Category Archives: Government

UN Announces Treaty to Restrict Use of Mecury

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Gelman, from Jon L Gelman LLC.

Over 140 governments meeting at a United Nations forum in Geneva have agreed to a global, legally-binding treaty to address mercury, a notorious heavy metal with significant health and environmental effects.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury – named after a city in Japan where serious health damage occurred as a result of mercury pollution in the mid-20th Century – provides controls and reductions across a range of products, processes and industries where mercury is used, released or emitted.

These range from medical equipment such as thermometers and energy-saving light bulbs to the mining, cement and coal-fired power sectors, according to a news release issued today by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which convened the negotiations.

“After complex and often all-night sessions here in Geneva, nations have today laid the foundations for a global response to a pollutant whose notoriety has been recognized for well over a century,” said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

“Everyone in the world stands to benefit from the decisions taken this week in Geneva, in particular the workers and families of small-scale gold miners, the peoples of the Arctic and this generation of mothers and babies and the generations to come. I look forward to swift ratification of the Minamata Convention so that it comes into force as soon as possible,” he added.

The treaty, which has been four years in negotiation and which will be open for signature at a special meeting in Japan in October, also addresses the direct mining of mercury, export and import of the metal and safe storage of waste mercury.

Pinpointing populations at risk, boosting medical care and better training of health care professionals in identifying and treating mercury-related effects will also form part of the new agreement.

UNEP noted that mercury and its various compounds have a range of serious health impacts, including brain and neurological damage especially among the young. Others include kidney damage and damage to the digestive system. Victims can suffer memory loss and language impairment alongside many other well documented problems.

Among the provisions of the treaty, governments have agreed on a range of mercury-containing products whose production, export and import will be banned by 2020. These include batteries, except for ‘button cell’ batteries used in implantable medical devices; switches and relays; certain types of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs); mercury in cold cathode fluorescent lamps and external electrode fluorescent lamps; and soaps and cosmetics.

Certain kinds of non-electronic medical devices such as thermometers and blood pressure devices are also included for phase-out by 2020.

Governments also approved exceptions for some large measuring devices where currently there are no mercury-free alternatives. In addition, vaccines where mercury is used as a preservative have been excluded from the treaty as have products used in religious or traditional activities.

 

What’s the Matter With Kansas (a/k/a North Carolina)? – Part 2

In reviewing  workers’ compensation  legislation since 2010,  when the conservative majority took over the government in North Carolina, in Part I it was noted that Deputy Commissioners (administrative law judges) will lose their job security, effective July 1, 2015, and that insurance policies can be cancelled easier to help out general contractors, but what else has been passed?

Previously, if a worker was totally disabled for life he got lifetime disability (recognizing that there is no cost of living adjustment in future years and there is a cap on the dollar amount of  weekly benefits he could get). In 2011 the legislature limited benefits to 500 weeks (9.6 years). Brain injuries and other catastrophic injuries can continue beyond 500 weeks, but if the employee is still disabled and outside these exceptions, what happens? The insurance company is off the hook, and the taxpayer starts paying the price of the injury through social programs. The employer also gets a 100% credit on workers’ compensation for any Social Security retirement benefit the worker may receive. 

An insurance company can now seek an “independent” medical exam, even though the claim  has been denied. If an employee wants to be seen by a physician of her choice to review a permanent disability determination made by the insurance company’s selected physician, she can do so but the Commission is directed by legislation to “either disregard or give less weight to” any opinions that are not related to the impairment issue. The 2011 legislature required the Industrial Commission to review its administrative rules and after spending a year doing so, all but three of the rules were “disapproved” by the 2013 legislature. The process will now start over. The legislature has also made it more difficult for the employee to obtain documents from the employer by legislating that a subpoena for documents shall not issue less than 30 days prior to the hearing date. A process that is supposed to be “as summary and simple as reasonably may be” is now full of traps for unsophisticated employees (and their attorney, if they have one).

What's the Matter With Kansas (a/k/a North Carolina)?

What's The Matter With Kansas?In 2004 Thomas Frank, a journalist and historian, wrote a book entitled “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” It detailed the rise of political conservatives who obtained power by using hot button social issues, then passed legislation that worked against the economic interests of the vast majority of the citizens of Kansas. North Carolina has become the new Kansas. Conservative Republican legislators took control in 2010 and a Republican Governor, Pat McCrory, joined them in 2012. What has happened in the field of workers’ compensation with this new majority?

