Dependence on food stamps and reliance on public health care programs should not be the fate for Illinoisans injured at work. Insurance companies would have the public believe that the state’s workers’ compensation system is too generous toward the interests of injured workers, but in fact, as Illinois lawmakers heard today, it’s all that’s standing between those men and women – many of whom may no longer work due to their injuries – and a life of poverty.
Testimony before the House Committee of the Whole on Tuesday reaffirmed what Illinois trial lawyers have long noted: insurance companies have failed to pass along to Illinois employers the substantial savings associated with lower workers’ compensation costs, and those insurers are spreading misinformation in an attempt to further diminish worker benefits and pad their own profits.
Citizens from Illinois and other states such as Indiana and Oklahoma recounted for the committee the circumstances of their own workplace injuries – brain damage, a debilitating shoulder injury, a severed leg – and their resulting workers’ comp cases. Evident from their testimony is the fact that the Illinois system for compensating and rehabilitating those hurt in serious accidents or suffering from problems caused by repetitive motions and stresses is vastly superior to laws in certain other states that are deliberately designed to scuttle rights and protections for workers.
In 2011, at the urging of the state’s leading business organizations, bipartisan majorities of Illinois lawmakers approved a workers’ compensation “reform” law aimed at reducing costs for Illinois employers. It forced workers to forfeit long-standing rights in exchange for insurance companies being transparent with pricing and passing savings along to employers in the form of rate reductions. Unfortunately, the insurance companies have not held up their end of the bargain, ignoring the recommendations of the National Council on Compensation Insurance for a nearly 20 percent rate reduction for insurance premiums.
Injuries not occurring on the job are not covered
Regarding the issue of causation, the Illinois law clearly states the employee has the burden of showing “he or she has sustained accidental injuries arising out of and in the course of employment” to be eligible for compensation. Injuries not occurring on the job are not covered by the Workers’ Compensation Act and never have been.
In fact, the Illinois standard is actually more favorable to employers than the laws in many other states. In Missouri, for instance, an injured worker can bring a civil negligence case against an employer if the worker cannot meet the state’s statutory causation standard. Most employers would prefer to face a limited workers’ compensation case than an unlimited negligence claim.
The missing piece: Sunlight on insurance premiums
Insurance companies are taking advantage of both workers and employers; the additional changes they seek to the law would only further diminish the rights of injured workers and boost the insurance industry’s windfall profits. Instead, Illinois lawmakers should examine insurance companies’ lack of transparency and cooperation with the law they accepted in 2011.
No matter how many benefits are cut, medical reimbursements are lowered, and claims are denied, the state’s businesses won’t see corresponding savings without our leaders addressing the promises previously broken by the insurance industry. Strictly regulating insurance premiums, not further curtailing injured workers’ rights, is the key to managing employers’ workers’ compensation costs.
Cries from Governor Rauner and his big business and insurance industry supporters for more so-called “reforms” will take away even more rights from injured workers, help to boost the insurance industry’s bottom line, and shift even more risk and burden onto taxpayers. Lawmakers should reject the governor’s race-to-the-bottom policies that benefit the wealthy few at the expense of nearly all Illinoisans.
John D. Cooney is President of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association.