By Peter Rousmaniere
Our workers’ comp system needs to gain access to a national microphone. We can do that only through a national commission.
The workers’ comp system is a complex public-private enterprise that politicians and readers of national media poorly understand. So it’s been relatively easy for Pro Publica, OSHA, and now the top echelons on the U.S. Department of Labor to sharply criticize the system without much of an effective rejoinder. In a virtual chorus, they call our system inequitable to injured workers, and something of a deadbeat in getting workers’ families and government safety nets to pay for costs that employers and insurers should bear.
We should accept that the only way effectively to respond to these criticisms will be at a high level venue which incents all points of view to reach as much as a consensus as possible about the system’s performance and to agree to an agenda for the future.
This means, in effect, a Presidential commission on workers’ compensation. In 1972 one yanked the workers’ comp system out a morass of inadequate protections to workers. This time around, a new commission would decide if and where inadequacies exist and what to do about them.
The existing public-private partnership stands to benefit from a commission more than it would run the risk of a very detrimental outcome. I’ll try to explain why.
First of all, the critics of the system have the national mic largely to themselves. The highest reaches of the Department of Labor showed, in its report released on October 5, that they have little faith in the current system’s ability to protect injured workers from the risks of poverty (“Does the Workers’ Compensation System Fulfill its Obligations to Injured Workers?”).
They even assert that the state-run system of today is dragging down the nation’s economic safety net created for all workers and households.
The Department applies a narrative of sub-standard performance that upwards of fifty studies have nurtured piecemeal over the past couple of decades. I have read most of these studies. One peer-reviewed study has this title, “Safety, incentives, and the reporting of work-related injuries among union carpenters: “You’re pretty much screwed if you get hurt at work.”
The studies largely ignore the massive investments since the early 1990s in medical management and employer response to work injuries. These investments cost perhaps $10 billion a year, judging from the rise in loss adjustment expenses of claims payers and employer-absorbed costs.
The Feds have and will continue to turn a deaf ear to private sector protests that these investments are often well designed and effective. The Feds might give more credence to state workers comp agencies, which with rare exceptions never address the one question that matters to the Feds, “How are injured workers faring?” The national media will also turn a deaf ear, when it sees that the only published comparison of state performance, which a state agency in Oregon releases, celebrates the reduction of employer costs and ignores impact on workers.
Second, this narrative has strong appeal to the public and politicians. It says, bluntly, that the current system is picking the pockets of families and governments. It says that families are being thrown in the lurch due to work injuries. I do not see how the White House and Congress in 2017, regardless of occupants, will resist this message.
There is adequate factual basis in these assertions. WorkCompCentral’s January 2016 report, The Uncompensated Worker, estimated that a couple both earning the median wage for its state, and residing in the state’s largest city, cannot afford a basic living budget were one to go on workers’ comp. The legal denial of benefits for widely recognized conditions such as PTSD is well documented.
But these gaps in the current system by themselves provide a distorted picture for a system that struggles with and has done a pretty impressive job of late to cope with dysfunctions in healthcare, not least of which is the opioid epidemic.
We need to acknowledge that the “conversations” underway amongst us are necessary but will not be sufficient to balance the debate about overall performance and succeed in resolving what deficiencies there are. We don’t have access to a national mic.
About Peter Rousmaniere
Peter Rousmaniere is a journalist and consultant in the field of risk, with a special focus on work injuries. Peter is an award-winning author of some 200 articles on many aspects of workers compensation. He is a columnist for WorkCompCentral. Holding an MBA from Harvard Business School, Peter has been in the workers’ compensation field for 25 years. He resides in Woodstock, VT, a picturesque New England village. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.