• 9 Investigates: NC bill would change workers' comp rules

    By: Linzi Sheldon


    CHARLOTTE, N.C. - There is a new push to change how injured workers get medical care and some critics said it will mean longer wait times for treatment.

    Yvonnia Johnson uses leg braces for walking when her headaches and dizziness are at their worst.

    She said ever since she tripped and fell over a cord while working in the garden center of the Lowe's store in University City, she's had debilitating headaches that sometimes last for days.

    "It sucks the life out of you," she said.

    She said at first she didn't know what had happened after she fell.

    "The back of my head was hurting," she said. "It was like somebody was taking a hammer and just beating me in the head with it."

    Lowe's declined to comment on her case because it is still under litigation.

    Johnson's attorney, Adam Seifer of SeiferFlatow, explained he was able to file special medical motions and got her leg braces within 10 days of filing.

    Now, he said, a new bill called Senate Bill 174, Disapprove Industrial Commission Rules, would eliminate that option. Instead, it would require a full hearing with witnesses in front of the Industrial Commission, which can take months to reach a decision.

    "We don't need to slow the system down any further," Seifer said. "We need to speed the system up so people like Ms. Johnson can get the care that they need."

    Senate Bill 174 would also require a hearing instead of filing forms to get workers compensation checks reinstated if a company cuts them off. It also requires the employee to help pay for certain court costs the company use to cover, including the fee for reaching a settlement.

    "It's terrible and we're hoping that enough people will call into their lawmakers and say this is ridiculous," he said.

    Lawrence Baker, the chair of the workers' compensation section for the North Carolina Association of Defense Attorneys said the changes would mean weeks before an injured worker received a hearing.

    "It could take anywhere from 45-60 days longer," he said.

    But Baker, an attorney with Cranfill, Sumner & Harzog, the firm representing Lowe's, said that the hearings ensure companies get to present all the evidence, which he said allows the Commission to better decide what medical costs are truly necessary.

    Being able to keep costs in check, Baker said, helps business owners and preserves other workers' jobs. That's likely why the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce and at least nine other organizations are backing it.

    "It costs a lot for the employers to go through this process and you want to make sure that it's fair to both sides," Baker said.

    Johnson said it's not fair to injured workers like her.

    In December, she had a formal hearing on shoulder surgery and other treatment but still doesn't have a decision. In the meantime, she said it's hard not to think of what she used to be able to do, like exercise, work, and take her grandchildren to the zoo.

    "This is not what my life was supposed to be like," she said. "No."

    The sponsor of the bill, Senator Harry Brown, R-Jones County, told Eyewitness News by phone he doesn't believe it will cause significant delays.

    The House is now considering the bill.

    Rep. Robert Brawley, R-Iredell County, said he will be talking with attorneys and doing research to understand the full impact of the bill.

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