Frakes discusses prison budget after Tecumseh deaths; workers’ comp bill delayed


March 7th, 2017

Despite warm weather, trees not yet blooming at Nebraska State Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

In the Nebraska Legislature Monday, senators discussed prison spending with Corrections Director Scott Frakes in the aftermath of the latest violence at the state prison in Tecumseh. And they delayed a proposal to pay for a second medical opinion for employees involved in workers compensation cases.

Lincoln, NE – It his first appearance before senators since inmates refused to return to their cells, set fires, and two inmates were found dead at the state prison in Tecumseh on Thursday, Corrections Director Scott Frakes discussed his budget with senators on the Appropriations Committee.

In contrast to cuts projected for other agencies, the committee’s preliminary budget includes increases for 165 new corrections positions, including 135 new protective services positions over the next two years. Some senators have said that’s not enough, and the prisons also need more money for programs for inmates.

Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz asked Frakes if a lack of such programs was a motivation for Thursday’s disturbance.

“At this point, it would be conjecture for me to try and draw conclusions about the motivation. If there was an opportunity to meet in executive session and have some conversation, I would be glad to do that. But I don’t want to put information out that then becomes perceived as fact and it’s just my opinion or my guess,” Frakes replied.

Executive sessions are closed to the public but generally open to the press.

High turnover among staff, and resulting inexperience, is another factor generally seen as contributing to problems in the prisons. Because of a lack of personnel, existing staff are forced to work overtime, contributing to low morale and turnover. In response to a question from Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. John Stinner, Frakes said his department currently has about 135 vacant positions. Stinner then referred to the request to authorize more positions.

“How does that work when you can’t fill what you have?” he asked.

Frakes said salaries are based on comparable jobs in other states.

“But one of the questions that at some point would be worth asking is what are the issues specific to Nebraska in terms of employment that we maybe aren’t taking into account,” Frakes said, adding “This is definitely a great place if you’re looking for a job.”

State employees’ union director Mike Marvin argued that the state’s competition for prison employees isn’t so much other states, but other employers like county corrections departments and railroads within the state.

Prison employees got special raises last November, and the contract for all employees for the next two years has already been ratified. But Marvin said he was willing to negotiate with Gov. Pete Ricketts anytime.

Debate in the full Legislature Monday centered on a proposal by Grand Island Sen. Dan Quick. The bill would give employees in workers compensation cases the right to a second opinion, paid for by their employer, if they went to a company physician for their first opinion.

Quick gave an example of how the system works now for someone who works for an employer that has its own physician on staff.

“Maybe they cut their hand. They (the employers) say ‘Well, just go downstairs, they’ll sew you up downstairs or whatever and then we’ll put you back to work,” Quick said. “I’ve heard of incidents where people are influenced to go to the employers’ doctor on that first visit. So that’s what I’m hoping to fix.”

Bellevue Sen. Sue Crawford supported the bill, saying using the company doctor could produce diagnoses that favor employers.

“This is often advantageous to the employer in terms of speed and having the employee work with that physician that the employer selects. If the employee agrees to do that and goes down that path, and if there is then a concern on the part of the employee about that diagnosis… the employer through their workers comp insurance coverage would make sure that that employee had a chance at a second opinion,” Crawford said.

Sen. Joni Albrect of Thurston opposed the bill, LB181. Albrect said there are already options for employees to change doctors and get a second opinion.

“First, the employer and employee can agree and make that change. If the employee and employer don’t agree, the court has the authority to order a change of physician, hospital, rehabilitation facility or other medical services when it deems such a change is desirable or necessary,” Albrecht said. “LB181 is not necessary and will only serve to increase costs to the employers.”

And Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward said employees can already choose their own physician, and the bill would simply make it easier to go “doctor shopping.”

“They choose the doctor that they want to go, which is their right under the policy as it currently exists, but they don’t get the answer that they want.  So the next thing you know they’re going to another doctor. And so what you’re asking us to do here is pay for that second opinion. But many times it doesn’t stop there,” Kolterman said. “Many times it goes to the third, the fourth doctor because they don’t hear what they want to hear. The doctor tells them it’s time to go back to work. And they say to you ‘I’m not ready to go back to work. I don’t want to go back to work yet.’”

After a couple of hours, Quick asked that further debate be delayed until next year. He later explained that he did not have the votes for the bill to be advanced, and he wanted more time to work on it.

Also Monday, senators voted to end a filibuster and advance an appropriations bill for expenses related to “Choose Life” license plates. Sen. Ernie Chambers, who opposes the plates, vowed more filibusters on the next two rounds of debate.

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