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Published: Friday, 12/22/2006

Still a mess at BWC

TURNS out Coingate was only part of the problem at the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation.

The rare-coin scandal rocked the BWC and ultimately put Tom Noe in prison. But as a three-part series in The Blade this week illustrated, it also focused public attention on a multibillion-dollar workers' comp system that often nickels and dimes injured workers, sticks employers with big premium increases even if their claim history is minimal, and fails to adequately investigate complaints of kickbacks.

Governor-elect Ted Strickland, reacting to The Blade's reporting, said he will have "zero tolerance" for unethical and manipulative behavior by the bureau and firms in the managed-care industry doing business with the BWC.

Ohioans, of course, will expect nothing less.

Certainly Jeff Rhodes, who owns a produce market on Monroe Street, has a gripe coming. His BWC premium jumped from $600 to $12,000 after he filed two claims with the agency. So does Don Ventling, who owns a landscaping company near Cincinnati. Despite a good "loss" history with the BWC, his premium jumped from $6,000 a year to $60,000 after one claim for an employee hurt on the job. He was told that one claim knocked him out of his "pool" group of employers.

And what about the injured workers themselves? Often they find themselves having to fight the BWC for benefits while struggling to cope with the often grim realities of their prospects for returning to meaningful employment.

Moreover, there is the suspicion that if business owners and firms stuck with staggering premium increases just had political connections in Columbus, they could find relief.

Several times since 2003, the BWC agreed to change employer premium rates or injury histories, often without sufficient documentation, allowing some firms to stay in their employer-pools and keep premiums down. That's not us saying that: It's the bureau's own internal audit.

Were those considerations a return on past favors?

It's a legitimate and fair question, and Ohio's legislative inspector general is asking it. The IG's office is seeking records from state lawmakers regarding their contacts with the BWC on behalf of constituents, and a review of documents obtained by The Blade and others after a public-records request shows that such lobbying has occurred.

All of that is troubling enough, but the allegations of kickbacks - and the BWC's apparent failure and unwillingness to do anything about it - is especially disturbing.

As The Blade's investigation showed, the BWC has investigated 30 allegations of kickbacks or improper marketing in its managed-care operation since 2004, and determined the claims were unfounded in nearly every case.

Managed-care firms contract with the BWC to represent companies and their injured workers. The more employees they represent, the more money they make from the BWC. While there are agency regulations forbidding such managed-care firms from offering cash to third parties for client referrals, it's obviously going on.

If the regulations are in fact toothless, as William Mabe, administrator-CEO of the BWC insists, then the new Ohio General Assembly in January should provide the agency with statutory authority to root out the fraud.

It is easy to place the blame for all this at the feet of Bob Taft, given his bungling inattentiveness to the problems of the BWC until they slapped him upside the head.

But Coingate was hatched on former Gov. George Voinovich's watch. Tom Noe got his first $25 million of taxpayer money to invest in coins while Mr. Voinovich, now in the U.S. Senate, was still governor.

Senator Voinovich says he knew nothing of any such arrangement; beyond that, he won't talk about it.

When he took over as governor in 1991, he described the BWC as a "job killer" under the Democrats. We wonder what he thinks of it now after 16 years of Republican control of the agency have driven employers out of the state. Remember, too, that former BWC administrator James Conrad was Mr. Voinovich's hire, not Bob Taft's. Where is Mr. Voinovich's indignation now?

Tom Noe may have been the poster child for an agency that has embarrassed an entire state. But he's gone. The Bureau of Workers' Compensation is still here, and it still needs to be fixed.

Maybe the BWC should file its own workers comp claim: It's badly injured and it doesn't work.



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