On August 23, 2013 Governor McCrory signed into law new legislation (HB 74) which removed Industrial Commission judges (Deputy Commissioners) from the State Personnel Act, effective July 1, 2015. These judges hear the initial claims of injured workers and in 2015 they will no longer be protected from being hired and fired “at will.” It is quite apparent that political interests will be looking over their shoulders as they make decisions about compensation and medical treatment for injured employees. Most of the public seems to be unaware of this significant alteration of the judicial system as it relates to workers’ compensation claims.

The 2013 legislature made it easier for workers’ compensation insurance companies to cancel policies, and for general contractors to escape liability when they failed to get a certificate of insurance from a sub-contractor. Several appellate cases had previously held that if a green-card receipt from a registered notification of cancellation could not be produced by the insurance company, the policy would still be in effect. If there is no insurance coverage for a seriously injured employee, who picks up the bill? Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security (in short, the U.S. taxpayer) gets stuck. North Carolina, unlike most other states, has no uninsured employers’ fund.  It’s just tough luck for those folks who legitimately get injured on the job but who have an employer who didn’t get required insurance.  An investigative report in 2011 indicated there are as many as 30,000 uninsured employers in this state, yet nothing has been done legislatively or administratively to address this problem.

Since 1929 the overriding principle of the Workers’ Compensation Act in North Carolina has been to provide injured workers with limited benefits, but speedy medical care and a prompt resolution of the claim. However, the system in North Carolina is becoming much more complex, time consuming and expensive, and the tinkering with the system seems never–ending by the conservative majority, which clearly seems to favor big business and insurance interests over the injured worker or the taxpayers who pick up bills that should be covered by insurance. Part II of this blog will discuss other legislative changes made since 2010. Stay tuned.

9/11 Fund Starts Making Payments To Victims

Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Gelman from Jon Gelman, LLC – Attorney at Law.

The Zadroga 9/11 Victims Claim Fund has started to make payments to victims of the World Trade Center attack. First Responders andthose who lived or worked in the immediate geographical site near “ground zero” may be entitled to the payment of benenfits for illness and injuries that they suffer as a result of the terrorist attack.

Those eligible include, individuals present at  a 9/11 crash site at the time of or in the immediate aftermath, who suffer physical harm as a result of the crashes or debris removal. Also the personal representatives of individuals who were present at a 9/11 crash site, who died as a result of the crashes or debris removal, are eligible to file claims.

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Changes to Medical Motions in NC: North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Bill (SB 174)

North Carolina State Legislative Office Building

This week Senate Bill 174 passed the House Committee with some changes that preserve the rights of injured workers to have telephone hearings to get their benefits restarted and medical treatment expedited. For at least the past five years, injured workers have had the right to have emergency medical and urgent medical issues (i.e. surgery approval or treatment approval) heard quickly before the Industrial Commission. Usually a telephone hearing was scheduled within five days of the original motion and a final order was filed within two weeks of the original motion!

This was a great benefit to injured workers and helped restore them to their pre-injury condition. Physical therapy orders and medical records were considered by the Deputy Commissioners and a ruling was rendered. Thus, not only was this procedure good for injured workers, it was good for business too because it helped workers get the needed medical treatment as soon as possible and back to work.

Senate Bill 174 initially sought to curtail these medical motions significantly. However, after full discussion from both sides of the table, a compromise was reached. Although the expedited medical motion process has changed, we are very glad that this process is still available to injured workers. The final bill will be voted on by the House and Senate in the near future.

Thanks to everyone who contacted their North Carolina House representatives to discuss this bill.

OSHA Reaches Employer Agreement to Stop Discouraging Employee Accident Reports

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Gelman from Jon Gelman, LLC – Attorney at Law.

Statistics regarding the reporting of accidents have historically been challenged for accuracy as employees have been fearful about reporting events, and employers have been reluctant for numerous reasons, including the potential of increased insurance costs. Now OSHA has taken a significant step to legitimize the process by seeking an employer accord not to take adverse actions against employees for reporting injuries in the workplace.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has signed an accord with BNSF Railway Co., headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, announcing BNSF’s voluntary revision of several personnel policies that OSHA alleged violated the whistleblower provisions of the Federal Railroad Safety Act and dissuaded workers from reporting on-the-job injuries. FRSA’s Section 20109 protects railroad workers from retaliation for, among other acts, reporting suspected violations of federal laws and regulations related to railroad safety and security, hazardous safety or security conditions, and on-the-job injuries.

