Over the past decade, workers’ compensation benefits have deteriorated across the country as states initiate cost-cutting measures. A comprehensive new investigation by ProPublica and NPR reveals that these workers’ comp “reforms” have had a brutal effect: injured workers denied the help they need and taxpayers forced to bear the cost of workplace accidents.
The ProPublica report, titled The Demolition of Workers’ Comp, states that cutbacks in many states have been so drastic, they “virtually guarantee” that injured workers will descend into poverty. According to the nonprofit news organization, workers’ comp reform has been pushed by insurance companies and big corporations based on the “false premise” that costs are too high — when in fact employers are currently paying the lowest premiums for workers’ compensation insurance since the 1970s.
Meanwhile, 2013 (the most recently studied year) was the most profitable year for insurers in more than 10 years.
The changes are different in each state, but ProPublica documents that since 2003, the legislatures of 33 states have passed laws either reducing worker’s comp benefits or making it more difficult for injured workers to qualify for them. According to the report, workers in 37 states are not able to choose their own doctor or must choose from a list of doctors pre-approved by their employers. In 22 states, there are now arbitrary time limits on temporary wage benefits for injured workers, even if they have not recovered yet.
In California, insurers may now reopen old cases and take away workers’ benefits based on the opinions of doctors. Those doctors are not required to have ever examined the patient, and they do not have to be licensed in the state.
In Illinois, as in other states, workers’ compensation reforms were passed with the promise that they would reduce costs for employers, making the state more attractive to businesses. In 2011, Illinois:
- reduced payments to hospitals and doctors on medical fee schedules by 30 percent
- limited the ability of some workers to choose their own doctors
- raised the burden of proof for workers who have suffered an injury to qualify for workers’ comp
- created a presumption that a second opinion or medical review sought by an insurer or employer is correct if it is based on certain treatment guidelines
- created a cap for wage-loss benefits if workers take a lower-paying job five years after the injury or at age 67, whichever is later
- limited benefits for carpal tunnel syndrome
- required disability awards to be determined by new guidelines from the American Medical Association, which results in lower ratings used for compensation.
As Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has proposed further “reforms” to the workers’ compensation system, we should be wary of allowing our state to participate in a “race to the bottom,” sacrificing workers’ rights for business profits.