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City cuts workers' compensation outlays

| Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, 12:03 a.m.

In the nearly four years after banging his head and wrist off the windshield of a squad car in a low-speed crash, Pittsburgh police Officer Kenneth Farnan rang up at least $250,000 in medical bills and other workers' compensation payments, court records show.

“If you have a severe injury, with multiple back surgeries, you can imagine what the costs can become,” said Downtown attorney Gary Ogg, who represented Farnan in a lawsuit aimed at recouping some of those costs.

Farnan, 50, of Lawrenceville was still off the job on workers' comp when police say he fatally shot his friend during a Sept. 8 fight in a Bloomfield bar. Aspects of his case highlight some of the challenges a self-insured city such as Pittsburgh faces in managing the legally mandated program for workers injured on the job.

With more than 900 claims filed annually and open cases dating to the late 1960s, workers' comp accounted for 6 percent of Pittsburgh's budget as recently as 2006. Claims can range from an accident with no injuries to a career-ending disability.

Pressure from financial overseers forced the city to aggressively review cases, settle more cases with lump-sum payments, push workers to return to work or retire, and reduce serious on-the-job injuries.

It paid off.

Pittsburgh removed more than half of the 1,037 active and former employees who were on workers' comp in 2006 through lump-sum settlements and other means, according to Judy Hill Finegan, Pittsburgh's director of personnel and civil service.

As of Friday, the city had 874 people on workers' comp, mostly former city workers. Ninety of them are current employees on leave or light duty.

Total costs — including salaries for injured workers, doctor bills and legal fees — dropped from about $24 million to about $17.5 million, despite rising medical costs.

“It is huge,” Hill Finegan said. “It's really good management of the workers' compensation program.”

Controller Michael Lamb, whose office audited the program in 2011, praised the effort to reduce injuries and avoid workers' comp cases.

Reaction among the city's roughly 3,400 workers has been mixed.

“They've done a good job at forcing employees back to work when they shouldn't,” said Joseph Rossi Jr., president of Teamsters Local 249, which represents city refuse workers. He said the workers end up with chronic injuries from repetitive motions.

Lamb's audit identified refuse workers, police officers, firefighters and paramedics as most likely to get injured on the job.

Ralph Sicura, vice president of Pittsburgh Fire Fighters Local No. 1, said the city pushed injured employees to return to work a decade ago when the state declared Pittsburgh financially distressed.

“Since then, I wouldn't say it's been overly aggressive,” he said. “We still get complaints. But when we review the cases, they usually look right.”

Hill Finegan and Assistant Director Michele Burch said they meet monthly with city department leaders, safety managers, lawyers from contracted firm O'Brien Rulis & Bochecchio and the program's administrator, UPMC WorkPartners, to review every case.

“We come up with strategies to get them to come back to transitional duty or to settle those claims if possible,” Hill Finegan said.

Farnan, who is charged with fatally shooting Shawn Evans, 56, of Bloomfield in what witnesses described as a prolonged fight, bounced between home, a desk job and full duty several times in the year and a half after the December 2008 car crash. Court records show dozens of visits with numerous doctors; some said Farnan could work, some said he couldn't. They also disagreed on whether to blame his pain on the car crash. He hasn't worked since 2010.

Employees on workers' comp typically get two-thirds of their normal salary, though the state Heart and Lung Act dictates that police and firefighters get 100 percent. Medical bills related to the injury are covered.

In a settlement, an employee agrees to leave workers' comp with a lump-sum payment instead. The city started budgeting money for such settlements in 2005. This year, it budgeted $1 million.

Burch said the city usually saves about 90 percent of long-term costs when it can settle. A 500-week limit on partial disability pushes employees to settle at lower levels, Ogg said.

The city often tries to recoup back-pay and medical bills through lawsuits. If someone else had a role in the worker's injury, the worker can sue that person for damages and workers' comp can put a lien on any award.

When Farnan sued the Rankin man who drove the car that struck his cruiser in 2008, court records showed a $246,000 lien as of 2012. He settled the case for an undisclosed amount in January.

“There's a lot of negotiation on the liens,” said Ogg, who declined to discuss specific figures in Farnan's case.

City officials and union leaders have worked to avoid workers' comp cases altogether by training employees to be more safe. The effort worked, as the number of lost-time injuries per 100 employees dropped nearly in half from 0.71 in 2003 to 0.37 in 2010, Lamb's audit found.

“Every employee gets some type of training, sometimes on the first day,” Lamb said, recalling learning the proper technique for picking up a box. “It sounds silly, but I remember it every time I pick one up.”

David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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