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Ryan Johnson, Forum Communications Co., Published July 28 2010

Work comp bill sparks war of words

North Dakota’s Democratic state party leader recently criticized Republican U.S. House candidate Rick Berg for leading the push to defeat a 2003 state bill that he said would have helped a Gilby bank teller receive mental injury compensation after an armed robbery.

But the text of state House Bill 1317, which was defeated 48-46, shows the legislation actually wouldn’t have helped the employee – a fact that Mark Schneider, chairman of the Democratic-NPL Party, agreed with Tuesday, four days after issuing a news release that said otherwise.

At issue is a Workforce Safety & Insurance letter in May that denied a claim by Edith Johnson, 56, who was seeking compensation for less than $1,000 of medical costs stemming from a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis.

Johnson was handcuffed and held at gunpoint during a May 26, 2009, robbery of more than $50,000 from Gilby’s Bremer Bank.

“As majority leader, Rick Berg failed Edith Johnson,” Schneider wrote in a Friday news release. “It’s because of his actions that she is being denied coverage for a clearly legitimate claim. Now it’s his responsibility to fix it.”

Text of HB 1317 shows it was meant to add a new section to the North Dakota Century Code to allow for compensation of mental injuries. But it wouldn’t have applied to the case of a bank teller such as Johnson.

The bill, if approved, would have made eligible for medical compensation “a mental injury arising from a mental stimulus that occurs to an emergency service provider.”

‘Inartfully drafted’

Schneider said Tuesday that Johnson “wouldn’t have been compensated” from HB 1317. But he said the point of his news release was that emergency service providers already have a special provision under the workers’ compensation act.

“Berg led the charge against them, really a preferred group of injured workers, so there was no chance that it was going to be expanded to other workers,” he said.

Tom Nelson, a spokesman for Berg, said Schneider’s press release is simply “politicizing a terrible situation” for Johnson.

“They’re doing this Washington-style negative campaign,” he said.

Schneider said he read the one page of text for the bill before issuing his news release.

His Friday statement didn’t include the fact that this bill wouldn’t have applied in Johnson’s case and in fact claimed HB 1317 “would have allowed North Dakota workers to receive help covering the cost of mental health issues caused while at work.”

When asked if the wording of the release seemed dishonest, Schneider said his main point – “that Berg is entirely anti-worker” – is still valid.

“Inartfully drafted, yeah,” he said about the news release. “That’s on me if that led to some confusion. But dishonest – there was certainly no intention of that.”

Schneider said he was trying to raise a question with his news release: Would Berg have voted for a bill that would have compensated mental injuries for all workers in the state?

“There’s no way that Berg gets any cover on the fact that this bill was for firemen and police,” he said. “The larger issue is that he’s against relief for any injured worker, period.”

Nelson said the move was meant as a distraction to try to get around the fact that residents are upset about health care reform, taxpayer-funded bailouts and “the swelling river of debt this country’s in.”

“They want to focus it on something else,” he said. “It shows that they don’t want to talk about what the people are concerned about.”

Ryan Johnson is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald