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Published July 21 2010

Forum editorial: Might be legal, but it’s wrong

Workforce Safety and Insurance’s denial of a claim from a Gilby, N.D., woman might be legal, but it’s nevertheless wrong.

Edith Johnson was held at gunpoint during a bank robbery at the Gilby bank where she worked. She was handcuffed by the bank robber. Following the traumatic episode, the 56-year-old was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which is recognized by mental health professionals as a real and treatable condition. WSI, however, denied her modest $1,000 claim for medical costs because state law provides benefits only for physical injuries incurred at work.

There’s no question her condition is a result of her experience during the robbery at her place of work. There is no question she was on the job. (It’s the second time the bank was robbed while she was present.) And there is no question her condition is job-related.

But because it is classified as “a mental condition arising from a mental stimulus,” state law blocks coverage, said WSI. In other words, a condition that is recognized by psychiatrists and no less than Veterans Affairs hospitals is not recognized by North Dakota’s workers’ compensation agency. And why not? Because six years ago when the Legislature had a chance to include legitimate mental stress in WSI-covered conditions, the House defeated the bill.

WSI Director Bryan Klipfel said the agency could not pay Johnson’s claim because the law provides benefits only as a result of physical injury on the job. PTSD that is directly related to “a physical workplace injury may be compensable if it can be shown that it was primarily caused by the physical work injury, as opposed to all other contributing causes,” the director said.

How’s that for slippery bureaucratic doublespeak? So if the robber had clubbed Johnson on the head with his shotgun, and then she was diagnosed with PTSD, maybe she could have been compensated. And that’s only a maybe. If the handcuffs had cut her wrists and the injury could be linked to the development of PTSD, maybe she could have gotten a favorable review by WSI. Again, it’s a maybe.

To review: Johnson had a shotgun pointed at her. She was handcuffed and placed facedown on the floor while the robber threatened her life. The line from those circumstances to PTSD seems remarkably straight.

Yet, the wise men and women of North Dakota’s citizen Legislature opted to deny WSI coverage for what should be defined as a work-related, compensable mental injury. Apparently lawmakers who voted against extending benefits to work-related mental conditions are more interested in keeping WSI’s coffers fat than with the health of the people they purport to represent.

When the Legislature convenes early next year, bringing WSI benefits into the 21st century (heck, the 20th!) should be on the agenda.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.