News Column

Computer Problems Plague Pa. Worker's Comp

October 21, 2013

Angela Couloumbis, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Oct. 21--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 didn't 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 attorneys, judges and others who use the system.

The glitches range from being unable to upload claims or other supporting legal documents into the system to having court paperwork disappear.

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 getting notified of decisions in their cases. And judges and their staff have even been unable to upload critical documents into the system.

"The intent was good, but the delivery has failed," said Philadelphia attorney 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 LLC, went live on September 9 and the problems started immediately.

Cohen said he has filed 20 petitions on behalf of clients seeking workers' compensation since early September, and not one has 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 after that.

Rep. Brendan Boyle (D., Philadelphia) said Friday that he became aware of the problems with the system last week, and, as soon as this week, will be asking the state Auditor General's office to review. Boyle also said he will 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 can't 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 just to subsist.

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

Aside from the workers' compensation contract, 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.

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

They also noted that they have 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 actual workers' compensation payments have not been impacted.

"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 -- which was signed under the Rendell administration -- 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 the next three years -- for routine maintenance and enhancements to the system.

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

Andrew E. Greenberg, an attorney 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 is causing some delays.

Greenberg said he is due to appear before a judge in Scranton next week, but is not certain the case can be heard.

The reason: the judge has not received the legal documents he filed through the system.




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