Illinois ranks seventh in the nation for workers’ compensation system costs. Newly-elected Governor Bruce Rauner recently announced sweeping changes to the state workers’ compensation laws, as part of his pro-business agenda. Our team of workers’ compensation lawyers explains the serious consequences of these proposals.
Major business groups have a strident ally in Bruce Rauner, who has spent his career in private equity, buying companies and squeezing them of their assets. This is no secret, and many Illinoisans voted for Rauner based on his perceived business savvy, in hopes he could help lead us out of our financial crisis.
Instead, he has made sweeping proposals aimed against labor unions, trial lawyers, Medicare and Medcaid, and injured workers. One of his most recent proposals is to reform our state’s workers’ compensation system.
Among the changes, Rauner hopes to:
• Make it harder for employees to claim they were injured traveling to or from work
• Limit damage awards in civil suits
• Reducing the power of labor unions
• Withdraw wage laws for taxpayer-funded construction workers
• Toughen the standards workers must meet to prove their injury occurred on-the-job
• Dramatically reduce reimbursement rates for healthcare centers that treat workers
Opponents of these proposals – most vehemently employee unions – believe this is part of Rauner’s goal to take rights and benefits away from workers in favor of corporations. Opponents also point to the broad changes lawmakers made to the workers’ compensation insurance system in 2011. In total, these changes saved Illinois businesses $315 million in the first few years.
Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan recently held a rare committee relaying the entire meeting with Rauner, so all 118 Illinois General Assembly members can hear testimony on his proposals.
How Workers’ Comp Laws Work Now
Currently, employees must prove their injury occurred during the course of their employment. Businesses often complain that this can make the responsible for covering injuries that are only semi-job-related, such as pre-existing injuries that have been aggravated.
Rauner is proposing to tighten standards so employees must prove that their job was a “major contributing cause” of their injury. Similar efforts to tighten this standard were proposed in 2011, but were blocked by labor unions.
When an employee is injured, their case goes before a board of arbitrators who decide how much and what type of benefits they will receive. Arbiters are licensed attorneys who undergo routine training on ethics, fraud, and best medical practices. At present, these arbitrators use five different factors to determine the award, including medical records, physician notes, and American Medical Association (AMA) Guidelines.
Rauner is hoping to give arbitrators the ability to use AMA guidelines as the ONLY factor in determining how much injured workers are paid. Obviously, this would make workers extremely vulnerable, as their benefits would not be determined by the unique circumstances of their case, but by blanket, standardized guidelines.
House Speaker Madigan explained this perfectly by saying “numbers on paper alone can’t tell the full story of men and women who are hurt at work through no fault of their own … these workers and their families … deserve to have their voices heard.” Injured workers face massive medical bills, lost wages, and potentially losing their life’s savings. Most Illinoisans do not have the resources to see the best doctors, physical therapists or home health aides, or furnish their homes with medical tools.
Rauner is also proposing to cut doctor and hospital reimbursements by another 30% – in addition to the 2011 cuts, which slashed reimbursements by 30%. The Illinois Hospital Association warns that this would impact the quality of care injured workers receive. Less medical care means more people put in nursing homes at the cost of taxpayers – the effects of this are not hard to predict. It would merely shift the responsibility of caring for injured workers onto taxpayers instead of the company that caused the injury.