In Illinois, the workers’ comp system is so out-of-control that Democratic state Rep. John Bradley introduced legislation to abolish it and put workers’ compensation cases in the state’s circuit courts.
Workers’ comp was established nearly a century ago as a no-fault insurance system so workers and employers would not have to go to court. However, without major reforms, it is certain to collapse because of rapidly escalating costs and premiums charged to employers.
In Springfield, lawmakers, unions, doctors, business owners and trial lawyers have been trying unsuccessfully to reform the system because its high costs are hurting job growth for public, non-profit and private employers.
Bradley says Illinois businesses are paying about $3 billion a year for an outdated system that awards payments without confirming that the workers were injured on the job. In fact, federal authorities have launched an investigation into Illinois’ program following media reports that 389 employees at the Menard Correctional Center received almost $10 million in workers’ compensation awards, including more than 200 prison guards who said they suffered carpal tunnel injuries from locking and unlocking cell doors.
But what really sent lawmakers over the edge in Springfield was the case of state trooper Matt Mitchell who was driving 126 mph and talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone when he lost control of his squad car, crossed the median and struck an oncoming car, killing two teenage sisters and injuring a man and a pregnant woman in a third car. Mitchell, who received probation after pleading guilty to reckless homicide, filed a workers’ compensation claim for injuries he received in the crash.
Workers’ comp is not just an “Illinois problem,” it’s a national problem.
Workers’ compensation insurance system is designed to prevent workplace injuries and deaths, treat injured workers quickly and effectively and settle disputed claims without going to court. But Washington has one of the most generous workers’ comp systems in the nation, and the resulting high costs are crippling employers struggling to emerge from the recession.
According to the Washington Department of Labor & Industries, injured workers in Washington are off the job an average of nine months, over twice the national average. Washington also leads the nation in the number of expensive, lifelong pensions awarded each year.
To address that problem, the Senate approved a bill allowing injured workers to voluntarily choose one-time settlements instead of lifetime pensions. The measure includes a 12-week “cooling off” period following an injury to ensure that workers make an informed, unpressured decision and proposed settlements must be approved by the state Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals. Voluntary settlements are working in 44 other states, including Oregon, which has not raised its workers’ comp premium in more than 20 years.
Gary Weeks, the former director of Washington’s Department of Labor & Industries, was the director of Oregon’s Bureau of Labor & Industries when voluntary settlements were implemented there in 1990. In a recent letter to House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, Weeks said, “I know from experience what has worked and what can benefit both workers and business.”
Nonetheless, the bill is stuck in a House committee where Chopp has not allowed the bill to come to the floor for a vote despite the fact that it received overwhelming bipartisan support in the Senate, passing by a 34-15 vote.
The state auditor predicts that, without reform, our workers’ compensation program will collapse into bankruptcy within five years. By opposing the voluntary settlement option, labor leaders and their legislative allies are saying they don’t want injured workers to have a choice — even if it means double-digit rate increases for employers and the eventual collapse of the workers’ comp system.
Wouldn’t it be better to make the needed reform now before the situation becomes so drastic that lawmakers introduce legislation to toss it out completely?
There is still time for Gov. Gregoire, Speaker Chopp and House Democrats to act and avert an Illinois meltdown.