Colorado Division of Workers' Compensation.

Ninety pages of Colorado workers' compensation law offers specific payouts for human body parts associated with on-the-job injuries or death.

For example, your arm, depending on how much of it you lose, can net you up to two-thirds your salary for four years.

Each eye is worth two years.

Total deafness in both ears? Less than three years.

The inflexible state law has critics flipping the bird. (A middle finger, incidentally, is worth 13 weeks.)

Crafted in 1991, critics say the law is heavily tilted in favor of those who backed it -- construction contractors and the insurance industry -- while it punishes workers who are often unable to return after being injured.

Last year, 28,750 such Coloradans were too maimed to return, and by law none of them were allowed to choose their own doctors.

Diagnosis: arthritis

For 71-year-old Glenn Eastridge, it meant years of headaches on top of the crippling knee and back pain he experienced after an accident. The former Colorado Springs School District 20 bus driver says he was hospitalized after a stack of tires and metal tire rims that had grown to precarious heights along the walls of the bus-washing bay crashed down on top of him in September of 2000.

As the ambulance took him away, he never imagined he would have to fight to prove he was injured at work.

But his doctor, hired by the district, concluded the knee trouble was somehow connected to arthritis.

The diagnosis stunned Eastridge who never complained of the affliction before. It should have been a surprise to the district, too. They knew he was healthy, he said. Each year, officials made darn sure he could leap out from the emergency door at the back of the bus in the event of a catastrophe that required him to save the lives of children.

"You have to be an agile and strong person," he said. "Basically, you have to be able to do what a 22-year-old would do... maybe not as fast."

He also had to perform all sorts of bends and gyrations to obtain his commercial driving license.

After arguing with his doctor for months, he hired a lawyer, who told him to get second opinion.

Using an MRI, the second doctor identified a tear straight across the soft tissue that supported Eldridge's knee. That, and severe problems in his back, were the cause of the ongoing aches.

Putting up a fight

After months, he received long-needed surgery and was declared permanently disabled. As a result, Eldridge receives compensation from his employer's insurance company until he dies. Now, using a cane to get around the grandfather clocks in his living room, he half-jokes to his wife's dismay that the insurance company yearns for his life to soon end so that they can stop sending checks.

If he didn't fight, he added, he probably would have received much less. He might have wound up bedridden or confined to a wheelchair, he said.

"In the end, it was just two big companies switching money around," he said. "But it shouldn't have happened that way."

Richard Falcone, a Colorado Springs attorney who has represented injured workers for three decades, says Eastridge's experience is common.

"There is a feeling that some doctors tend toward cost containment," he said.

Lawyers call it "doc in a box," he added. And there are even seminars about doctors who, for whatever reasons, seem to consistently line up with the bean counters.

The insurance business appears to be reaping the rewards.

"We've found the loss ratio for insurance companies -- the dollars going in the door versus out -- is among the best in the country," Tauriello said.

Corporate and cold

At least two state legislators want to level the playing field. This year, Rep. Morgan Carroll and Sen. Stephanie Takis have introduced a bill that would let workers choose their own doctors. The lawmakers maintain the proposal would reduce conflicts between patients and their doctors.

Springs workers' compensation attorney Ken Jaray likes the bill. At the moment, the system is "just people fighting each other," he said.

He added that more cooperation is necessary. Ideally, workers and their families should get together with insurers and employers to discuss honest financial and medical solutions that benefit all parties while emphasizing safety improvements that eliminate the causes of injuries.

As it is now, the system is corporate and cold, said Michael Hurlstone, a former soda-pop deliveryman whose disc was herniated a few years ago on the job.

After having to fight for benefits, he was diagnosed with depression.

"It was connected to my injury and the process that was going on," Hurlstone said. "During the time the pain and suffering is happening, money problems are starting. ... We're talking thousands and thousands of dollars that I don't have. I needed help, and they were making me fight for it every inch of the way."

He's found solace in advocating for workers, and scoffed at politicians for writing a law that only allows people with back injuries to qualify for permanent disability benefits.

People who lose limbs or go deaf or blind also should have the right to argue for enduring compensation, he said. Concert pianists, for example, need two hands. Police officers need all their eyes and ears.

"You have a lifetime disability and they're going to compensate you for a few years?" he said. "They say, 'You can retrain yourself, learn Braille, get on with sign language and whatnot.' Ha."

-- Michael de Yoanna


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