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Inside the fight for denied compensation for health care workers

As COVID-19 cases in the U.S. continue to soar, healthcare workers on the frontlines are increasingly getting sick and even dying of the disease. A recent Kaiser Health News report found that many of the sick workers and families of the deceased are facing hurdles and are even being denied benefits from the worker's compensation system.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    It's not surprising that health care workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic face increased chances of contracting COVID-19. They risk lost wages, expensive health care costs and potential death.

    What is surprising is that sick workers and families of those who have died from the virus are finding themselves fighting for worker's compensation.

    A recent Kaiser Kealth News report found that in some states, the chances of getting benefits paid are a long shot. I recently spoke with Christina Jewett, senior correspondent with Kaiser Health News.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So what is happening to many health care workers as they go back to their hospitals and say, 'hey, I got COVID. I've got all these bills. I've been out of work for weeks.' What happens to them?

  •  Christina Jewett:

    Employers and the insurance carriers are asking workers to pinpoint how they got COVID at work. So in the case of a doctor or an RN, you might have a really bulky medical record to look through and say, 'oh, you know, this patient this day, this is what I believe happened.'.

    But what we found was there were, was, you know, a laundry worker, a maintenance worker, someone changing the air filters in a COVID room. Those workers were getting their claims denied. I mean, it's very hard for a worker in that position to pinpoint a single patient. They're probably not even privy to that to that knowledge. So those were the cases that we saw popping up where workers were initially seeing denials.

  •  Hari Sreenivasan:

    So if they're cleaning the sheets of sick patients and if they're cleaning the air filters from the room full of COVID-19 air, they still have to prove that that's how they got COVID in the first place to get compensation?

  •  Christina Jewett:

    Yeah, in most states, the burden is on the worker. The worker has to pinpoint how they got it. But there are a spate of laws that are coming online. Legislatures all over the country are looking at these types of laws. There are 16 laws addressing this.

    And what they've done is turn the tables and made that presumption that, look, if you're a health care worker, some states it's an essential employee, you got it at work. And now the employer would have to prove that you didn't. So then the employer starting to ask questions about, you know, what your cousin, you know, where your cousin's been or sort of what happened on the bus you are riding to work. So, so it's a lot easier for workers in those states, but it's just really a mixed bag around the country.

  •  Hari Sreenivasan:

    So is there resistance to that idea? These states that are passing this legislation, is there a reason that the other states haven't joined yet?

  •  Christina Jewett:

    The resistance is over cost. This isn't just an insurance line, just like any other insurance cost to a business. And, you know, the thought is that if they have to pay out these claims, some of them potentially lifetime benefits to a surviving spouse or lifetime benefits if a worker has residual long term problems, that those costs could potentially cripple businesses and prevent them from reopening the way we want to see things happen. So that's sort of the flip side argument to really covering the workers.

  •  Hari Sreenivasan:

    You have been chronicling the lives of so many of these health care workers who've died during this pandemic. What surprised you when you were reporting on these stories about the families who were trying to get compensation?

  •  Christina Jewett:

    We worked on this story and another in close proximity and the sister of a nurse who recently died, she talked about the last days that her sister lived in.

    One of the things she spent time doing was proving that she got COVID at work for her own worker's compensation claim that she was expecting to backfill some lost wages. That was something she spent the last days of her life doing, where her employer certainly had those records where they could have seen she cared for a patient who, you know, at the time she cared for him, wasn't known that person had COVID, but later it became apparent that it was a COVID patient. S

    o that was a little bit saddening, just to know that that's a person who bravely went to work caring for incredibly sick patients and had that as sort of some of the last hours of their waking life.

  •  Hari Sreenivasan:

    Christina Jewett of Kaiser Health News.

  •  Christina Jewett:

    Thanks so much, Hari.

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