PROVIDENCE R.I. (WPRI) - The state has spent more than $50,000 on private investigators in the last five years to scrutinize injury claims by Rhode Island sheriffs, a Target 12 review of records reveals.
The spending was part of $220,000 total paid to private investigators to look into workers' compensation claims for all state employees over that time frame, which means sheriffs represent 23% of all spending. However, sheriffs make up only four percent of the state workforce.
It remains unclear whether contracting with outside vendors to probe on-the-job injury claims by some sheriffs yielded any results. R.I. Department of Administration Director Michael DiBiase declined to comment on specific cases.
"We have had some success more recently than in the past in terms of moving people through the system and sometimes the investigations themselves ... will help prevent people from abusing the system," DiBiase told Target 12. "I think we have been aggressive in pursuing the investigations."
Target 12 has previously reported a disproportionate number of Rhode Island sheriffs are out of work after claiming an on-the-job injury, collecting their full salaries tax-free at a cost to taxpayers of more than $2 million a year.
As of September, 23 sheriffs were on injured on duty (IOD) status, or nearly one in eight. (The number has since fallen to 18.) By comparison, only three of Rhode Island’s 226 state police troopers were out on IOD last fall.
DiBiase said no matter how much evidence state officials might compile on an injury claim deemed questionable, they still have to convince a workers' compensation judge to end IOD benefits.
"As you can imagine we still have to make our case we still have to prove regardless of what evidence we have that someone’s medical condition is such that they can work," he said. "That’s a medical opinion at the end of the day."
In all, the state hired a private investigator 297 times between 2013 and the end of 2018, primarily using three firms. Payments ranged from as little as $50 to as much as $1,800.
Gerry O'Neill, executive director of labor union Council 94, which represents sheriffs, said the union was unaware the state was hiring outside investigators until Target 12 asked for comment.
O'Neill said a state review in 2003 found there should be 211 full-time sheriffs on staff, 38 more than the current number.
"It appears to me that the money spent on private investigators would be better spent on hiring deputy sheriffs to secure the courthouses and judges," he said in an email.
- TARGET 12: Some sheriffs collecting IOD for years
The days of outside investigators may be numbered, however.
In October, the Raimondo administration awarded a contract to Beacon Mutual Insurance to outsource the management of workers' compensation for all state employees. The state has agreed to pay the company $5.1 million over three years, with an option for renewal in 2021, according to Department of Administration spokesperson Brenna McCabe.
DiBiase said the state was severely understaffed in handling the volume of cases in the past, and he believes taxpayers will "save significant money through this engagement of Beacon Mutual."
"They bring more capability, they bring medical professionals, loss prevention; we were not doing enough in preventing injuries because we don’t have the resources." he said. "They actually have the technology for claims administration that we don’t have."
DiBiase said Beacon Mutual will also have the ability to independently investigate injury claims.
In the bid proposal, state officials estimated workers' comp claims cost taxpayers $28 million annually when "medical and lost time costs" are included. There are an average of 2,036 new claims each year.
Gov. Gina Raimondo’s budget plan, which is currently before lawmakers, proposes changes to the IOD system that her administration estimates would save taxpayers $1.7 million a year.
Among the reforms: requiring all current employees out on IOD for longer than 18 months — including those who were injured prior to 2011 — to apply for an accidental disability pension within 90 days. (The clock would be 60 days for IOD cases moving forward.)
Another reform would require an independent doctor to certify an injury; right now, the employee's personal physician certifies it. Lawmakers rejected a similar proposal last year.
"The law as it currently exists is open-ended and is inconsistent with the intent that this is a temporary program," DiBiase said. "It’s a very generous incentive that’s in place and if a law isn’t working — human nature as it is — it is going to cause it to be subject to abuse."
The union has testified against the proposed changes raising concerns about how an independent medical examiner would be chosen and opposing the requirement that requires workers out injured for 18 months to automatically file for a disability pension.
The union filed their own draft legislation that includes a provision where if an employee is denied a disability pension after being out on IOD, the worker can appeal to a workers' compensation judge who could award the employee the retirement benefit.
Diana Pinzon contributed to this report.
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