I knew we were in trouble when I attempted to file my first claim petition using the new computer network, Workers’ Compensation Automation and Integration System (WCAIS). After inputting my client’s Social Security number and clicking the mouse to submit the petition, I was warned that the Social Security field only took nine characters, and that I had entered too many. After carefully re-entering the Social Security number — all nine characters of it — I was met with the same error message. Much to my horror, I quickly figured out that the system had populated the field with two dashes and was counting those as additional characters.

To say that the launch of WCAIS has been trying is a vast understatement. Frustration abounds from the practical to the legal among all who deal with the practice of workers’ compensation. From judges to attorneys to claims adjusters to bureau employees, the brave new world of WCAIS has left no one unaffected. However, it is important to remember that this paradigm shift is inflicting pain on the stakeholders as a group precisely because it is designed to bring them into the inner sanctum for the first time. Once the system becomes completely functional, an assumption not currently shared by some, the workers’ compensation community as a whole will have immediate access to all workers’ compensation matters, including claims, disputes and appeal information. The system will integrate the program areas of the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation, the Workers’ Compensation Office of Adjudication and the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board. There are many people whose livelihoods depend on a successful workers’ compensation practice laboring tirelessly in an effort to return the practice to normalcy (and beyond).

While it may not seem so at the moment, three years ago WCAIS was envisioned to be a significant technological upgrade, designed to enhance the workers’ compensation system’s impact on the Pennsylvania economy. One of the primary points to WCAIS was the introduction of the electronic data interchange (EDI). EDI is said to be a national standard for documenting and reporting claims transactions with the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation. WCAIS’s EDI interface is designed to open up the management of claims and workflow to staff and interested parties who will be able to view and annotate documents electronically.

After an extraordinary investment of resources, staff effort and commitment, the new system went live with respect to appeal board functions in September 2012, with the release of the Office of Adjudication’s piece September 9, 2013. Things have been quite rocky since that date. Without getting into details, the practice in many quarters has come grinding to a halt until certain matters are addressed.

In an effort to get things moving again, ongoing meetings are being held among representatives of the bureau, bench and bar to address most concerns. For those not privy to the Philadelphia or Pennsylvania bar association or the Pennsylvania Association for Justice listservs, the following is an update with respect to certain items of particular interest to the bar:

• Judges’ decisions, hearing notices and assignments are once again being issued. There were initially several technical issues that delayed circulation of decisions, hearing notices and assignment notices. The backlog is in the process of being cleared and should be up to date in the next few weeks. It is important to continue to check one’s “dashboard” for notices.

• Petitions filed by paper continue to be manually assigned. Paper petitions received through September 11 have already received judicial assignments. Any petitions filed by paper between August 22 and September 11 that are not yet assigned should be refiled.

• Any petitions that have not been acknowledged or assigned can be addressed by emailing WCOA-PetitionsUnit@pa.gov. One should include as much information as possible as to identifying markers.

• Claims/disputes in the dashboard: The biggest challenge to implementing WCAIS has been related to the quality of data that was imported to WCAIS from the old computer system, CIMS. This has resulted in attorneys not having all of their claims and disputes appear for action in WCAIS. The Office of Adjudication has asked law firms to complete a spreadsheet for each attorney in the firm, providing information for all matters that should appear for that attorney in WCAIS. Claims appearing to the incorrect attorney should be specified as well. A blank spreadsheet can be obtained by emailing Workers’ Compensation Judge Susan Caravaggio at scaravaggi@pa.gov or Elizabeth Crum, director of adjudication, at ecrum@pa.gov. I have been assured that the Office of Adjudication is working as quickly as possible to resolve these issues.

Once the system is functional, the bureau will begin to provide training through seminars and webinars. This will be done in close association with the bar. In the meantime, there will continue to be ongoing communications through bar association leaders and listservs as problems arise and are resolved. Some communications will also take place on the WCAIS dashboard itself.

When all is said and done, the goals of the system remain: greater transparency; 24/7 availability of online services; faster claims processing and litigation times; and a more efficient adjudication system. While improved data management and record-keeping seem to be reasonable short-term goals, most of the other benefits will take time to realize and will require the substantial cooperation from the bar. While many practitioners may want nothing to do with the new system, an extremely understandable position, that is not currently an option. Therefore, it is best that everyone work together to overcome the rather substantial hurdles that remain.

In the end, WCAIS should introduce system efficiencies and enhance customer service. The bureau is looking forward to receiving feedback from the workers’ compensation community to ensure continual system improvements with an eye toward maximizing the effectiveness of the workers’ compensation system.

Christian Petrucci is a solo practitioner and past co-chairman of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s workers’ compensation section. He concentrates his practice in workers’ compensation litigation
and Social Security disability.