Illinois lawmaker says politics of workers' comp reform 'are very tricky'

From staff and wire reportsApril 12, 2011 

— Illinois business leaders welcomed Gov. Pat Quinn's call Tuesday for workers' compensation reform, but a key lawmaker cautioned there's a long road ahead before reaching any compromise.

Quinn told participants in the Business Lobby Day in Springfield that an overhaul should happen before the Legislature adjourns at the end of May.

He reiterated a plan he introduced earlier this month that includes a $500 million cut in the amount paid for medical procedures, enhanced authority to find and prosecute fraud, and tighter standards for arbitrators who decide work-related injury claims.

"There will be changes that for some will be inconvenient," Quinn told representatives of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, local chambers and small-business owners. "Sometimes people, when they have inconvenience, they say no, let's just stand still, let's not do anything at all. I think that would be a terrible mistake."

Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, told the business group that the system needed change but acknowledged "the politics of it are very tricky."

"We have to have compromise," Cullerton said. "If you go into negotiations expecting 100 percent of what you want, it's going to be very difficult to proceed down here."

Doug Whitley, president of the Illinois chamber, said any overhaul must include provisions requiring employees to show that their current job caused their injuries before they can collect any payment.

Cullerton and Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont put together a study group on the issue shortly after last fall's election.

But there's no concrete legislation awaiting passage.

A House leader on the matter, Democratic Rep. John Bradley of Marion, even sponsored legislation last week that would eliminate workers' compensation all together -- leaving claims entirely to the courts -- because he said negotiations were going nowhere.

The issue took on added urgency after it was reported that federal authorities have begun an investigation into the state's workers' comp program because of Belleville News-Democrat reports on nearly $10 million in payments at Menard Correctional Center in the past three years.

Radogno credited the newspaper for bringing attention to the issue.

"This is an issue that is finally receiving some real serious discussion, bipartisan discussion, and I have to tell you we owe a great debt to the Belleville News-Democrat, Jay Tebbe their publisher, for really bringing this issue alive, for making people realize what a problem we have," Radogno said. "I think individual businesses talk about it, but until you start reading about some of these abuses, it's really difficult to understand how serious this problem is."

The newspaper's investigation has focused on claims at Menard, where about half of the staff has filed claims.

State government, with about 70,000 employees, currently has about 25,000 pending workers' compensation claims.

Radogno told business leaders that one of the contentious issues in the debate is "causation."

"There really is no required that an injury be, that you need to prove it was caused by work," she said. "I've heard horror stories from businesses where, for example, someone was fortunate enough to have their heart attack at work, as opposed to somewhere else, and then the employer's on the hook for the entire amount. Or someone that's worked at a facility for maybe a week and a half, and comes in and needs a knee replacement, that couldn't have possibly occurred during that term of employment, because it's a degenerative illness."

Radogno said any changes to the system should require "some nexus between the workplace and the injury for which they're being compensated."

Quinn's plan would reduce what he says is the nation's second-highest medical fee schedule by 30 percent to save businesses $500 million in workers' comp premiums -- which has already drawn Illinois State Medical Society opposition. He would cap payments for some kinds of injuries, rely more on physical therapy and other treatments and deny claims by intoxicated workers.

Arbitrators who decide claims would be licensed attorneys whose performance would be reviewed and who would serve three-year terms.

Whitley said Quinn's proposal is missing any mention of causation, in which an employee's injury must be related to his current work. The system now allows claims for any injury previous to the current job and relies too much on workers' comp over traditional health insurance.

"Right now, an employee who starts work tomorrow can file a workers' comp claim for all previous experience," Whitley said. "We want to make sure that a workers' comp claim should be related to injury on the job."

News-Democrat reporter Brian Brueggeman contributed information to this article.

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