Jumping from Fire into Work Comp Nightmare

By Ron Angel, Guest Columnist

I was injured on July 1, 2001 while fighting fire for the U.S. Forest Service in Tok, Alaska.

At the end of a long day, we were setting up camp and I was carrying heavy packs which weighed about 100 pounds.  While walking I felt pain radiating from my neck and through my shoulders. After a restless night, I woke up the next day with a stiff neck and more pain. 

Every day for the next two weeks it got steadily worse and spread down my right arm. At the end of the first week I went into a local clinic where the doctor knew right away that I had blown out a disc in my neck. He prescribed Percocet for my pain.

After I returned home, the pain continued to worsen and I ran out of Percocet; so I went to the ER in Sandpoint, Idaho. They refused to give me narcotics for pain and gave me Neurontin instead, which did nothing for pain relief.

The pain continued to increase and it was more than I could handle. It was an 11 on a 10 scale so I walked into my doctor’s office in tears and showed him I was unable to lift my arm. He set me up for an MRI, which showed I had a herniated disc and two bulging discs.

Ron Angel

Ron Angel

I had submitted a claim to the Department of Labor’s Office of Workers’ Compensation (OWCP) immediately after returning from Alaska. I tried to get OWCP to help me, but was mostly unable to contact them. When I did get a hold of someone, they had no sympathy and were extremely adversarial. 

I consulted with a neurosurgeon and he said I needed surgery immediately. I called my health insurance, but they said it was work related so they would not cover it. I still had no response from federal OWCP. 

After not being able to sleep for nine days due to the pain, I could no longer take it. I got my pistol and had it on my lap. I called Blue Cross Blue Shield and told them that if they didn't help me I was going to kill myself immediately. They begged me not to and said they would cover the costs and deal with Federal OWCP. I had my lifesaving neck surgery on August 9, 2001.

I finally received a letter from OWCP dated Oct. 16, 2001 telling me they decided to accept my claim. I would have been dead had I not had the surgery to relieve my neck and arm pain. 

Federal OWCP does not accept back injuries, brain injuries or heart injuries for a settlement, but if an injury of one of them affects an accepted body part they will pay a settlement for the loss of use. Due to the loss of strength, mobility and the continuing pain, they rated my right arm a 23% loss.

During a follow up with the surgeon in 2004 he noticed that I had some movement of an adjacent disc that was causing me some discomfort. He said this is common with fusion patients and that we should just monitor it. If it started to cause me more problems he would have to go back in and fuse the next segment. This is called adjacent segment disease and it occurs in about 25 percent of fusion patients.

I am now retired and a couple of months ago I began to lose strength in my right arm, which I can't raise above my shoulder.  Pain is now radiating from my shoulder down to my elbow. I would rate my pain at a level of 4 today.  I contacted OWCP for authorization to get a new MRI, but they informed me that due to the lack of activity they had closed my case in 2013.

I explained they should have provided notification because my surgeon had said that eventually I would need another fusion. They told me that since they closed it, I will have to file another work comp claim for a re-occurrence of the injury. 

In order to re-open my claim, OWCP requires a narrative from the doctor that states the new symptoms are connected to my original injury in 2001. They also require all of my medical records since 2001, five other requirements for the doctor, and three pages of questions that I have to answer. 

My surgeon says the bulge in my disc is severe and another fusion is necessary, but he won’t provide a statement to OWCP because he is tired of dealing with them. He said he has another patient who has been trying for approximately two years to get his claim reopened, unsuccessfully. He doesn't have time to play their games. 

Since my doctor will not give me a statement, the only way I can get it fixed is if my health insurance will cover it. I'll be responsible for 20% of the cost!  This could have been avoided if OWCP had contacted me before arbitrarily closing my case. 

Now it looks like I get to go through the same trials to fight for my next fusion, which OWCP claims was not caused by the original injury. It looks like my bureaucratic nightmare with federal work comp is starting all over again.    

Ron Angel lives in Idaho.

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The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.