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Don’t mess with 100 years of workers’ comp success

Wisconsin history is on our side with this one.

In 1911, our state legislators passed the country’s first workers’ compensation law. It was pretty heady stuff back then. For the first time, workers who were injured or got sick on the job had insurance coverage that would help them get through their time of convalescence before returning to work.

More than 100 years later, Wisconsin’s system is still considered a model for the rest of the nation. It is paid for by insurance carriers and imposes virtually no cost on taxpayers. Wisconsin’s system gets workers back on the job faster and cheaper than most other states. And it’s administered in an efficient manner. Workers’ comp in Wisconsin is good government in action.

We should not mess with success.

Unfortunately, Wisconsin’s lawmakers are considering a state-budget provision that would dismantle the current law and turn workers’ comp into a political hot potato. Instead of one agency — the Department of Workforce Development — managing the system in a fair, consistent and efficient manner, it would be split between the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance and the Department of Administration. The system’s stability — which keeps costs down for everyone — would be put at risk. Worse yet, without current economic protections still in place, taxpayers could find themselves picking up the bill for any additional work-related injuries or illnesses.

Here’s the rub. The system works so well that it’s unlikely the changes will save any money, and in truth, will probably cost more. Worker’s comp is the rare example of government working so well it pays for itself.

Consider that about 80 percent of the workers who end up in the Wisconsin system manage to receive their compensation without needing to appear at a hearing or consult a lawyer. Compare the results to those seen in Illinois, where claimants turn to formal litigation procedures in nearly two out of three cases. By spreading a well-functioning system across two agencies, lawmakers will be setting the stage for less-consistent rulings and a greater need for claimants to turn to a lawyer for help with an appeal.

Don’t tear down the gold standard of good government just for the sake of moving a few deck chairs around. Republicans and Democrats have worked together on our worker’s comp system for more than a century. Labor and management now hammer out their differences over the system by sitting down at a bargaining table. Taxpayers save money and the system works, largely, without lawyers.

You want lean government? This is lean government.

Gov. Scott Walker wants to create what he calls the Office of Lean Government. I can’t imagine a better way to start than by maintaining our worker’s comp system – a model of fairness, cost effectiveness and political bi-partisanship.

Ann S. Jacobs is the president of the Wisconsin Association for Justice.

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