SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois House is considering a plan to scrap the state's much-criticized workers' compensation system, leaving businesses and their employees to battle in court over payment for each workplace injury.
Legislation ending the system was given tentative approval in a voice vote Thursday. Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, said he plans to hold a final vote as soon as possible.
"Let's give the courts a chance. Let's try something else. Because we know what we've been doing isn't working," Bradley said in debate.
Bradley has been leading efforts to overhaul workers' compensation, the insurance program that covers employee health costs and lost pay after injuries. He insisted his proposal to scrap the program was not a stunt meant to shake up negotiations.
The president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, Michael Carrigan, said he would consider losing the workers' compensation system entirely before agreeing to business demands that he sees as gutting the program.
Businesses complain that the Illinois system has among the nation's highest costs.
Their chief allegation is that workers can win payments without having to provide clear proof that an injury is job-related. They also argue that prices for medical care are set too high and the system is slanted to resolve disputes in favor of workers.
Federal prosecutors are investigating the workers' compensation program in the wake of a series of Belleville News-Democrat reports that hundreds of employees at a single prison received awards, as did eight of the state's 32 some of the arbitrators who decided workers' comp disputes.
The newspaper reported that in just three years beginning Jan. 1, 2008, nearly $10 million was paid for injuries to employees at Menard Correctional Center. Most of the tax free settlements including one paid to the warden for $75,678, were for repetitive trauma, or injury to the wrist or elbow that guards claimed was caused by manually locking and unlocking cells.
Labor groups see little need to change the system. Neither do medical groups, whose members get paid to care for injured workers.
So Bradley has been stymied in his efforts to reach a deal to revamp workers' compensation.
Republican lawmakers acknowledged the difficulty but objected to simply dropping the system altogether.
"Your solution is a nuclear bomb. You're atomizing this," said Rep. Dave Winters, R-Shirland.
Labor groups say workers' compensation is slow and inefficient. But without it, they contend, injured employees would have to fight long, expensive court battles to avoid being wiped out by medical bills and lost wages.
"We find it difficult to believe that anyone could seriously think that scrapping the basic protection of workers' comp is a good idea," said Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Business groups also reject Bradley's plan, but not unanimously.
"It's a minority opinion, but there are employers who would take that deal," said Todd Maisch, lobbyist for the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. "We think on the whole it's going to create more problems than it would solve. There are just too many unknowns."
Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn has proposed a workers' compensation overhaul that would limit payments for carpal tunnel syndrome, deny claims from workers injured because they were drunk and require tougher reviews before some medical procedures are authorized. But his plan wouldn't address the chief business demand that injuries be shown to have a job link.
News-Democrat reporter George Pawlaczyk added information to this article.