Sunday, May 29, 2011

Workers' comp reform fails in the House

By Jamey Dunn

As lawmakers forge into the last few days of their spring session, they may soon be voting on dismantling the state’s workers’ compensation system, as well as putting off paying overdue bills even longer.

The Illinois House today shot down House Bill 1698, a workers’ compensation reform package that supporters said would have saved businesses $500 million to $700 million.

Republicans were critical that most of the savings would come from a 30 percent reduction to the rates that doctors are paid for treating injured employees. Members of the health care community have asked lawmakers to change the reduction to 20 percent.  But House sponsor John Bradley, a Marion Republican, said business groups would have pulled support from a plan that reduced fees any less.

Rep. Dan Brady, a Bloomington Republican,  faulted Bradley for not budging on the 10 percentage point difference to gain the medical community’s support. “I heard that the medical community, and I heard that the hospitals say … they would agree to a 20 percent reduction in fees. If that were the case, [would] we have then an agreed bill between business labor, the medical community hospitals and any other stakeholders?”

Republicans who cast “no” votes in both legislative chambers also said the plan did not do enough to reform the system. Senate Republicans who voted in favor of the bill Saturday warned that more work would be needed.

“[Opponents say] we’ve never gone far enough, but we’ve never gone anywhere,” said David Vite, president and chief operating officer of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. “Every election, candidates from both parties talk about the jobs climate, talk about helping Illinois business, and when it comes right down to it, they didn’t step up to the plate today.”

Both Bradley and Senate sponsor Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat, expressed frustration that months of negotiations with the powerful groups involved in the system — businesses, doctors, organized labor and trial lawyers — did not produce a bill that made it to Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk. Quinn has publicly supported HB 1698.

“This is a compilation of months of work with many different parties and many different stakeholders in the workers’ compensation process,” Bradley said. Raoul accused House Republicans of casting their votes to protect campaign contributors in the medical community. No House Republicans voted to support the measure.

Now, passage of a bill to dismantle the workers' compensation system that was written off by many as a negotiation strategy is starting to look like a real possibility. Bradley says he does not plan to call the reform bill for another vote in the House, and Raoul said he plans to call Senate Bill 1933, the so-called nuclear option, for a vote in the Senate as early as tomorrow. He said his intention would be to dismantle the system and eventually replace it with a reworked version. In the meantime, workers' compensation cases would go into the courts. “It is a manifestation of the frustration with the inability to change the system,” Vite said. “The consequences of that and the ramifications, I don’t know that anybody understands at this point.”

Lawmakers also shot down one piece of a proposal today to borrow about $6.2 billion to pay off the state’s backlog of overdue bills. Only 19 senators voted in favor of the bill, one of four measures that make up the borrowing plan. Republicans objected to more borrowing on top of the billions in loans the state has taken out to make the required employee pension payment for the last two fiscal years. Sen. John Sullivan, a Democrat from Rushville, said legislators on both sides of the aisle were reluctant to support a large borrowing package before passing a budget plan. He said he plans to push the issue again when budget legislation starts to gel in the coming days.

Meanwhile, a Senate committee approved HB 3188, which would give the state until December to pay off bills from the current fiscal year. The so-called lapse period normally ends in August. However, the General Assembly voted to extend it for last fiscal year and did manage to meet the later deadline, due largely in part to a one-time cash infusion from borrowing against a settlement Illinois received from tobacco companies.

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