By Jamey Dunn
Gov. Pat Quinn, legislative leaders and the business community agree that legislators need to approve substantial workers’ compensation reforms by the end of the spring legislative session, but what a reform package would look like is still unclear.
“This is one of our No.1 issues in Illinois, this year. We’re going to get it done this year,” Quinn said as he presented the broad strokes of his reform proposal during an Illinois Chamber of Commerce event today. His plan calls for new standards for arbitrators who make decisions on workers’ compensation cases and “enhanced authority” to investigate fraud. Quinn also wants to limit arbitrators' terms to three years and subject them to performance evaluations. Under Quinn’s proposal, workers who are injured while intoxicated would not be eligible for benefits.
The plan Quinn described was short on details, but he did provide estimates for cost savings for businesses: “Our plan would save even more than $500 million.”
Quinn’s proposal calls for reducing fees doctors are paid by 30 percent, which he estimates would save $500 million alone. He also calls for returning compensation for partial permanent disabilities to levels paid out before 2005, a move he says would save $40 million. He also proposes to cap benefits for carpal tunnel syndrome, which he says would save about $19 million. Quinn has yet to introduce his plan introduced in legislation for lawmakers to consider.
However, Quinn’s plan did not address the issue of causation, which representatives of the business community say is their top priority. Businesses want employees who make a workers’ compensation claim to prove that their injuries are caused, at least in part, by their work.
“In Illinois, the threshold for a workers’ comp claim is extremely low. Somehow, we have got to raise that threshold,” said Doug Whitley, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. “Right now, an employee who starts work tomorrow can file a worker’s comp claim for all previous experience that’s probably not job-related. We need to have workers’ comp be (for) a job-related injury.” Whitley said Quinn's plan had some positive changes, but without taking up causation, it's not enough.
However, Marion Democratic Rep. John Bradley, who worked on a workers’ compensation reform legislation that stalled at the end of last session, said that for businesses to have the causation requirements they are seeking, cases would have to go back into the court system. He said if interest groups cannot agree on a compromise reform package, it would be better to just do away with the system completely
“If you’re not going to take the action to reform the system, then let’s do away with the system,” Bradley said during floor debate of House Bill 1032. “I’m saying that the comp act currently is not providing for the general well being of anybody.” CORRECTION: The House approved the removal of some procedural roadblocks to Bradley's bill, but has yet to vote on the bill itself. Bradley's workers' compensation bill is House Bill 1032. It was listed here as House Bill 3428, which instead repeals a variety of other provisions relating to farming and labor.
Although the House approved Bradley’s bill, Whitley said he does not take the proposal seriously. “I think that’s more for show and drama than it is for reality.”
Bradley emerged frustrated from his attempts at negotiating changes to the workers’ compensation law, and most everyone involved agrees that hammering out a compromise between some of the biggest interest groups associated with Illinois government—business, the health care sector, unions and trial lawyers—will not be easy.
“I know that there are many interest groups that want to stand still. They don’t want to change. They kind of benefit from the status quo,” Quinn said. “There will be some pain, there will be some sacrifice, but nobody is going to get scalped in our reform. Maybe some folks would get a haircut, but nobody’s going to get scalped.”
Senate President John Cullerton said there is opposition to change on both sides of the aisle. He warned that any interest group digging in and making a given issue a “deal breaker” would be counter productive to negotiations. “We’ve really narrowed—I think—a lot of the issues. There’s still three of four left that are very important. Always in politics, you try to do things that save a little face for both sides, and that’s what we’re going to be trying to do. But it’s not easy.”