Posted: 09/29/2012 06:30:04 PM PDT
Updated: 09/29/2012 06:43:07 PM PDT
Los Angeles spends more each year on workers’ compensation costs for the Police Department than it does for all the other claims it gets, including for use of force and car accidents. The city’s newest Police Commission member wants to change that.
Commissioner Rafael Bernardino knows the complex maze of workers’ compensation costs – $65 million in 2010-2011 for LAPD – presents a challenge officials have been trying to deal with for years.
All other LAPD liability cases, such as use of force and traffic accidents, average $40million a year, officials said.
“We need the help,” City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana said. “It’s not just tilting at windmills, if he is able to serve as an advocate for change and can help us convince Sacramento of solid reforms that we need.”
Bernardino, an attorney, had been serving on the Police and Fire Pension Board before Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa asked him to transfer over to the Police Commission. He was confirmed by the City Council on Aug. 31.
In taking on the risk issue, Bernardino is moving cautiously as he tries to gather information on the extent of the problem. LAPD workers file an average of 250 claims a month.
Bernardino said his goal is to reduce the costs to the city, which could make more money available for policing and other programs.
“I’m just starting to gather information and am working to get a grasp of the extent of the problem,” Bernardino said. “Once I know the extent of the problem, then we can look for solutions.”
Councilman Dennis Zine, a former police officer and chairman of the Audits and Government Efficiency Committee, said he has been pressing the LAPD for years to be more proactive on liability cases and workers’ compensation.
“A dollar is a dollar, and what happens is these departments get their budget and don’t make any effort to save money and bring about reforms,” Zine said. “Finally, we have a risk manager in the LAPD, but we still see these million-dollar settlements come to us.
“I hope the commissioner can get a handle on it and force the department to make changes.”
Councilman Mitch Englander, chairman of the Public Safety Committee and a reserve LAPD officer, said he is prepared to help Bernardino.
“He and I talked at length, and all he wanted to discuss was the liability issue,” Englander said.
“One of the biggest problems we have is trying to be proactive to ensure that officers are safe. I think one of the things we need to do is have more training to avoid injuries and start it earlier in their careers. We also need to be more proactive in dealing with these issues rather than waiting for them to happen and then try to figure it out.”
Tyler Izen, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, said one of the biggest complaints he receives is the amount of time it takes to get treatment.
“If we have an officer come in with a rotator cuff problem, we know physical therapy isn’t going to fix it,” Izen said, “They are going to need an operation and the sooner it’s done, the sooner they are back at work.”
Santana said workers’ compensation costs are one of four drivers of the city budget deficit. Others include the costs of salaries, pensions and health care.
Much of the problem is due to the fact that state law mandates the level of workers’ compensation provided and that is a constantly shifting landscape.
State legislators approved a new reform, SB 893, this session that implements an independent medical review on claims, establishes a timeline for treatment and a number of other factors.
Santana said the city is still studying the measure to determine its full impact on workers’ compensation costs.
“The thing is, we aren’t alone in this,” Santana said. “It affects all large employers.”
Another factor that creates operational problems, he said, is the number of officers who are off duty at any given time.
“For the chief, they have to schedule all their shifts, without really knowing how many officers are off duty,” Santana said. “That’s part of the reason we needed to hire so many officers so he does have flexibility.”
City Controller Wendy Greuel, who has released a number of audits critical of how the city handles it workers’ compensation cases, said Bernardino’s work will be an asset to the city.
“I would encourage him to look at anything we can do to reduce workers’ comp, particularly at what we can do to get people back to work,” Greuel said. “The longer they are off duty, the more difficult it is to get them back to work.”
Greuel said she would urge Bernardino also to try to find areas where there are common problems and what steps can be taken to deal with those.
Bernardino said he plans to take all those matters into consideration as he also plans to look at the training of officers and see where improvements can be made.
“A lot of the liability we face is for momentary lapses,” Bernardino sad. “Seconds of a mistaken judgement can cost the city millions.