By Jeffrey Beiriger
Association/Management Services president
Every two years, the Worker’s Compensation Advisory Council deliberates on a package of modifications to the rules and statues governing the state’s workers’ compensation system.
In all but two instances, the council’s recommendations have been approved by the Legislature. The first time the bill failed to pass was several decades ago; the second time was just two years ago, during the 2013-14 legislative session.
For more than 20 years now, I’ve served as a management representative on the council, one of five who work alongside five representatives of labor interests. While I’ve been on the council, Wisconsin has seen total control of the state Legislature and governor’s office pass from one major political party to the other, as well as many other times when power was shared between the two parties in various ways.
The political situation never mattered much to the council, whose fundamental responsibility has always been to advise the Legislature on matters related to workers’ compensation. Put another way, our priority has been policy, not politics.
The council isn’t naïve in its deliberations. We understand that elections have consequences; it’s just that we have always steered more to the center than to the left or right.
We take a 360-degree look at developments affecting workers’ compensation in our state. We understand that what we do may be too slow and too safe for some. What’s important to remember is that, throughout our deliberations, our emphasis is always on stability.
Recent years have seen a great increase in interest in the state’s workers’ comp system. Much of this started when the council began talking about ways to contain medical costs.
That interest peaked in 2013 and 2014, when the council unanimously recommended a number of reforms, including a market-based fee schedule that would reimburse medical providers at rates comparable to those paid through group-health programs for the same procedures. The bill was the subject of much lobbying and, eventually, failed to pass before the session ended.
Two years later, not much has changed — medical costs continue to increase.
Once again, the council tried last year to find ways to hold down medical costs without affecting the quality of care. This time we worked directly with medical providers to see if something could be worked out to the satisfaction of all stakeholders.
There was no shortage of earnest effort, but there was little progress. In the interest of time, a decision was made to move forward with an agreed bill that did not contain a medical-fee schedule and that, it seems, does not call enough attention to an important fact: That the reforms proposed this session in Senate Bill 536 and Assembly Bill 724 are likely the most sweeping in the more than two decades I’ve served on the council.
Make no mistake, the council will revisit medical costs. But between now and then, it’s important for organizations within the construction industry — and every industry — to support the agreed bill.
The bill does chip away at medical costs with limits on payments for medical reports and pharmaceuticals, and that’s a start. More than that, the agreed bill provides relief for employers by restricting benefits for a worker whose accident involves drug or alcohol abuse in violation of a company policy.
The bill also revises permanent-disability ratings to take into account advances in modern medical treatment and devices and also deals with a thorny issue related to the discharge of employees for cause when they are on light duty.
Yes, the agreed bill also calls for increases in benefits to injured workers, but it’s important to note that the increases will only affect the maximum limit of what can be paid. In other words, they will affect only a small percentage of injured workers.
Here it’s important to note benefit increases were not provided when the agreed bill failed to pass in the Legislature’s 2013-2014 session. That means that what the council was dealing with last year was not a request for a more typical two-year bump, but rather an increase reflecting what had happened over the past four years. Even with these increases, Wisconsin continues to be ranked below the average of states when measured by the cost of providing disability benefits.
With just a few weeks to go in the legislative session, the agreed bill is making its way through the process, but messages of support for both the agreed bill and the council process are still in order.
Workers’ compensation is not a one-and-done proposition. It can’t be “fixed” and then left alone for several years. Workers’ compensation will always need to be tweaked to reflect the new realities of the workplace.
And although the council process may be maddeningly slow to some, it undeniably works. The council is dealing with complicated matters and there are few quick repairs out there that don’t affect some other part of the system.
The council’s decisions are good because they are made deliberately and are designed to take into account the perspectives not only of council members, but also the public, other stakeholders — medical providers and insurance companies — and the Legislature itself.
It’s a good process. It’s a good bill.