Thursday, December 14, 2006

Work Comp Benefit Review Conferences Criticized

According to a trusted source, Tennessee Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development James Neeley got lit up during an emotional meeting of the Workers' Compensation Advisory Council today. Members of the committee representing business, labor, and attorney groups, as well as the advisory council's staff, all criticized the Commissioner and/or the Department over policies related to benefit review conferences conducted by department specialists assigned to mediate disputes between workers' compensation claimants and employers. Benefit review conferences became mandatory for employee's seeking various types of disability benefits under legislation passed in 2003 that was intended to reduce attorney involvement in workers' compensation cases.

When the Commissioner tried to fire back at critics in the meeting, it went poorly. After Neeley said that the system was improving, Nashville attorney Greg Ramos responded that he thought it was "deteriorating." He blamed Department policies that prevented specialists from exercising discretion that they are supposed to have by statute. As an example, Ramos said that specialists were saying they could not postpone conferences, even when both parties agreed to do so, when the statute clearly gives them the authority to do so. Neeley then alleged that Ramos requested more continuances than any other attorney in the state. Ramos responded that he had only requested two this year, and it is December. Later, Neeley criticized another attorney for not offering "constructive criticism." The attorney responded that he had submitted his concerns to the state and had received no response. Neeley caved in at that point, saying that he could not speak to that situation, but that the attorney would get a response.

Near the close of the meeting, a labor representative said that Neeley had the best interests of injured workers at heart, but that he was being poorly served by Department staff.

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