Timely response and clear communications are critical elements for handling workers’ compensation claims. However, when it comes to gathering information and managing a claim properly, “timing” might be just as important as “timely”. A story out of Ft. Worth, TX this morning highlights the fact that proper communication and timing should be part of a well choreographed dance, and when improperly performed it can hurt the process significantly.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price this week has publicly admonished Corvel over its initial handling of a police officer who was shot in the line of duty, “saying a representative asked ‘inflammatory questions' the morning after the incident.”

The officer, a 19-year veteran of the Fort Worth Police Department, was shot in the abdomen Thursday night. He was responding, along with another officer, to a mother's 911 call asking for help with her son. The son, who was barricaded in a bedroom, opened the door and shot the officer. Both officers returned fire, killing him.

The officer underwent surgery and remains at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital.

Mayor Price, in a letter to Corvel, said the company's workers' compensation representative showed up at the hospital the morning after the shooting and proceeded to ask questions of the family, officers and hospital staff. The letter calls the questions “inflammatory”, and criticizes the timing “as one of our police officers rests in a hospital bed recovering from gunshot wounds received last night”. The mayor is requesting Corvel CEO Gordon Clemons and his staff meet with her this Thursday in order to “determine the facts and get to the bottom of this matter”.

I must state unequivocally that we do not know what questions were asked, or in what tone they were delivered. Clearly, however, people were upset by what they perceived to be an entirely inappropriate line of questioning given the immediate circumstances of the situation; and unfortunately people's perceptions will be their reality. The questions might have been of a simple, by the book initial claims investigation nature. Given the emotionally charged atmosphere of the incident and aftermath, however, I would suggest the timing for that was likely poor. Perhaps the best question that could be asked in that highly volatile 24 hour period should have been, “We are here, how can we help?”

This highlights such a critical issue for our industry. If there are two things workers' comp is routinely criticized for, it is timeliness and communication. After all, we are the industry that invented the concept of “hurry up and wait”. Under normal circumstances having a workers' comp representative present and involved within 24 hours would be a great thing – assuming of course they do not make it a confrontational affair. Yet, somehow, an employee in this case has produced the opposite effect; angered an injured workers' family, his associates and employer – the client responsible for paying the bills.

There are three possibilities here. The wrong questions were asked, the right questions were asked without compassion, or the right questions were asked at exactly the wrong time. Either way, the perceptions of others formed by the event can have lasting and damaging effects. Unfortunately for the workers' compensation industry, perception is not something we spend a great deal of time worrying about.

We are a statutorily driven industry, going through the regulated processes day after day after day. It is sometimes easy to forget that there is a human being attached on the other side of that claim, and our actions are continually creating perceptions about us and our trade. That lack of awareness on our part can lead to mistakes and costly errors, and that may be exactly what has occurred in this case.

This is a one sided story to date, and we do not have the full details with which to fully judge. What we do know, however, is that something riled the mayor enough to write that letter and take the entire matter public. In one way, her actions accent a positive point of the story, as they show an employer actively engaged in the welfare of an employee, as well as the management of their recovery. It is something we need to see far more of across the nation. As for the Corvel employee involved, we do not know if they were a competent employee just trying to perform the processes required of their job, or if they are living proof that a company is only as good as the biggest idiot on its payroll. It really doesn't matter, as the perceptions of the one side being told are the only ones that are of concern at a public level.

Those perceptions tell us that proper timing may be more important than proper timeliness, and showing compassion is essential in the process. And sometimes we can easily show compassion by just understanding the concept of proper timing.

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