Illinois Workers’ Compensation Reform shortchanges Workers again January 22, 2017

A change in the rules for workers’ compensation in Illinois is included in a “grand bargain” package of bills Senate President John Cullerton and Minority Leader Christine Radogno are pushing this week to finally get a state budget.

In an interview Thursday with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board, Cullerton and Radogno said the workers’ comp bill undoubtedly will be tweaked before final votes in the state Senate and House. We sure hope so. Compromise is essential, but workers’ comp still must deliver on its basic promise — that injured workers get quality health care and fair treatment.

As written, the bill includes enhanced fraud protections and benefit cuts, including further reductions in the amount that medical providers get paid for some types of procedures, limitations on physical therapy and the types of drugs that may be prescribed.

Additional cuts no doubt will be proposed as the bill moves forward. But this is an area where lawmakers must tread carefully. In some other states, benefits have been cut so substantially that some injured employees have been unable to get any medical care. Some seriously injured employees have been ruined financially. If those workers wind up on Social Security Disability Insurance, the cost of workplace injuries has been shifted from employers to taxpayers.

That can’t be allowed to happen in Illinois.

Workers comp is a trade-off. In exchange for giving up the right to sue negligent employers who cause accidents, workers are assured of getting medical care, pay for time when they are off work because of an injury, and compensation for permanent injuries. Any changes in the law should preserve that bedrock deal.

In 2011, Illinois enacted a series of reforms, including a 30 percent reduction in the amounts paid to health care providers, that brought down costs. But those savings largely have yet to show up in lower workers’ compensation insurance premiums for employers.

One way to cut costs without further reducing worker benefits would be to give the Illinois Department of Insurance the authority to ensure workers’ comp insurance companies aren’t getting excessive profits. That’s a safeguard that already exists in many other states.

Setting workers’ comp benefits at a reasonable level can help Illinois’ economic competitiveness. But Illinois shouldn’t expect to have lower workers’ comp costs than its neighbors. Part of the formula for calculating workers’ comp premiums is the total amount of employer payrolls. Because Illinois has higher average incomes than adjoining states, it can’t expect its workers’ comp rates to be lower.

Cullerton and Radogno are pushing for a bipartisan solution to a political impasse that has forced Illinois to stagger along without an annual budget for more than a year and a half. We support that effort. We also trust they can get the job done while preserving a fair workers’ comp system.