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Published: Thursday, 7/13/2006

Ohio workers' comp beefs up enforcement against fraud by firms

BY MIKE WILKINSON
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Wersell Wersell
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After years of cracking down on workers who feign injury and then illegally return to jobs, work, officials at the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation say they now have new tools to get tough with employers.

In a Toledo stop during a statewide tour promoting the bureau's fraud investigators, Tom Wersell, director of bureau investigations, said lawmakers have addressed a fairness issue: Employers who fail to get proper workers' compensation coverage can now face felony convictions.

A sweeping workers' compensation overhaul, which went into affect June 30, added the penalty.

Previously, employers would face minimal penalties. Mr. Wersell said a Youngstown company got just a $50 fine when it owed the bureau more than $100,000 in unpaid premiums.

Passage of the enhanced penalties, Mr. Wersell said, "was a very good accomplishment for our department and the agency."

Worker fraud represents nearly three-quarters of the cases handled by the bureau, and employer cases - nonpayment of premiums, falsified documentation - represent 16 percent, Mr. Wersell said. In an effort to focus more on those cases, the bureau has dedicated eight investigators to employer fraud, he said.

Bureau officials highlighted several local cases, including two workers and one company.

In one case, special agent Craig Matthews said a local general contractor discovered fraudulent paperwork on a subcontractor when it noticed the name of former bureau administrator James Conrad on a proof of coverage. Mr. Conrad resigned last year in the aftermath of the Tom Noe scandal.

Because of the bureau's heavy involvement in the Noe investigation - sparked by The Blade's reporting of the $50 million the bureau invested in Noe's rare-coin funds - Mr. Wersell said the bureau's fraud unit investigated fewer worker and employer cases last year.

"We did suffer," he said. "Our numbers went down."

Last year, the bureau investigated more than 6,100 complaints - lower than the three-year average of nearly 6,600 - most of those regarding workers who were receiving benefits. Nearly half of the allegations were ruled "founded," he said.

In the Toledo region, the bureau referred 22 cases to prosecutors in the last fiscal year. There were 14 indictments and 12 convictions.

Members of the bureau's investigations unit spent thousands of hours on the multi-agency task force looking into Noe and other aspects of the bureau's investment practices.

The bureau's investigative staff has 88 people but can get to only a fraction of the fraud cases, Mr. Wersell said.

He said national experts estimate that between 5 and 10 percent of the bureau's payouts to injured workers or their health care providers is fraudulent.

Contact Mike Wilkinson at:

mwilkinson@theblade.com

or 419-724-6104.



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