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CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — The state Workers' Compensation system operates at reasonable cost to employers but is slow in providing compensation for lost wages to disabled workers, according to a legislative management audit report.

The program evaluators from the Legislative Service Office found that most injured workers receive medical benefits soon after their injuries occur and are satisfied.

But those workers who lose time at work because of their injuries are more likely to face delays in receiving their lost-wage benefits, the report said.

Hampering the workers' compensation division's ability to process claims quickly are high turnover among contract employees; not using experienced staff most effectively; and lack of written policies to direct staff decision-making on claims, the audit report said.

The auditors also recommended the agency develop a plan to improve retention of contract analysts.

In her response, division director Cynthia Pomeroy agreed and said that 65 percent of contract case analysts hired with money allocated by the 2001 Legislature left within the first 18 months largely for full-time jobs that pay retirement and health benefits.

Pomeroy said she discussed the problem with Gov. Dave Freudenthal and his chief of staff, Chris Boswell, on May 12 and also apprised the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee of the situation.

She said the contract positions should be changed to full-time positions in the next legislative session.

The audit said the division has not promoted use of less formal ways of solving disputes. The result is that two hearings bodies have "overwhelmed dockets."

In North Dakota, for example, the state won't refer cases to a formal hearing process or pay attorney fees unless other alternatives have been exhausted.

Pomeroy replied that beginning May 1 the division has been purchasing mediation services from the Office of Administrative Hearings to facilitate the dispute resolution process with a high degree of success.

The audit report said that 83 percent of Wyoming's work force was covered by workers' compensation in 2002 and most participating employers have 10 or fewer employees.

In the 2002 fiscal year, an average of 15,242 employers were in the system covering 267,596 employees.

In fiscal years 2001 and 2002 the division determined that about 89 percent of the reported injuries were compensable. During that same period, 78 percent of the compensable injuries were medical only, leaving 22 percent requiring both medical and lost-wage benefits.

The medical payments go directly to the health care providers, not to the injured worker.

When a dispute arises about a case or claim, the Workers' Compensation Fund pays attorney costs of injured workers in contested cases, the report said.

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The division, the report said, should regularly track how long it takes to either deny or approve a claim because everything is on hold until that decision is made.

"Just a slim majority of the injured Wyoming workers reporting compensable injuries received their determination within two weeks in fiscal 2002," the report said, adding that the workers who filed the 2,847 injury reports waited for a month or longer for their claims to be approved.

The division may have taken longer than 14 days to deny 1,700 claims during that period, but there is no information available on the time it took, the report said.

The auditors recommended the division pay temporary total disability to workers in the month of their injuries or at most within 30 days. The average worker on temporary total disability in fiscal year 2002 earned an annual income of just over $28,000 per year.

"Injured workers at this income level may not be prepared to wait for lost-wage payments," the report said.

One of the reasons for adoption of the workers' compensation program was to prevent people hurt on the job from being financially ruined, the report said.

Meanwhile, Wyoming's premium rates paid by the employers ranked 42th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia and is cost-effective for employers.

Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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