For years in North Carolina and in other states, the insurance industry and big businesses have been pushing to “reform” what they’ve described as an inefficient, wasteful and costly workers’ compensation laws.
Legislators and voters have been snowed by the rhetoric, and the laws have been changed. Dismantled. Stripped down. Dehumanized.
A system that once protected workers who were injured on the job and provided them with medical treatment and financial benefits to compensate for their injuries and help them on the long road to recovery is now woefully inadequate and harms the people it was designed to protect.
A yearlong investigation by NPR and ProPublica confirms what we have maintained for years: workers’ compensation “reform” has taken a horrible toll on injured workers and shifted cost to taxpayers, while insurance companies’ profits soared and employers’ workers’ compensation costs declined. Workers are being forced into poverty because of their injuries, and their medical care is inadequate.
“Over the past decade, state after state has been dismantling America’s workers’ comp system with disastrous consequences for many of the hundreds of thousands of people who suffer serious injuries at work each year,” the investigation revealed.
“They call them reforms. That’s a real insult to workers,” Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said in the report.
Among the findings:
- Since 2003, 33 states, including North Carolina, have passed workers’ comp laws that reduce benefits or make it more difficult for those with certain injuries and diseases to qualify. Florida is the worst, cutting benefits by 65 percent since 1994.
- Benefits vary dramatically from state to state. The same injury in one state can be worth two to three times as much in one state versus another. For example, a worker who loses an eye in Alabama is entitled to $27,280 in maximum compensation for the injury, compared to $261,525 in Pennsylvania.
- Because of caps and arbitrary time limits on workers’ compensation, benefits are running out long before people recover. Senate Bill 174, passed in 2013 in North Carolina, changed procedures for appealing an employers’ decision to end benefits.
- States have given employers and insurers more control over medical decisions, meaning that many injured workers aren’t getting surgeries, medicine and other medical treatment their doctors recommend. In 37 states, including North Carolina, workers can’t pick their own doctor or are required to use a physician on a list provided by their employer or the insurance company. In North Carolina, injured workers can file a request to change doctors, but changes to the state’s workers’ compensation law have made it much more difficult to switch.
- Despite claims that workers’ comp premiums are out of control, employers’ costs for workers’ comp insurance is the lowest it has been since the 1970s. And insurers had their most profitable year in more than a decade in 2013, raking in 18 percent in profits. They have succeeded in shifting the cost of caring for injured workers to taxpayers, through Social Security Disability Insurance, Medicare and Medicaid and food stamp programs.
The state of workers compensation in America has changed significantly since 1970, when Congress first established a commission to study state laws as part of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. According to NPR’s report:
Convened by President Richard Nixon and led by John Burton, a Republican economist and law professor, the commission unanimously concluded that state laws were “inadequate and inequitable.”
The commission made dozens of recommendations that laid the foundation for modern workers’ comp systems: Nearly every employee should be covered. Workers should be able to pick their own doctors. If employees couldn’t work, they should get two-thirds of their wages up to at least the state’s average wage. Compensation should last as long as the person is disabled, with no arbitrary caps. Spouses should receive death benefits until they remarry, children until they graduate from college.
A ProPublica analysis of state laws done in consultation with Burton found that only seven states now follow at least 15 of the recommendations made during the Nixon administration. Four states comply with fewer than half of them.
We will continue to follow this story here on our blog and the Deuterman Law Group Facebook page. Be sure to follow us there for updates, links to additional coverage and more about what you can do to protect the rights of injured workers in North Carolina.