By Russ Golla
Wisconsin Association for Justice president
Last month, state Rep. John Spiros, R-Marshfield, released a misleading opinion piece on a bill aimed at overhauling Wisconsin’s workers’ compensation system.
Spiros contended the legislation — Assembly Bill 501 — would, “benefit honest, hardworking employees.” The record must be set straight.
He says the worker’s compensation system was established to benefit workers who were hurt on the job and that it would get them back to work as soon as possible. This is only half the story.
Spiros, in particular, ignores the fact that the worker’s compensation system was also adopted to benefit employers.
The so-called grand bargain on workers’ comp — which a majority of the states have entered into — is a good deal for both employers and employees. Employers enjoy a substantial reduction in their liability for work-related injuries and diseases.
In return, employees — by giving up their right to sue their employers — receive prompt medical care, disability pay for time off and vocational training. What’s more, they get those benefits without the need to fight over who was at fault.
For example, an employee who loses an arm at the shoulder or a leg at the hip will receive medical treatment, disability benefits for time off – which are set at two-thirds of the employee’s average weekly pay — 500 weeks of benefits at the current rate of $322 a week up to a total of $161,000, and the possibility of vocational training. Who among us would cut off an arm at the shoulder or a leg at the hip to get $161,000?
Anyone who has been through the system or is related to someone who has been through it knows that employers often find doctors who will say that an injury or an occupational disease arose from something other than an employment situation. If these doctors are believed, the employer will not be responsible for providing any benefits.
Spiros claims to have looked closely at the system, and “introduced legislation to ensure that this system is not abused and the scales of justice remain balanced and impartial.” His bill does nothing of the sort.
First, it takes away the right of injured workers to choose their own physicians and health-care providers. Under this bill, the employer chooses which doctors an injured employee may see.
Essentially, Mr. Spiros wants the employer to control the most important part of the worker’s compensation system, namely, the health care provided to injured employees. They also want influence over which doctors will be responsible for treatment, for preparing essential medical records and, perhaps most importantly, for offering the medical opinions that will determine whether the employee will be entitled to benefits.
Second, the bill will introduce the notion of fault into the system while keeping the limit on damages in place. For example, if an employee were found to be one-third at fault, then that employee’s benefits would be cut accordingly. The disability benefits owed to an employee who is one-third at fault and loses an arm at the shoulder or a leg at the hip would be cut from $161,000 to just over $107,000.
Third, the bill would also reduce the amount of time that an employee has to file an application requesting a hearing on an injury claim. If passed, Sprios’ legislation would give applicants one year to file such a claim, down from the current two years.
Why? What’s the rush? Two years gives everyone more time to sort out what’s fair and to reach a compromise.
The other draconian changes that would be made by this bill are too numerous to list. I encourage everyone to check them out HERE.
Wisconsin’s worker’s compensation system is the envy of most states. It results in low and stable premiums and provides many choices among insurance providers. Everyone benefits from Wisconsin’s very low litigation rates, and employees and employers are given sufficient time to work out their differences and compromise. Additionally, according to one study, injured employees return to their jobs faster in Wisconsin than in any other state.
Wisconsin has set a much-envied example with its reliance on its Worker’s Compensation Advisory Council. The council has brought representatives of labor and management interests together for nearly 50 years to negotiate and agree on changes meant to improve the system.
Bottom line: Spiros’ bill is yet another example of lawmakers’ advancing a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist in Wisconsin.
The Worker’s Compensation Advisory Council, meanwhile, plans to put forward an alternative bill that has the backing of various interested parties. This bill provides reasonable and common-sense improvements to the workers’ compensation system.
In other words, let the advisory council do its job.