There is a great deal of discussion going on today about the problems of workers’ compensation. Many bloggers and columnists, including myself, devote a significant percentage of our energy to opining and analyzing what is wrong with the industry. It is a primary topic of conferences, and Lord knows the media has spent a decent amount of time demonizing the industry. And while all that time, energy and jibber jabber is spent focusing on our ills, it is easy to forget one small fact that remains quietly constant in the background.

That is the fact that, for the majority of injured employees, workers’ comp still works. I was reminded of this last week.

I injured my left hand last month, dislocating the middle finger in a fall at home. While it is expected to recover, I am having to go to what my hand surgeon called “lots and lots” of hand therapy (although United Healthcare has already advised me I have until May 8th to heal, or without “additional documentation” they are out. It was a touching get well letter). In the interim, if you see me at conferences and think I have flipped you off with my left hand, I have not. Well, probably I have not. But of course, I digress….

The therapy center I am going to here in Sarasota is not a large place. Dedicated only to hand therapy, it consists of one primary treatment area with a variety of widgets and doo-dads intended to assist with various ailments and maladies of the hand. Normally the room accommodates two patients, and the therapist will attend to one while the other is occupied with some treatment or activity. Last Thursday I was sitting quietly undergoing electro-stim therapy while the therapist did an initial consultation with a new patient.

The man had his partial left hand and pinky finger heavily bandaged. He had just undergone surgery that morning, and had been sent to therapy for an immediate follow up. An employee of a large local window manufacturing company, he described the accident he had experienced at work. What I gleaned from the conversation was that he had been going to rehabilitation in another center for several weeks prior, but a complication with the injury required the surgery to relieve pressure on the joint. He made several casual references to “workman’s comp” as he described the treatment he had been receiving. At one point, he took a call and put it on speakerphone. It was related to a medical report; for which he requested the caller fax to his employer so they could “forward to workman’s comp”. The entire conversation was casual, routine and mundane.

And that is what comp can look like when it is working as intended. Nothing to see here, and unfortunately, nothing to talk about. Except for the fact that a nosey blogger lacking boundaries was nearby.

Today, almost 8,000 people across this nation will experience a work-related injury, or be diagnosed with an occupational illness. There were almost 8,000 yesterday. And there will be another 8,000 tomorrow. In that 3 day span, 40 people will die on the job. Statistically we know that 85% of those injured will get their benefits, receive their treatment, and return to the job. Many will miss no work whatsoever. For all of its warts, complexities and confusing protocols, workers’ compensation still quietly works for many. It is those people and their often-minor injuries who are the strong current beneath a choppy surface; in an ocean where we fret, debate and wrangle over controversial cases and issues of the day.

Workers’ compensation gives us much to talk about. Caseloads are too high. Regulations are complex, confusing and even contradictory. Cost containment is often anything but what it is purported to represent. The system is unfair to some, and unprepared for others. We have bad actors who do nefarious and unethical things. Fraud, from both employers and employees is a constant concern. We needlessly create disability and dependence. Yes, there is always much to discuss.

But occasionally we get a reminder that there is far more to the story, and that while the system has problems, it is far from broken. And for many of those 8,000 people who today will file that First Notice of Injury, that is a good thing indeed, especially when we consider the alternative.

We just sometimes need to remind ourselves that just below the roiled surface, a steady and strong current continues to flow.

 

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