'There's still hope': McCarter says Democrats thwarted workers comp reform, but he'll press on

News-DemocratApril 16, 2011 

Though his proposal for reforming the state's workers' compensation system died in a Senate vote, Sen. Kyle McCarter of Lebanon said Friday he remains hopeful that some of his ideas will eventually become law.

McCarter, a Republican, was the sponsor of SB1349, which was defeated Thursday night in a 25-6 vote, with 28 senators voting "present." Senators from both parties, however, said the system needs changing to reduce costs for businesses, but some Democrats said there needs to be more consensus on how to revamp it.

"It's unfortunate that there was a concerted effort to not move this forward by the Democrats," McCarter said. "I think the business community, the job creators, are locked in though, because we've determined this is what's going to really make Illinois attractive again for job creators.

"I still think something will happen on this, but my concern is that what goes forward will be so watered-down by the opponents that it doesn't work. There's still hope, but some folks are going to have to get serious about this."

McCarter's proposal would have cut the rates paid to medical providers by 30 percent, denied awards for job-related injuries where alcohol or drug use was a factor and allowed employers to choose which doctor treats the employee. Another important component for McCarter's bill is that it would have required workers to prove that their employment was at least 50 percent responsible for an injury or illness.

Among Democrats' concerns was whether it's constitutional to take away workers' rights to choose the doctors.

Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville, and Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton, were among those voting "present."

"There are some parts of the bill which I just couldn't agree with, like cutting the doctors and the hospitals to such a degree," Haine said.

He called McCarter's bill "a complicated, deficient answer to a complicated problem" and added, "I want to be able to vote for a bill that has balance."

In debate on the Senate floor, Haine said: "The Chamber of Commerce contends that the reductions in the medical fee schedule will produce $400 million in savings, but the docs claim the higher reimbursement rates for workers' comp services are the result of the skill and training of the doctor, and the competence of the hospital. They're a stakeholder. We can call them a special-interest group, if we want to be pejorative, but I would prefer to call them a stakeholder, because they treat the injured worker."

He continued: "The injured workers that I've talked to fear losing the right to pick their physician. They fear it. Now, you can assure them that this will work out for them, but you're not in the plant, and I'm not in the plant."

Clayborne could not be reached for comment. Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, who voted in favor of the bill, also could not be reached for comment.

Business leaders, including the head of Peoria-based Caterpillar, say high costs of workers' compensation are making it too expensive to do business in Illinois.

McCarter said that for any change to be meaningful, it has to include the provision that the workplace is at least 50 percent responsible for the injury or illness.

"The causation standard is definitely something we have to have. That's not to say we won't negotiate at all, but I think we put forward the gold-standard bill that was best for Illinois," McCarter said. "If the reform is not substantial and doesn't include primary cause, and doesn't include a way to reduce the cost of medical fees, you're just doing it for politics, to put a Band-Aid on it and be able to say we addressed workers' comp."

Senate Democrats are expected to come out with their own proposals. Gov. Pat Quinn also has put out a proposal, which calls for a 30 percent cut in rates paid to medical providers, a requirement that arbitrators be licensed attorneys and denial of claims when the worker was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

There also is a proposal in the Illinois House, by Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, to scrap the system entirely, letting workers and employers instead take their battles to court.

Rep. Tom Holbrook, D-Belleville, said he's not yet decided which approach he favors. But he said he's certain there will be changes agreed on by June 1, when the General Assembly leaves Springfield.

"Everything is open for discussion. I'd have to look at any final package, at what it has or does not have, and what it changes or doesn't change," Holbrook said.

As for the possibility of the system being abolished, Holbrook said, "Anything can happen."

Senate GOP leader Christine Radogno urged business leaders "to continue to appeal to their state lawmakers and Gov. Quinn to make sure we do not let this opportunity slip away."

Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, said the workers' compensation system is designed to be a no-fault system that guarantees that a worker's health and livelihood is protected while capping the employer's liability.

The effect of the McCarter bill, Cullerton said, would be that "employers may deny claims based on pre-existing conditions. A simple high school football injury that occurred 30 years ago could prevent an on the job injury from being addressed if this proposal were to become law. This change could bar injured workers from receiving any treatment or care for legitimate injuries created by the workplace."

Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at bbrueggemann@bnd.com or 239-2511.

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