For the policy advisors entrusted with proposing changes to Wisconsin’s workers’ comp system, the past few weeks must have been like the seconds that immediately follow a person’s dropping a penny into a deep well.
They are still waiting to hear if what they did will produce a sound or be merely lost in the abyss.
The Wisconsin Worker’s Compensation Advisory Council, which recommends legislative changes to the state’s disability-benefits system, voted on Dec. 3 in favor of a series of changes to the workers’ comp system. Most notably, they called for state government to set price controls, using what is known as a fee schedule, to hold down the ever-rising cost of having disability benefits pay for injured workers’ medical treatments.
The proposal provoked an immediate, and hardly unexpected, bout of protest from the representatives of doctors, hospitals, clinics and other groups that would no doubt see the price controls cut into some of their earnings. Other than that, though, there has been nary a peep.
Not that reform of the worker’s comp system is the sort of thing that usually gets large numbers of people buzzing. And to be fair, I should note that many of those who deal most often with the workers’ comp system say they are waiting for the council’s recommendations to be put into writing, in the form of a bill, before commenting on their merits.
Even so, I can’t help noticing the contrast between the silence that greeted the advisory council’s proposal, which comes as the fruit of months’ worth of work, and the noise many lawmakers were making as recently as this summer in favor of doing something to control the cost of medical treatments paid for with workers’ comp.
At a day-long hearing held on the subject on July 31, state Rep. Stephen Nass, R-Whitewater, said the need for change was so great that lawmakers, if not furnished with a sufficiently bold proposal by the advisory board, should consider abandoning their long-standing practice of deferring to the board and push forward with their own reform ideas. At the same meeting, state Sen. Glenn Grothman, a Republican from West Bend and legislative liaison to the advisory council, said, “I will be very disappointed by the end of this biennium if we haven’t done something to reduce these costs.”
I have no reason to suspect the ardor of these two lawmakers has cooled. But their fellow Republicans’ pronouncements about legislative priorities have also provided little evidence of a widespread desire to effect change in the workers’ comp system.
Several people have suggested to me the silence could stem from a reluctance to rock the boat during an election year. But next year’s contests at the ballot box – in which all 99 Assembly members and 17 of the Senate’s 33 Senators will be up for re-election – haven’t stopped the Republicans from at least talking about the possible benefits of eliminating the state’s income tax, a proposal that someone who is eager to avoid controversy is hardly likely to bring up.
Another possibility is that lawmakers are hesitant to talk about a subject they believe to be arcane and of little interest to anyone who isn’t forced for one reason or another to deal with the workers’ comp system from time to time. Still, similar considerations did not prevent them earlier this year from talking publicly about their intent to reform the state’s unemployment-benefits system, which is strewn with at least as much red tape.
One difference is that the unemployment-insurance system, until recently at least, was perceived to be in the throes of an emergency; the rise in unemployment caused by the recent recession had plunged it more than $1 billion into the red.
Employers were having to pay more to make up that deficit and, for that reason, were putting pressure on politicians to right the ship as quickly as possible. Hence the incentive to talk publicly about the need for reform.
The pressure placed on employers by workers’ comp, on the other hand, has indeed been increasing steadily, but also slowly, and has only come from one side of the system. Although the cost in Wisconsin of using workers’ comp to pay for medical treatments has been rising in recent years, that of paying them for time lost because an injury and providing similar compensation remains relatively low.
So, yes, the need for change in the workers’ comp probably seems less pressing. Still, what was a clear and present desire a few months ago now seems barely detectable.