Steve Wanko, claimant attorney with his own The Wanko Law Firm and recently elected President of Louisiana Workers’ Advocates, sat down with Louisiana Comp Blog to discuss his perspective on life and law, with special emphasis on bringing the original intent back to the comp system. Read on for his insights.
Comp Blog: Tell us about your personal background.
Wanko: I moved to Louisiana when I was two years old, to the Kenner area, and went to school in New Orleans: Brother Martin. I’ve basically been a lifelong resident and went to school at LSU, first for undergrad. I actually started with a business background, working with computers and doing computer programming, so when I finished school in 1996, the first part of my career was engaged with that.
Comp Blog: So what were you doing specifically in that first part of your career that later led you to law school?
Wanko: Well, I graduated from LSU with an Information Systems degree and went to work for Shell in Houston. I was a consultant out there and the group that I was working with at the time was involved with the top brass – CEO, CFO, and other high-ranking officers. I realized that all of these guys had law degrees!
At the time that I was there in the late 90s, Shell had really great benefits, I imagine they still do, and one of them was financial assistance with school. So while I was there I got my MBA from the University of St. Thomas, and then I talked them into paying for law school for me. South Texas University, which was working with A&M at that point trying to become affiliated, was right there downtown. I started my legal education there, and about halfway through I realized that’s what I really wanted to do. I came back to Louisiana and finished and graduated from Tulane Law in 2001, knowing that I wanted to practice in Louisiana. I actually grew up a Tulane fan – my Dad is from New Jersey!
Comp Blog: How did you find your way into the world of workers’ comp?
Wanko: I started working for an insurance defense firm and was just thrown into the fire. There were about twenty-five attorneys at the firm then and each one of us had sixty or seventy-five cases. Round the clock work, everybody worked seven days a week, plus traveling across the state.
Comp Blog: What drove you to the claimant side of things?
Wanko: At some point it crept up on me and I started thinking, “these people are really getting taken advantage of,” and then I saw an opportunity on the plaintiff side. Because workers’ comp is such a small community, the people who practice workers’ comp in this state all know each other. So when I left [the defense firm,] the first people I approached were the plaintiff attorneys that I had gotten to know over the years. Everybody reached out and helped me and here I am today.
Comp Blog: Could you speak more to the insularity of the workers’ comp industry in Louisiana?
Wanko: It’s definitely confusing if you come into it from the outside, like a claimant does for instance. People in the industry rotate in and out and that’s easy to forget. I think there have been more changes to Title 23 over the years than any other statute, and it’s pretty easy to see why. The carriers and LABI and other stakeholders on that side are always pushing to “control costs” in new ways and that creates complications; the rules change so much depending on who the Director [of the Office of Workers’ Compensation Administration] is, where the political tides are going, et cetera. There’s a lot of practice that goes into getting everything right in that environment, on the attorney side as well as for others in the industry.
Comp Blog: So do you often see the struggle of injured workers entering the system with no prior knowledge?
Wanko: I think the major problem is actually everything surrounding that worker’s claim. Now, it’s been over ten years since I was on the company side, but as I recall, the discussion was always about expenses and substitutions. The adjusters wouldn’t usually take the time to look at the claim and ask what’s going on, they just wanted to get the file closed.
Comp Blog: Could you offer any insight for adjusters from your vantage point then?
Wanko: If you approve initial treatment, even if you have a suspicion that it isn’t appropriate or compensable, everything would be a lot easier. Get them to the doctor, get them the minor treatment, and most of those people will just go away and the costs are minimal. When you deny, [the claimant] goes to an attorney, we file, there’s going to be litigation, and ultimately, the courts are going to rule that they need treatment – now you’ve tripled or quadrupled the cost and created a lot of strife surrounding what may or may not be a fraudulent claim. Two years and $20,000 later, you’re still trying to work out a resolution.
I also have to say that there are psychological components to this too. When the worker’s claim gets denied right out of the gate, they aren’t getting treatment and they’re sitting at home, it takes a toll. A lot of these people have a wife and children and it’s stressful for them to explain why Daddy is stuck on the couch.
Comp Blog: You mentioned the “cost-cutting” drive as part of the problem as well, can you elaborate on that?
Wanko: I really don’t understand the cost-cutting thing when it comes to decreasing benefits, especially when we’ve seen consistent rate decreases in this state. Year after year the state regulator is making the determination that carriers are meeting or exceeding a certain profit threshold, and so the premiums can get lower. So I don’t see where the cost-cutting thing is coming from, unless it’s just part of a larger agenda, which is how we on the plaintiff side see that.
Comp Blog: In that same political vein then, what are your big issues for the legislative session so far? Are there reforms that you’re looking for that haven’t made it?
Wanko: I think the formulary issue is going to be big because they’re selling it as it relates to the national drug abuse problem. The key here though is that the approved medications are usually just generics and, even for some of the lower-cost branded drugs, they aren’t approved for off-label use, which is contrary to what a lot of doctors are used to doing. I don’t know the ultimate answer, but I don’t think a formulary is it. We have the Medical Treatment Guidelines already, and I wasn’t necessarily against those, maybe there’s a way to incorporate pharmacy into that instead of instituting a strict Texas-like formulary. Why put a whole new system in place?
Comp Blog: As someone who has worked in a few different industries and has a varied educational background, how would you describe your personal and professional philosophies?
Wanko: In my practice and in my life, I try to be as honest and upfront as possible. Especially when I work with clients and other attorneys, I don’t create false expectations or hide things.
Comp Blog: On the carrier/employer side, much is made of how lower workers’ comp costs can attract business and investment to the state. From your perspective, what does the public need to understand about workers’ comp and its importance?
Wanko: Workers’ comp is incredibly important because of our oil and gas industry and the large part that plays in our economy. Keeping these workers safe and taking care of those injuries is essential to the health of that sector.
Comp Blog: You were recently elected President of the Louisiana Workers’ Advocates. Could you tell us about that organization and your new role?
Wanko: We’re a smaller part of WILG [Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group]. Because we had so many members of WILG close together in this area, we started having monthly or bi-monthly meetings to discuss some of the issues together and eventually formed our own secondary organization. It’s basically just a bunch of plaintiff attorneys discussing the issues we’re having, upcoming legislation, things like that. We also occasionally have guest speakers and do some CLE. Workers’ comp can be a nightmare system to deal with so it’s helpful to compare notes.
Comp Blog: By way of conclusion, where do you see yourself in the future as your career progresses?
Wanko: I like workers’ comp, and the reason that I’ve stayed in this sector is because it’s a small community. As much as some of us can be adversarial, at the end of the day we can usually shake each other’s hands. I don’t think that’s true across all varieties of legal practice. So I’m content, and I’ll probably just stay here trying to do some good.