About 255,000 Florida workers will likely be hurt on the job this year. Some will suffer severe injuries.

Those workers will have little, if any, say about the doctors to whom they are sent and the treatment that they receive.

In Florida, employers must carry workers’ compensation insurance. Those insurance companies make the decisions about the care injured workers receive.

Neil Eckelberger of Lakeland knows that all too well.

In September 2017, Neil suffered severe injuries and burns when an explosion occurred at Natural Advantage Food Flavorings in Lakeland.

“It was the loudest noise I ever heard,” recalled Neil.

The explosion knocked down walls, collapsed ceilings, even blew a hole through the roof. Three people were hurt.  

“There was a lot of pain, fire, smoke, chaos,” Neil remembered. 

Fire and chemicals scorched Neil. Paramedics rushed him to Tampa General Hospital’s burn unit.

“I could tell that he had been blown up,” Neil’s wife Robin Eckelberger said.  “I mean there was one doctor on this side (right side) with one arm up, there’s one doctor on this side (left side) and they’re just ripping skin off.”

Doctors surgically implanted pig skin on Neil’s arms to help them heal. One implant is successful, the other isn’t.

After several days he is released, sent home.  

“Neil’s got burn injuries, neurological injuries, psychological injuries, orthopedic injuries,” attorney Michael Winer said.

“The care that he got at Tampa General was amazing,” Robin explained.

When Neil came home, Travelers, his employer’s workers’ compensation insurance carrier provided a much different level of assistance.

It started with the home health care nurse Travelers sent to treat Neil’s burns.

“The nurse that showed up to take care of Mr. Eckelberger was completely unqualified to deal with significant burns,” attorney Winer pointed out.

“I was having to wear masks, the kids, to go into the room, masks and gloves,” Robin said.

Neil still had open burn wounds.

“She (the home health care nurse) came over here with hand sanitizer,” Robin stated.

Travelers spokesperson Kate Thermansen said she could not comment on a specific case.

“Our goal is to ensure that each injured employee receives the best care available..so they can recover as quickly as medically appropriate and return to work,” Thermansen wrote in an email.

Tampa General physicians referred Neil to several specialists for follow-up care.

On its web page, the state’s Division of Workers’ Compensation informs injured workers; “you must ask your employer what doctor you can see.  You must see a doctor authorized by your employer or the insurance company.”

Robin claims Travelers denied the referrals claiming those doctors were not in the insurance company’s network.

“The selection of a treating doctor is made on an individual basis, after careful consideration of multiple factors, including state law, physician’s expertise, their proximity to the employee and whether they accept workers compensation patients,” Thermansen wrote in an email.

“They wanted me to take him to a walk-in-clinic,” Robin said.

“I don’t have any control over my health, I don’t have any control over the doctors I see,” Neil added.

According to Eckelberger attorney Michael Winer, Travelers opted out of a network years ago.

“So, I found the statements that they made to him and his wife to be disingenuous to put it mildly, if not a blatant outright lie,” Winer said.

The Eckelbergers say they didn’t want to hire an attorney, but Travelers has made it extremely difficult for Neil to receive timely care.

Neil also needed stitches removed.

The Eckelberger’s complain that it took Travelers 10 weeks to provide a doctor.  

“Travelers has no heart,” Robin said.

According to attorney Michael Winer, insurance carriers run the show and provide medical care on the cheap.  

Winer claims workers’ comp insurance carriers frustrate patients in an effort to raise their profits by forcing injured workers into using their private health care insurance.

In January, Travelers told investors it was very pleased with the strong underlying performance of its Workers’ Compensation portfolio, helping the company beat last year’s fourth quarter profit estimates. 

“The inmates run the asylum,” Michael Winer said.  “There really is no governing body that exists to hold (the) insurance company accountable.”

If you have something that you think should be investigated call our 8 On Your Helpline at 1-800-338-0808.

Contact Steve Andrews at sandrews@wfla.com