Workers' Compensation Celebrates Its First 100 Years, Looks to the Future
The anniversary will be commemorated during the upcoming National Workers' Compensation and Disability Conference & ExpoŽ, Nov. 9-11 in Las Vegas. Workers' Compensation Report
spoke with several long-time experts to get their views on the state of the industry, lessons learned, and where we're headed.
Significance of the anniversary.
For all of its flaws, the workers' comp system overall has functioned well during its first century, according to experts. "Any system that can survive this long is something to be proud of," said Peter Burton, senior state relations executive at NCCI. "Obviously, some states have issues, but it seems policymakers come to sound decisions to keep the system operating efficiently."
The workers' comp system's flexibility may be one reason it has endured. "One thing that has struck me about the workers' comp system is its resilience," said Bruce Wood, associate general counsel and director of workers' compensation for the American Insurance Association. "At first it didn't cover occupational diseases. As our societal understanding of disease evolved, the workers' comp system came to embrace coverage for those diseases."
Wood believes the resilience of the workers' comp system is ultimately a function of the federal system. "You have federal workers' comp programs, such as the Longshore Act, and SSDI," he said. "None of these are paragons of efficiency, of cost sensitivity. All of them are huge expensive programs."
Throughout the years there have been calls for increased federal involvement, if not a full takeover of the state-based workers' comp system. While almost no one believes a full federal takeover is politically viable or even warranted, some suggest federal oversight may be in order.
"I do see a role for federal standards, as the National Commission [on State Workmen's Compensation Laws] recommended in '72," said John Burton, professor emeritus in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University andprofessor emeritus in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. Burton, who chaired the National Commission, says the federal government could lessen what he sees as the danger created by publishing the rankings of state worker's comp systems in terms of their relative costs and benefits to identify those states that are more business-friendly.
"With 50 states competing with each other it's very easy to set off races to the bottom," Burton said. "The role of federal standards would be to see that states can't cut benefit levels so severely you have a totally inadequate program."
Challenges ahead. Wood believes the biggest challenge ahead is making sure the workers' comp system continues to be seen as fair to all concerned. "The state-based system will ultimately be perpetuated if it is seen as a credible means of compensating and caring for injured workers and at a cost their employers can afford," he said. "I think sometimes amidst all the detail it's easy to lose sight of that and get wrapped up in the relative minutiae of the workers' comp system. But it's got to be seen as credible, as fair."
John Burton has concerns about what he calls increasing examples of dual denial -- injured workers who do not qualify for workers' comp benefits but also cannot bring tort suits. While it would be difficult to get approval for another national commission, Burton believes such an entity could benefit employers and employees alike to address that issue.
"I think there's a real legitimate question about how to compensate medical conditions or disabilities with multiple origins. One hundred years ago, it was dominated by traumatic accidents," he said. "Over time increasingly, disabilities are caused by the interaction of things you were born with and personal life style. I think employers have a legitimate issue here of how much should we be responsible for through the workplace? I think that's an issue a national commission, if it was properly structured, could make a major contribution on."
Read more at the WorkersComp Forum homepage.
May 9, 2011
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