Computer woes plague Pa. worker comp system

Posted: October 23, 2013

HARRISBURG As a laborer for more than a decade, John Dennis always knew he could get hurt on the job.

What the 49-year-old Chester resident did not expect is that when it finally happened, his day in court would be delayed because of a computer glitch.

Yet Dennis', and at least hundreds of other workers', compensation cases statewide have been in limbo since early last month, when the Department of Labor and Industry completed a $45 million overhaul of the system it uses to process claims and assign them to judges.

New software was designed to modernize the process of filing claims. Instead, the opposite has happened, according to interviews with lawyers, judges, and others who use the system.

The glitches range from inability to upload claims or other supporting legal documents into the system to disappearing court paperwork.

The result: Injured workers and their lawyers have been unable to get hearings, creating a backlog of cases at the Labor and Industry Department's Bureau of Workers' Compensation.

Attorneys for workers, employers, and insurance companies are, in some cases, not being notified of decisions in their cases. Judges and their staff have been unable to upload critical documents into the system.

"The intent was good, but the delivery has failed," said Philadelphia lawyer Leonard A. Cohen, who represents injured workers and who is on a steering committee working with the state to oversee the implementation of the system. "We are all in favor of hanging in here. But in the meantime, the [new software] is causing the system to almost come to a halt."

The new system, designed by New York-based Deloitte Consulting L.L.C., went live Sept. 9, and problems started immediately.

Cohen said that he had filed 20 petitions on behalf of clients seeking workers' compensation since early September, and that not one had been assigned to a judge. Under the old computer system, he said, cases would be assigned within a week of being filed, and the injured worker could expect a hearing anywhere from seven to 14 days later.

State Rep. Brendan Boyle (D., Phila.) said Friday that he became aware of the problems last week, and that as soon as this week, he would ask the state Auditor General's Office to review them. Boyle also said he would request legislative hearings on what went wrong.

There are real-life consequences. The system is designed to provide medical treatment and compensation for people with verified job-related injuries. Workers who cannot quickly return struggle not just with pain, but with making ends meet.

Dennis, who works for a landscaping firm, said he fell through an unsecured manhole on a job site in early September and injured his back and legs. He has medical bills and child support to pay beyond the things he needs to subsist.

"I was hoping to have had a hearing by now," Dennis said. "It's frustrating. You worry."

Deloitte, a global consulting firm, has hundreds of millions of dollars worth of state contracts in Pennsylvania. It also has handled major computer and technology projects in other states, some of which have had problems.

A representative for Deloitte could not be reached for comment.

Labor and Industry Department officials say many of the problems have been addressed or are being worked on now.

They also said they had added staff to work through the backlog of more than 500 cases waiting to be assigned to a judge since the new system went online, and that workers' compensation payments had not been affected.

"There are always going to be growing pains associated with going from paper to online," said Sara Goulet, the department's spokeswoman. "We have confidence in the system, and we believe the glitches will be worked out."

Goulet said that under the $45 million contract with Deloitte - signed when Ed Rendell was governor - there is a 90-day warranty period for the company to fix any problems in the software. As a result, the state has not had to pay Deloitte to correct the glitches.

But she said the department recently signed a separate contract with Deloitte - $5.1 million per year for three years - for routine maintenance and enhancements to the system.

"We are pleased with Deloitte and with the work they've done," Goulet said.

Andrew E. Greenberg, a lawyer with the Chartwell Law Offices in Valley Forge, who represents employers and insurance companies, said he and others who rely on the system understand that going paperless is part of the "natural evolution" of the times, and that the new system will require patience.

But in the interim, he said, the system has caused some delays.

Greenberg said he is due to appear before a judge in Scranton next week, but is uncertain he will be allowed to present evidence.

The reason: The judge has not received the legal document he filed through the system - a month ago.


acouloumbis@phillynews.com

717-787-5934 @AngelasInk

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