“Protecting America’s railroad workers who report on-the-job injuries from retaliation is an essential element in OSHA’s mission. This accord makes significant progress toward ensuring that BNSF employees who report injuries do not suffer any adverse consequences for doing so,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels. “It also sets the tone for other railroad employers throughout the U.S. to take steps to ensure that their workers are not harassed, intimidated or terminated, in whole or part, for reporting workplace injuries.”

The major terms of the accord include:

  • Changing BNSF’s disciplinary policy so that injuries no longer play a role in determining the length of an employee’s probation following a record suspension for a serious rule violation. As of Aug. 31, 2012, BNSF has reduced the probations of 136 employees who were serving longer probations because they had been injured on-the-job.
  • Eliminating a policy that Continue reading

TENS Units No Longer Reasonable Treatment For Chronic Low Back Pain, Says CMS

Today’s post comes from guest author Charlie Domer from The Domer Law Firm.

In many workers’ compensation cases, Medicare pays medical treatment expenses for an injured worker that may otherwise be the responsibility of the workers’ compensation insurance carrier. In the past decade, workers’ compensation practitioners have become well-versed in dealing with Medicare issues and establishing Medicare Set Asides—effectively deals between the federal government (Medicare) and the work comp insurance company to cover future work-related medical care for the injured worker. 

However, Medicare does not cover all types of medical treatment expenses. Thus, certain types of medical treatment cannot be considered part of a Medicare Savings Account (MSA), but those expenses could still be the responsibility of the insurance carrier. One of those non-Medicare-covered expenses are TENS units for chronic law back pain.  On August 1, 2012, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a memorandum regarding Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) units for chronic low back pain. The new CMS policy indicated that chronic low back pain (CLBP) is “an episode of low back pain that has persisted for three months or longer; and is not a manifestation of a clearly defined and generally recognizable primary disease entity.” CMS indicated that for all workers’ compensation cases settled after June 8, 2012, use of TENS units for chronic low back pain will no longer Continue reading

Reversing A Century Of Progress – Are We Back In Upton Sinclair’s Jungle?

Many workers no longer have paid sick days.

Today’s post comes from guest author Rod Rehm from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

Health Care Is Just The Beginning

At a time when a flu epidemic is exploding out of control, killing thousands of people, forty-two million Americans have no sick leave. Many of these people are lower paid, often work part time, and continue to work when ill because they can’t stay home to recover without losing their income. I am shocked and dismayed that many hard-working folk are forced to work when sick because staying home is not economically possible. Making matters even worse, these highly vulnerable workers often have no employer-provided health insurance so even serious illnesses go untreated, putting us all at a higher risk for infection from a contagious worker, like a server in a restaurant, for whom taking an unpaid day off is impossible.

…the trend toward low pay, long hours and few benefits is getting stronger.

I fear that if the current trends continue, the lives of the millions of Americans who struggle at low-paying jobs will remain miserable, desperate and be lacking in real hope. It appears that the trend toward low pay, long hours and few benefits is getting stronger. At the turn of the 20th century when Upton Sinclair wrote “The Jungle,” describing immigrants struggling in Chicago, the jobs were more physical, dangerous and just plain disgusting. However, millions of “New Jungle” workers still struggle and suffer today.

Class Warfare

After over 100 years of progress, the American middle and lower classes are under constant attack. The efforts to limit rights of workers are ongoing and supported by big business. Every day I read of measures being introduced in state legislatures to limit access to and decrease the benefits of workers’ compensation. The right to collective bargaining is being attacked as well. Local elections are overrun by anonymous innocent-sounding Super PACs funded by 21st Century versions of robber-barons who are using their wealth and power to squeeze out a few more dollars in profits to add to the tens of billions of dollars already sitting in their bank accounts. These are not job creators, they are their own personal wealth creators. Income equality is at an all-time low in the United States, and the trends are getting worse.

How can this be happening in 21st century America? How can we call ourselves civilized? Can we really allow such maltreatment of workers and disregard public health in what we call an “advanced,” “modern,” and frequently, an “exceptional” county? 

A Path Forward

We are not without hope, though. Crusaders like Senator Elizabeth Warren are working hard to reverse the trends and preserve the American Dream for future generations. But our protectors are few. We cannot assume that someone else is looking out for us. We must engage with government at the local, state and federal levels so that the voices of regular working folk are not drowned out by a cabal of rogue billionaires trying to keep score by increasing their own personal fortunes at the expense of working people. I fear that if we sit by passively, our children will all be working in the New Jungle, America will have lost its middle class, and with it, the American Dream will be a distant memory. The time to act is now.