Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Workers' Comp reform "swimming in data"

By Jamey Dunn

Proponents of workers' compensation changes say Illinois’ system is unnecessarily complicated, and the math for medical fees just doesn’t add up. Meanwhile, representatives of the medical community say Illinois is moving too quickly on the issue.

Barb Malloy, consultant and former workers’ compensation administrator for the city of Chicago, said that medical fees employers pay for injured worker’s treatment in Illinois outpace what the state and federal government pay under medical programs for the low-income and elderly residents. Malloy said a standard visit to a doctor costs $24.25 under Medicaid, $42.99 under Medicare and $77.81 under workers’ compensation requirements in Illinois.

She told the House Workers’ Compensation Reform committee that. unlike the Federal Medicare program, the workers’ compensation system does not determine costs based on how complicated a procedure is, such as a surgery taking more time and effort from health care professionals than a check up.

Mark Deaton, general counsel for the Illinois Hospital Association, said that as some of the largest employers in the state, hospitals are sensitive to costs of workers’ compensation. However, he warned that budget cuts and substantial federal health care reforms make it a dangerous time to do any major tweaking to Illinois’ health care sector.

“First do no harm. I would like all of us to bear that maxim in mind as we discuss this issue because the potential for harm is extremely high here — harm to injured workers, harm to employers, harm to the economy of the state, harm to our healthcare system. … Right now in the state of Illinois there are a lot of hands and a lot of fingers jostling that house of cards that we call health care,” he said at the hearing held at Illinois State University in Normal.

Deaton called for legislators to slow down and return to the so-called agreed bills process that has been used to make changes to workers’ compensation in the past. Under this method, stakeholders hammer out negotiated legislation that all parties approve. However, this method usually prevents any sweeping changes. “Please do not rush to a solution. … It’s abundantly clear that this is an incredibly complex, multifaceted issue with many moving parts. The last time we had a major reform … it took about two years to work it out. And today’s landscape is even more precarious.”

He added: “There is no public policy reason whatsoever that we have to solve this problem between now and the middle of January, [the deadline for the Senate and House committees to make reconditions about workers' comp, as well as the end of the lame-duck session.] The system is not on the verge of collapse. … I don’t believe that a single business in the state of Illinois is going to relocate if there are not changes made to workers’ comp in January, especially if there is the prospect of meaningful reform on the horizon.”

However, Rep. Jim Sacia, a Pecatonica Republican, said he was alarmed by Deaton’s statement about the urgency of the situation. Sacia said there is at least one business in his district that is considering moving out of Illinois,  largely in part because of workers’ compensation costs.

Eugene Munin, budget director for the city of Chicago, said the city has seen workers’ compensation costs rise while the number of city employees decreased. Munin said the city has eliminated around 6,000 positions in the last 10 years because of budget cuts. He said the city had 2,000 workers’ compensation claims in 2005 and had 1,350 in 2009. But workers’ compensation cost Chicago $61 million in 2009 versus $38 million in 2005.

“Our costs have increased … even while the number of employees the number of claims have gone down dramatically,” he said.

Deaton said the issue of workers’ compensation is “swimming in data that is often contradictory." That is why he thinks experts should be given the chance to work out a compromise. “There are a lot of very very smart people on both sides of this issue.”

He said legislators should remember that being injured at work can be traumatic, and access to quality health care is important to get workers back on their feet. “Somebody who is injured [at the workplace] in Illinois and needs medical attention has one thing going for them. They have access to some of the finest doctors and hospitals that this country has to offer.”

Tom Mercier, president of Bloomington Offset Process, Inc. and a board member of the Illinois Manufacturers Association, said employers want to make things right for their workers who are injured on the job. He takes issue with employers having to pay the full cost of treatment for conditions, which may be caused or contributed to by outside activities.

“If someone is hurt on the job. we look at it as our responsibility to get that person … fixed. …Our questions come about when there isn’t a definitive reason for why that person needs a double hernia operation. Was it because something that happened at work or was it something that happened on the weekend because he is part of a band? Is it something in which someone needs an operation … that is a bindery-hand-work person but at nights and on the weekends she’s a seamstress? It is those things that make our job difficult,” he said.

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