A growing chorus of Republican governors are singing the blues regarding workers’ compensation costs, wailing that benefits must be cut further or businesses will leave their states. Yet, two studies published in recent weeks by NPR/Pro Publica and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration show that nationwide, insurance companies have kept any cost savings from recent “reforms,” with profits climbing to 18 percent two years ago — and middle and lower-income families and taxpayers are paying the price.
Our own Gov. Rauner sings the same tune. His song includes actively working to dismantle the “grand bargain” of workers’ compensation, which has existed for 100 years. In the modern era, one with record corporate profits, Illinois does not need to abandon this ethical agreement wherein injured workers are guaranteed treatment and money to live on, while employers are protected from costly litigation.
In 2011, at the urging of business and insurance companies, one of these workers’ compensation “reform” packages became law in Illinois. To lower costs for businesses, workers gave up longstanding rights; insurance companies, in return, were to be transparent with pricing and pass savings along to employers through premium reductions of nearly 20 percent, as recommended by The National Council on Compensation Insurance. As it turns out, only the workers kept their end of the bargain.
A recent study by the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services shows Illinois did experience a 24 percent reduction in workers’ compensation rates between 2012 and 2014, the steepest drop in the nation. However, employers have yet to see an equivalent decrease in their premiums. Instead, insurance companies have pocketed the difference — estimated somewhere between $625 million and $1 billion — while disingenuously continuing to blame the negotiated financial safeguards that help workers when they are badly hurt or killed on the job.
How can insurers get away with this? Illinois doesn’t regulate premiums, and it’s a lucrative business. More than 300 insurance companies compete for and write workers’ compensation insurance here, more than just about any other state in the country. The National Academy of Social Insurance reports workers’ compensation is the second most profitable line of insurance after auto insurance.
The real result of Illinois’ 2011 workers’ compensation reform is the seeding of this fertile ground for the insurance industry, which is reaping record profits. OSHA found that, nationwide, employers pay only 21 percent of the costs of workplace injuries through workers’ compensation. Cut-rate benefits force families to bear 50 percent of the costs, and taxpayers pay 16 percent when workers must resort to public assistance to survive.
Cries from our new governor and his big business supporters for more so-called “reforms” will take away even more rights from injured workers, help to boost the insurance industry’s bottom line, and shift even more risk and burden onto taxpayers.
Illinois lawmakers should consider insurance premium transparency and oversight reform — not further sacrifices by injured workers. No matter how many benefits are cut, medical reimbursements are lowered, and claims are denied, the state’s businesses won’t see corresponding savings without our leaders addressing the promises previously broken by the insurance industry.
If we want to improve Illinois’ business climate we must reject race-to-the-bottom policies and make sure we are creating a welcoming state for more than just insurance companies.
John D. Cooney is president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, a statewide organization whose members represent injured consumers and workers.