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Workers' compensation law being challenged: Bills would alter statute of limitations and ease a former police officer's medical burden.
[January 18, 2009]

Workers' compensation law being challenged: Bills would alter statute of limitations and ease a former police officer's medical burden.

(Daily Press (Newport News, VA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Jan. 18--Lt. Kurt Beach, who tried to revive a dying baby more than 20 years ago, found out too late that the baby had hepatitis C.

Beach contracted the disease, but by the time he made the connection, he had missed the deadline to apply for workers' compensation.

That leaves the Smithfield police investigator -- who now awaits a liver transplant -- with costly medical bills.

Del. William K. Barlow wants to make sure it doesn't happen again.

"This was an injustice. And nobody intentionally caused the injustice," Barlow said. "It was sort of a gap in the law, and he fell through that gap."

Barlow, D-Isle of Wight, filed two bills this past week for the General Assembly to consider. The first, House Bill 2252, would extend the time period that public safety employees have to file a workers' compensation claim.

The second, House Bill 2243, would provide $250,000 to help cover Beach's medical expenses.

Beach, 52, of Smithfield, believes he contracted hepatitis C in 1988, while trying to revive a baby who had stopped breathing.

Her airways seemed to be blocked, so Beach -- the first to arrive on scene -- tried sucking blood and mucous from her airways, but she died.

In 1988, there were no required safety kits for emergency responders in these situations, and blood transfusions -- Beach found out later the baby had received several during her short life -- weren't tested for things like hepatitis C, a blood-borne virus that can attack the liver.

Beach found out he had the virus several years later. By that time, the deadline to apply had passed, so his workers' compensation claim was denied through the Virginia Court of Appeals.

He was stuck. A liver transplant is covered by his town-provided insurance, but the co-pay for the anti-rejection drugs after the surgery would cost his family roughly $40,000 the first year, Beach said.

That's why Barlow proposed the $250,000 compensation bill. The bill would pay him $50,000 this year and $20,000 a year for the next 10 years.

Compensation claims bills usually compensate wrongful incarceration, Barlow said, but he did succeed in winning some compensation in the 1990s for an Isle of Wight sheriff who was physically and mentally disabled in a line-of-duty shooting.

"It's highly unusual," he said. "The statute didn't cover it, but the man is a public servant. We ought to come to his assistance."

Del. Phil Hamilton is a member of the appropriations committee, which considers compensation claims. He said restitution is usually requested in cases in which the Commonwealth is at fault. He's not sure that's the case with Beach.

"It's an unfortunate circumstance, but I don't think we're at fault," said Hamilton, R-Newport News. "We'll just have to wait and see what all the circumstances are."

House Bill 2252 would change the statue of limitations for workers' compensation law. Currently, the limit is either two years after the diagnosis of certain diseases is communicated to the employee or five years from the date of the last exposure to the disease, whichever comes first.

A change to the bill will help other emergency workers who put themselves in harm's way, Barlow said.

Getting that bill passed might also be difficult, Hamilton said.

"We just haven't changed the workers' compensation law in the 20 years I've been in the legislature," he said.

The bill could face resistance from insurance providers who pay workers' compensation claims, but Beach's plight has caught a lot of media attention, which could work in his favor, Barlow said.

"With all the publicity, I would hope that the insurance companies, the workers' compensation carriers, might think twice before they try to oppose it," he said. "Plus, it might not affect that many cases. I would like to think this type of thing is rare."

Beach hasn't worked since August, when his doctor said he was unfit for duty. He hopes to find a living donor -- someone willing to donate part of a liver -- because there aren't enough livers from deceased donors to meet the need. Beach's nurse is busy screening potential donors, but no match has been found.

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