All workers' compensation claims are handled in-house instead of by a contractor, a director said.
By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Mahoning County officials and employees are sporting red and white badges that say "No. 1" on them, but it's not for something they want to remember.
In Ohio's workers' compensation system, entities whose claims exceed state estimates are assessed a penalty.
"We had the No. 1 worst penalty rating in the state last year," said county Administrator Gary Kubic. "We're trying to raise awareness about that and we want to change it for next year."
Change: County commissioners have taken steps to turn the tide, and they seem to be paying off. The biggest change is that the county no longer hires an independent company to manage its workers' compensation claims, and instead does all the work in-house, said J. Kevin Sellards, human resources director.
In 2000, the county's claims costs were $474,729, Sellards said. So far this year, the claims costs are just $91,000.
"We're not saying people can't use the [workers' compensation] system," Sellards said. "But with aggressive management and getting people back to work when they are able, we're going to be able to reduce our costs."
Risk manager: Commissioners hired a risk manager who processes workers' compensation claims, and Prosecutor Paul Gains has assigned an assistant to work full time taking care of the county's legal interests related to those claims.
In the past, those duties were handled by the private management companies commissioners hired, Kubic said. But commissioners weren't satisfied with the direction things were headed with that kind of management and decided to try the in-house approach.
"We are much more confident knowing our county prosecutor's staff is in the courtroom working for us rather than it being a hireling or a contractor," Sellards said.
Constance Pierce, the assistant prosecutor assigned to the workers' compensation cases, said she generally attends 130 to 140 hearings a year. In the past, the county was billed for those hearings above and beyond the retainer fee paid to the management company, she said.
Hired in 1999, Pierce was originally in charge of handling all aspects of the cases, but soon found herself overwhelmed.
"We had such a high volume of claims that it was more than I could pay attention to," she said.
At her suggestion, Kathy Jones was hired as risk manager and the duties were divided. The system has worked out well since then, Pierce said.
Sellards said the county now works hard to educate its employees on ways to reduce the risk of work-related injuries, which will in turn reduce the number of workers' compensation claims.
Injured workers: Commissioners have also instituted a policy of paying injured workers for up to 90 days if they are hurt while on duty, which has also cut the number of claims.
Most people who are hurt on the job return to work within 10 days, but about 10 percent of them are off for up to 90 days. In the past, that 10 percent had to file a workers' compensation claim to get paid.
Sellards said it's cheaper in the long run for the county to go with "injured on duty" pay because it helps reduce the county's penalty rating.
Injured people who will be off longer than 90 days can still file a workers' compensation claim.
"When we have an injured worker, we want that person to get the best treatment, recover, and be able to come back to work as soon as possible," Kubic said.
Commissioner Ed Reese said it's important for commissioners to keep the health of employees in mind.
"There is a fine line between being overly aggressive with our claims management and making sure that our employees get the right care they need for their injuries," he said.
The new procedures have helped commissioners "get our thumb" on the rising claims costs, Reese said.