Friday, May 27, 2011

House approves destruction of workers' comp system

By Lauren N. Johnson and Jamey Dunn

Illinois’ workers’ compensation system, which handles claims filed by injured employees, would be dismantled, and cases would go to circuit courts under a proposal that passed in the Illinois House today.

Senate Bill 1933, sponsored by Marion Democratic Rep. John Bradley, would eliminate the system and transfer claims currently managed by at least 36 arbitrators in the state to Illinois' court system as of January 1. Bradley, who has been active in efforts to produce a workers’ compensation reform package, said elimination is also “a viable alternative to fix a broken system.” The Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission reported that 55,497 new cases were filed in fiscal year 2009.

“Are we going to take back our state? Are we’re going to take back control of what’s going on with injured workers and businesses in the state of Illinois?” Bradley said. “Or are we going to ratify a system that we all acknowledge is broken? That we all acknowledge can do better — should have done better — and didn’t. Are we going to keep banging our heads against the wall with the same old broken song, or are we going to try something new?”

Opponents voiced concern that the flood of workers’ compensation cases would overwhelm the state’s courts. “Sometimes when we have historical issues that we have to deal with, people are willing to step up and do what it takes, and I don’t expect that the courts will be any different,” Bradley said.

Bradley said he thought his bill had more of a chance of making it through the legislature than a plan to reform the system — House Bill 1698, sponsored by Chicago Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul.

Todd Maisch, vice president of government affairs for the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, disagreed, saying he does not expect Bradley’s bill to be called for a vote in the Senate. “I think that Rep. Bradley is being honest and that he’s exasperated with the system. I do believe that he’s being very straightforward with that, and if nothing else, we think this process has really opened legislators’ eyes to the work comp hell that employers have been suffering with for years and years now,” he said.

Opponents of Bradley’s bill, however, favored Illinois’ workers’ compensation system currently in place to the alternative of no designated system. “The tort system in the state of Illinois has had problem after problem. This is not the way to handle it,” said Rep. Mike Bost, a Murphysboro Republican, before votes were cast. However, Mt. Sterling Republican Jil Tracy, who was one of only three favorable Republican votes. said,. “I think your solution, which is in a sense a complete overhaul in a reverse manner, actually might be the real solution.”

Raoul said the workers’ compensation issue could be addressed in the Senate as early as tomorrow. His  proposal would make a number of changes, including:

  • Reducing the fees paid to doctors for treating injured employees by 30 percent.
  • Requiring the use of American Medical Association standards when determining workers’ level of impairment from injuries.
  • Creating new rules for the appointment and conduct of arbitrators who decide the outcome of claims.
  • Allowing for the creation of a “provider network” of doctors. Injured employees could pick their doctors, but only from this predetermined pool.
When asked about the future of Bradley’s bill versus his own, Raoul said, “I’ll have two options.”

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