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Rural Attorney for Remote WCB Hearings

 State: N.Y.


Rural Attorney Renews Request for Remote WCB Hearings


An upstate New York claimants’ attorney renewed his efforts to re-open a Workers’ Compensation Board hearing site in Hornell this week amid fears that the town and its injured workers could lose inpatient services at its only hospital.


Gov. Andrew Cuomo William Pulos, a Hornell attorney, sent the latest in a string of letters to Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday requesting that he step in and help to re-open the WCB hearing site closed last November. He pointed out that Norwich, which was not conducting hearings before the Hornell site closed, has begun taking regular hearings since then while claimants in Hornell and other sites still need to appear via telephone

or drive hundreds of miles round trip to appear for cases in person.


Meanwhile, the Hornell Evening Tribune reported Wednesday that the chief executive officer of the town’s only hospital – St. James Mercy Hospital – has said that "no provider will be able to sustain inpatient services in Hornell."


"It's certainly not going to help," Pulos said. "And it means health care for everyone is going to be more difficult. Not only injured workers, but people out there who need essential services that are provided at a hospital."


The board is hearing cases regularly in Norwich, a town of just more than 7,000 people in Chenango County.


Cases that were once heard in Oneonta, about 35 miles to the east, are now heard at the Norwich site. Pulos said meanwhile, the towns of Hornell, Geneva, Glens Falls, Monticello, Canton, Lockport and Riverhead remain without a Workers’ Compensation Board presence. The Workers’ Compensation Board closed all those sites in November 2013, estimating that the move would save $3 million in rent payments over 10 years.


Jeff Bishop, a spokesperson for state Sen. James Seward, R-Oneonta, said that the Norwich site previously did not hold regular hearings. He said the senator is still trying to get the original hearing site in Oneonta re-opened.


"They are conducting hearings there now on a regular basis and that was partially due to the advocacy from the senator," Bishop said.


Pulos pointed out in a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday that the Workers’ Compensation Board could use the Hornell City Hall rent-free. But after about a year of trying to get the governor and the Workers’ Compensation Board to accept the proposal, he said he’s losing hope.


"If there is a chance, it's a very small chance," he said.


He said the building is well-equipped to handle the hearings.


"It's a beautiful space, recently renovated, recently reconstructed," he said. "One of the potential (spaces) is the Hornell city courtroom itself, with the bench, chairs, tables, security. Another one is the conference room, a little smaller, a bit more private, serves the same purpose. But the Hornell City Hall is up to speed with all codes – Americans with Disabilities (Act), handicapped access, parking, security, video hookups – all the amenities needed to support a workers' comp site for injured workers."


Pulos said that claimants in the area have been appearing via telephone for their hearings. While he said the system is mostly working, it does present problems for claimants.


"Many times, the case doesn't fall together and it cannot be worked out unless the parties are actually there in the same room and able to compare notes and able to talk off the record and stuff like that," he said. "And without the ability to meet up with your adversary and talk and have a conversation before it reaches the hearing stage, that (possibility) is eliminated."


Rachel McEneny, a spokesperson for the board, said that remote conferencing works well for hearings.


"The board encourages hearings via telephone and videoconference, which has worked well for years," she wrote in an email to WorkCompCentral. "The average hearing is calendared for just eight minutes, and these brief periods are well handled by phone and video."


The Workers’ Compensation Board said previously that the Hornell site had about 953 hearings in 2012, less than 1% of the board’s more than 256,000 hearings statewide that year. The rural site closures were part of the board’s budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year.

The cry for rural hearing sites has not been loud, McEneny said in an interview Wednesday.


"There hasn't been (an) uproar of people calling in upset that this hearing site is closed except for this one attorney (in) Hornell," she said.


McEneny did not elaborate on why the board has taken more hearings in Norwich and hasn’t considered offers for a rent-free space in Hornell. She said the state has 25 hearing locations total and that the closure of the eight rural sites last year hasn’t had a substantial impact.


"The board’s service to claimants has not changed," McEneny wrote in an email.


Pulos said, however, that claimants in Hornell and other remote parts of the state deserve to have better access to the board.


"What is happening is depriving rural people of their essential services," Pulos said. "It's depriving rural people of their access to justice."

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