The old axiom that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” is alive and well in the world of Wisconsin politics.
But sometimes, and this Legislative session is a good example, it takes time for legislators to hear the important squeaks over the usual cacophony of hysterical squawks so common in the Capitol. That can be true even when the squeak in question will cost Wisconsin businesses and workers more than $1 billion.
The wheel that is beginning to squeak is Wisconsin’s fine-tuned workers’ compensation system. Workers’ compensation insurance in Wisconsin is relatively affordable and hassle-free in comparison to other states.
It is one of Wisconsin’s economic assets. That is due in large part to the cooperative way the system was created and has been operating since its creation in 1911.
But that system is in jeopardy.
This session will end, and lawmakers will fail to pass system updates recommended by the Worker’s Compensation Advisory Council. The so-called “agreed upon” bill, which has passed almost automatically in prior legislative sessions, ran into resistance this session.
Legislators who worry about being caught between Wisconsin employers and Wisconsin medical providers chose the political safe harbor and did nothing.
The key point of the dispute is a council recommendation to restrict the fees charged by doctors, hospitals and other providers when they take care of workers’ comp cases. Council members say they have seen convincing data showing providers get paid substantially more for a procedure when workers’ comp is paying the bill, as opposed to when health insurance or consumers are paying.
In some cases, common operations such as knee surgeries have cost twice as much when they are related to workers’ comp.
Nearly all other states impose a fee schedule on providers, establishing limits on how much the system will pay for a given procedure. Without such limits, insurers estimate that the workers’ comp system will have to pay $1 billion in higher service fees during the next decade.
And $1 billion spread over 2.3 million workers comes out to roughly $435. That money could be used to keep comp insurance rates down, or to improve benefits for disabled workers, or a combination of both.
But it will not happen this year. Hopefully, next session, legislators will hear the squeak more clearly and take action to apply a little grease. That’s important because squeaky wheels usually don’t stop squeaking on their own. Either the machine operator adds grease, or the machine breaks down.
And that would not be good for Wisconsin’s economy.