Sunday, January 09, 2011

Workers' compensation reforms face strong opposition

By Jamey Dunn

An Illinois House committee passed a workers’ compensation reform package this evening, but most of the committee members voiced reservations about the bill.

The measure is the result of the efforts of a Special Workers’ Compensation Reform Committee, which held hearings in December. The short timeline was the reason some legislators gave for their concerns with Senate Bill 1066.

Rep. Angelo "Skip" Saviano, an Elmwood Park Republican, said he thought the reforms were being rushed for political reasons, as part of an effort to get a tax increase passed by offering reforms long sought after by Republicans. He voted against the bill, and called for the process to be slowed down. He said the committee’s efforts were a good start. But he added, “I don’t want that start [of workers’ compensation reform] to be flawed out of the gate.”

The bill would allow employers to choose the doctor who would check out and treat an employee making an injury claim. If an employee is not satisfied with the doctor, he or she could visit another doctor and get referrals to other specialists from that doctor, and the employer would cover the cost. However, if the employee wants a second opinion beyond that doctor or the referrals, the employer would not have to pay for it.

Fees paid to doctors for medical procedures would be cut. Loss of wages awards, which may be required of an employer if a work injury causes long-term problems that impair an employee's ability to work and earn the wage he or she was earning at the time of the accident, would be cut off at age 67.

The bill also calls for the creation of a workers' compensation advisory board, with members named by the governor and the four legislative leaders. The board would also include directors of state executive agencies.

Opponents of the bill said it does nothing to help injured workers receive better care or rein in the high premium costs paid by businesses for workers’ compensation insurance.

“What labor wants is what labor has always wanted on any day or any month of the year. We want good benefits for injured workers. We want injured workers to have rights under the act. And we want … access to good quality health care,” said Michael Carrigan, president of the Illinois American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).

However, Michael McRaith, director of the Illinois Department of Insurance, said Illinois is not a highly profitable state for workers’ compensation insurers. McRaith , who is often a vocal critic of health insurance providers in the state, said: “In this case, it is not an insurance industry problem.”

McRaith said employers would see different levels of savings depending on their unique situations. He said they could save anywhere from 5 percent of their current workers’ compensation costs up to 12 percent. He said the state could save $10 million to $15 million.

Opponents representing labor and health care interests said they had been cut out of talks on the final version of the bill and called on lawmakers to return to the usual process for workers’ compensation legislation, which involves all stakeholders negotiating a bill they can agree upon.

“There were discussions. There were tentative agreements about: ‘Well we could live with this section of the agreement, or we could live with that section of the agreement.’ But they were all contingent upon a deal, a bill,” Carrigan said. “And so, there is no agreement.”

Bloomington Republican Rep. Dan Brady, co-chair of the Medicaid reform committee, was skeptical of the odds of reaching an agreement that also contained substantial reforms. “I’m not sure you’re ever going to get an agreement.” Brady’s fellow Republicans — Ed Sullivan from Mundelein and Michael Tryon from Crystal Lake — voted against the final bill.

Marion Democratic Rep. John Bradley, the sponsor of the legislation, said the fact that all the major interest groups we’re unhappy with the bill is an indication that it contains substantial reforms. “It’s not a perfect system. And we could come up with anecdotes all day, and we could come up with examples to scare people all day. … Something has to change. And so, none of us want to make all these groups mad. But let’s be honest about what we’re doing. … At the end of the day, something needs to be done. … I’m telling you, we’ve done the best we could do under the circumstances.”

The House is expected to take up the issues tomorrow morning.

The committee also approved a bill that would limit which state employees can join unions. Chicago Democratic Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, the sponsor of SB3644, said the percentage of state employees who are union members went from below 80 percent in 2002 to currently almost 96 percent.

Currie said having supervisors and the workers they manage in the same union causes problems when the supervisors must mete out discipline.

“I think there need to be managers. I think there need be supervisors. I think there need to be people who are in charge at any particular workplace.”

The bill would move about 200 jobs from being a part of collective bargaining contracts to management positions that would not be eligible for union membership.

Opponents said more state workers have joined unions after seeing nonunion workers targeted for cost saving measures, such as furlough days, pay cuts and layoffs under former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s administration. They also argued that fewer workers are supervising others as part of their primary duties because the state workforce has shrunk in recent years.

“Many of the people who have in recent years chose to be represented by a union, was because of the horrible horrible treatment they received from the prior administration. Their work was not valued. They not only didn’t get pay increases, they got pay cuts. And they came flocking to the union seeking representation,” said Henry Bayer, executive director of Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

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