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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Congress, Health Care & Unintended Consequences

This past week some very dramatic things happened in the workers’ compensation world. The US Senate moved forward on initiating a floor debate on health care. At the same time, a group of workers’ compensation scholars met in Washington DC to discuss the future of workers’ compensation and the interplay with social security disability.

 Highlights of the NASI (National Academy of Social Insurance) conference convened in Washington were findings presented by eminent leaders in the field. Professor John Burton, Rutgers University, pointed out that newly created barriers to workers’ compensation were pushing more injured workers to the Social Security disability system for benefits. This reflects a phenomenon that occurred in the late 1970’s when a study commissioned by the US Department of Labor and conducted by Mt. Sinai Hospitals’ Environmental Sciences Laboratory, revealed that the inadequate benefit delivery system of workers’ compensation for asbestos related illness, was forcing injured workers and their families into the civil justice arena for adequate compensation.

The problems have not changed in decades; they have only gotten worse, maturing into a system that is in critical condition and on life support. In 1980 Irving J. Selikoff, M.D. reported, “There has been widespread acknowledgement of significant problems with disability compensation for workers in the United States. One major area of concern has been the shortcomings with regard to occupational disease. Whatever the suitability of current workers’ compensation systems in the 50 states for injuries and work accidents, there has been little disagreement about the inadequacies of such systems for workers who become disabled by illness or, if they die, for their surviving dependents.”

Complex questions continue to exist between the scientific and legal communities as to the path to be taken. Barriers placed into the path of recovery, including pre-existing and co-existing conditions, which result in limited or delayed recovery and major shifting of the economic responsibility upon the public/private benefit systems need to be removed. The unspoken social consequences continue as a silent epidemic as families and survivors struggle in silence.

Looking backward over the noble experiment in California which turned sour, Tom Rankin, former President of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, expressed his regret of the reform. The former Labor leader theorized that the results were “unintended consequences.” Indeed he is looking forward to solutions springing forth in a “public option” embedded into the national health care legislation.

Some participants at the NASI conference alleged a major shortcoming of the California workers’ compensation legislative reform effort. Doug Kim, a lobbyist for the claimant’s attorneys, disclosed that the injured workers’ advocates were not invited to partake in the discussion that lead up to crafting the initial drafts of the 2004 California reform legislation SB 899.

History reveals, that when the theoretical reforms were practically applied, the injured workers suffered serious setbacks. If these were in fact “unintended consequences,” then one must consider the active involvement of all stakeholders when looking forward to solutions. The courts in California have consistently upheld challenges to the inequitable results, pointing to the legislative intent to reduce costs. Absent from the discussions of the presenters were practical systemic applications to improve the present system. The “blood and guts” of the traumatic, delay and denial, struggles of navigating in a crippled workers’ compensation system, in California and elsewhere, is verification that change is mandated.

As North Carolina attorney, Valerie A. Johnson, so eloquently remarked, “workers’ compensation is supposed to be a simple system.” The process has now been obstructed by encroaching elements of fault, contributory negligence, apportionment of pre-existing conditions and difficulties of the element of time, manifested by latent diseases unknown to the fathers of the system a century ago. The advance of medical science has brought forth new and innovated modalities that have contributed to soaring medical costs. The convergence of these issues has generated higher administrative costs.

Pecuniary Industry motives have worked adversely to improving safety in the workplace. The need for workers’ compensation would be minimized by adopting a safer occupational environment. Under reporting of workplace accidents continue as the Government Accountability Office announced. Nebraska Appleseed reveals that workers feel intimidated and are apprehensive to report injuries and unsafe work conditions. This is scenario is compounded by the fact that undocumented workers, who have even less job security, work in jobs with higher risk. The Bush Administration did not make efforts to allow OSHA to heighten enforcement efforts. All of these ingredients combine to create a recipe that just doesn’t work.

The US Senate advanced the health care legislation to a floor debate in an unusual late Saturday night session. This action may indeed provide an opportunity for the stakeholders in workers’ compensation to all join in the debate and look for solutions to the delivery of appropriate medical care in an efficient and timely fashion. To avoid “unintended consequences” yet again, injured workers and their advocates will need to be active participants and engage in the debate now.


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