Workers' Comp Fraud

State Law Exacerbates Fraud Among Peace Officers

Workers' comp fraud has been on the rise in California ever since probation officers were included under the state's vexing labor law.
By: | May 29, 2014

For several years now, California police officers, sheriffs’ deputies and firefighters have been entitled to a full salary with no tax deductions for a year when they’re injured on the job.

Apparently, benefits afforded through California Labor Code Section 4850 [LC 4850] have been tempting enough to result in instances of workers’ compensation as well as long-term disability insurance fraud.

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Since select probation department employees became eligible to receive LC 4850 benefits in 2000, increases in salary-continuation workers’ compensation benefits to individuals claiming they were injured on the job have increased fourfold, according to Alex Rossi, chief program specialist with the LA County Chief Executive office.

That’s led the Los Angeles County probation department to beef up its investigations and begin to make new arrests. These included the arrest of former probation officer Robyn Palmer on May 16.

David Grkinich, bureau chief of professional standards for the LA County probation department, emphasized that he and his colleagues are now more determined than ever to investigate alleged on-the-job injury cases more closely and to prosecute fraud and employee misconduct.

His advice to other law-enforcement officials dealing with similar problems:

“Never lose track of your employees; make sure someone is engaging with them,” he said. “Learn how they’re doing and when they’re going to come back to work.” That can prevent them from “falling between the cracks,” Grkinich said.

Apparently, California’s new labor laws have had a profound impact on benefits payments. County payroll records indicate that in [calendar year] 1999, the probation department paid out approximately $1.7 million in salary continuation benefits due to workers’ compensation claims, Rossi told Risk and Insurance®. By 2001, the payout of salary continuation — in part due to probation’s inclusion under LC 4850 — was approximately $6.8 million, he said.

Besides that, total reported injuries per fiscal year — expressed as a percentage of the total number of employees — was just 11.22 percent in 1999 versus 15.24 percent by 2002, said the County CEO Risk Management Branch.

Snuffing Out Fraud

When dealing with insurance fraud, it’s easier to detect when there is a paper trail, Grkinich explained. In Palmer’s case, for instance, “Our return-to-work staff noticed a discrepancy on some of the paperwork she is alleged to have forged,” he explained.

Palmer had filed for and received disability benefits for an alleged back and shoulder injury she claimed occurred in July 2013 while restraining a minor. Probation records showed that on the alleged injury date, Palmer was not at work and there were no employee records documenting any work-related injury involving Palmer, the probation department stated.

A probation department complex case committee worked closely with the California Insurance Department and Allstate’s the American Heritage Life Insurance Co. unit. “As a result of this collaboration, Allstate submitted the allegation that Robyn Palmer filed numerous fraudulent insurance claims and received disability insurance benefits she was not entitled to for a total amount of more than $29,122,” the department said in a statement.

Palmer was arrested on 14 felony counts for insurance fraud, forgery, wire fraud, and grand theft. She was arrested and transported to the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood, California, where she was booked into custody awaiting arraignment. If convicted, Palmer could be sentenced to state prison or county jail, and was being held without bail as of late May.

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Much harder to detect, said Grkinich, are cases where someone is “fully able to do what they say they can’t do,” and there’s no documentation to prove it. Here, he noted, surveillance and other sorts of deep digging are required.

Within the past year, the county probation department added a special projects team comprised of four supervisory level investigators to get things moving. So far, he said, “Our staff has assisted with the prosecution only two cases,” of insurance fraud, but is investigating several more.

Legal reforms could certainly help, he added. “The biggest problem I see out here is the way our law is written and that it makes it more profitable for some employees to stay home,” rather than do their jobs.

Janet Aschkenasy is a freelance financial writer based in New York. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]