Don Roller injured his back at work while employed at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in May of 1992. He was a heavy equipment operator but after the injury switched to a full-time office position, upon his doctor’s recommendation.
Don’s injury brought him constant, debilitating pain. Simple, every-day functions like sitting, sleeping or walking proved difficult and occasionally impossible. The state Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) approved workers’ compensation and benefits for him, and he began undergoing treatment.
After seven back surgeries failed to relieve Don’s pain or proved to be rehabilitative, his physician recommended surgical implantation of an intrathecal pain pump. A pain pump is a disc-shaped liquid reservoir about the size of a hockey puck installed in the abdomen with a tube that delivers a periodic pain-relieving drug directly to the spinal canal.
Despite having an approved workers’ compensation claim, L&I would not approve his physician’s recommendation of a pain pump. Unable to bear the pain longer, Don decided to go forward without L&I approval and use his state-provided health insurance to pay for the pump instead.
In 2002, Don underwent surgery, which proved as successful as his doctors had predicted. Before the surgery, Don took morphine orally for years, but the painkiller left him disoriented and made him overly reliant on the drug. His physicians reported that after the surgery, he used 70 percent less oral pain medicine. He was even able to return to work.
Despite these results, L&I remained steadfast in its decision to deny this treatment. It took four years of legal struggle by Don and an attorney to remind L&I that their own statutes require approval of all “proper and necessary medical and surgical services.” L&I fought Don all the way to the state Court of Appeals, but ultimately he prevailed and L&I covered his pain pump.
Because of Don, L&I now approves pain pumps in cases of long-term cancer, muscle spasms and certain surgeries. Don continues to fight to change outdated L&I policies so that other injured workers do not have to go through a similar ordeal to obtain medically recommended treatment and technology.