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'I Lost A Hand And This Is Workman's Comp. ... I Didn't Lose A Hook!'

Dennis Whedbee, of Homer City, Pa., lost half of his left arm in a drilling accident in North Dakota in September 2012.
Jeff Swensen for ProPublica
Dennis Whedbee, of Homer City, Pa., lost half of his left arm in a drilling accident in North Dakota in September 2012.

The tattoos on Dennis Whedbee's left arm describe what he lost when the North Dakota oil rig where he was working blew out in 2012. There's an image of a severed hand spurting blood, framed by the word "LOST" in block letters and the date: "9-23-12."

The message underscores Whedbee's frustration with a workers' compensation system in which benefits and access to benefits have changed in North Dakota and across the country.

"I lost a hand at work and this is workman's comp," Whedbee, 53, says at his home in Pennsylvania. "Give me what I deserve. I deserve a hand."

Whedbee's orthopedic surgeon said he was a perfect candidate for a high-tech myoelectric arm and hand, which are routinely provided to workplace amputees in other states. The $70,000 device mirrors the look and function of a human limb. But the workers' compensation system in North Dakota instead opted for a mechanical arm with a hook, which costs $50,000 less.

"I lost a hand working in North Dakota," Whedbee says. "I didn't lose a hook!"

Whedbee's story is the latest piece in an ongoing investigation by NPR and ProPublica that shows how states have slashed workers' compensation benefits in recent years. In the past decade, lawmakers in 33 states have cut workers' comp benefit payments, made it tougher to qualify for benefits or made it more difficult to receive medical care.

Details of Whedbee's case and how it compares with the benefits injured workers receive in other states are outlined in our stories:

* Injured Workers Suffer As 'Reforms' Limit Workers' Compensation Benefits

* As Workers' Comp Varies From State To State, Workers Pay The Price

ProPublica has also created several interactive graphics showing the differences in workers' compensation in each state:

* How Much Is A Limb Worth?

* Workers' Compensation Reforms By State

For more on this investigation, NPR and ProPublica reporters participated in a Reddit Ask Me Anything. Follow along with the full series on NPR and ProPublica.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.
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