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Workers' Comp 'Skyrocketing,' Panel Finds

The grand jury's annual report says cost of claims by city and county public safety agencies has nearly doubled in five years.

June 28, 2003|Daren Briscoe, Sue Fox and Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writers

A new report by the Los Angeles County Grand Jury puts a staggering price tag on the cost of workers' compensation claims for public safety agencies.

According to the report, workers' compensation costs in the county Fire and Sheriff's departments and the city of Los Angeles Fire Department have nearly doubled over the last five years, with the most dramatic spike in the Sheriff's Department.

Annual workers' compensation payments in the 14,000-member department rocketed from $48.5 million in 1998 to $93.4 million in 2002, a 92% increase, while over the same period the number of sheriff's employees has increased only 16%.

"I'm deeply concerned about the runaway train of workers' compensation costs," Sheriff Lee Baca said of the findings, which were released Friday. "Every dollar we spend on [those] costs is one less we have [available] to spend on a real deputy sheriff."

The 23-member grand jury, charged with monitoring county and city agencies and special districts, convenes each July and spends a year investigating selected departments or issues.

At 370 pages, the volunteer body's 2002-03 report is a mix of acronyms, jargon and bullet-pointed recommendations, sprinkled with the stinging criticisms.

In a generally positive overview of the county Probation Department, the report nonetheless singled out Central Juvenile Hall as "an embarrassment" and said that at the Kenyon Scudder Probation Camp in Saugus, "the boys' bathing area smelled so terribly of urine that one choked walking into the area."

The selection of food available in programs run by the county Department of Community and Senior Services offers so little "choice and dignity" that much of it ends up in the garbage, the report said.

And after finding cockroaches and rodents scampering across the floors on two separate visits to the Long Beach City Jail, the panel said it was in "the worst condition of all the facilities visited by the grand jury."

But the report's primary focus was on the spiraling cost of workers' compensation claims, which in 2002 cost the county and city Fire departments and the Sheriff's Department a combined $134.9 million.

Legislative changes that took effect in January are expected to further boost the cost of claims, according to the report.

The document attributes the increase to a combination of "skyrocketing" medical costs, benefits escalation and abuse, and legislative increases in permanent disability benefits.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department in 2002 spent $21.9 million -- or $7.76 per $100 of payroll -- on workers' compensation payments, the report found.

The grand jury recommended that the county Fire Department make mandatory the annual medical examinations that are currently voluntary.

During a phone interview Friday, Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman said that is in line with his goals.

Both Freeman and Baca said that part of the problem is legislation that allows public safety officers on disability leave to collect 100% of their salaries, tax-free, for up to a year.

"Someone that's bona fide injured on duty we want to see taken care of," Freeman said. "Unfortunately, what we've seen in some cases is an accumulation of injuries over 25 or 30 years that somehow equates to a full disability retirement."

In other areas, the report found the county's Department of Community and Senior Services ill-prepared to meet the needs of an elderly population that is projected to increase by 73% in the coming decade.

Most of the region's 2 million residents age 55 and older do not know about or participate in county programs geared toward senior citizens, the report said, possibly because the programs are so poorly advertised.

A job program, for example, placed only 76 seniors last year, leaving 300 on the waiting list. The grand jury criticized the program for spending about $32,000 for every senior placed at a minimum-wage job.

Several sheriff's stations and the Burbank, Long Beach, Pomona and Torrance police departments violated state law, the report found, by failing to provide citizens with copies of complaints.

In a sample review of Police and Sheriff's department records, the grand jury found that 37% of those who filed complaints didn't receive a copy. In addition, it found that those departments failed in 46% of the sample cases to notify the person who complained about the outcome of his case.

The panel recommended that those departments establish tracking systems for complaints and make complaint forms more accessible to residents

Citing concern about terrorist attacks, the report recommended that the county help the coroner obtain protective suits and other equipment needed to deal with bodies contaminated by chemical, biological or radiological agents.

The coroner has asked the federal government for $600,000 to purchase such equipment.

The grand jury also recommended that the coroner develop guidelines for a temporary morgue and a list of sites that meet those requirements.

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