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This safety net has holes
Advocate for injured employees says state workers’ compensation law needs further revision
The new year marks the onset of major reforms in how our state manages
cases of Californians hurt on the job. Far from easing frustration, the
new workers’ compensation law heightens the need for proper reform.
The law may hasten relief for a small group of very seriously injured
workers. But it shortchanges most of the 440,000 Californians injured on
the job each year and leaves us clamoring for a say in its implementation.
By eliminating coverage for mental-health injuries, the new law weakens
the safety net for workers. It also leaves a major problem unattended: the
liens on insurers that are supposed to allow workers to access care, but
which create tangles that can delay and drive up costs of that care or
deprive us of needed treatments altogether.
The third major problem with this law is that injured workers have been
left without a seat at the table. New appointees to the state’s
eight-member Commission on Health and Safety and Workers’ Compensation, announced last month, fail to include an injured worker. That’s a shame.
The appointments reflect a pattern of favoring employers,
management-friendly law firms and union lobbyists.
These are the same interests that cut the voices of people with the most
firsthand knowledge and the greatest stake in our workers’ comp
system–injured workers–out of the loop in the last two rounds of reform.
This exclusion wasn’t smart or right when then-Gov. Schwarzenegger did it during a prior workers’ comp reform in 2004. And it was wrong again last year under Gov. Brown, advancing neither injured workers’ interests nor the public interest in a fair, cost-effective, and stable claims process.
I had great hopes for what reform might achieve for injured workers.
Forced to navigate a maze of authorizations and paperwork, we have some
recommendations for strengthening the system. But a handful of insiders
shut us out of drafting the bill. Starting in late 2011, for 10 months,
they huddled behind closed doors to write changes.
Then, in late August, sponsors sprang the new package on their colleagues,
substituting its contents into a prior bill. Prodded by the governor,
lawmakers passed the measure just hours before adjournment. No legislator admitted having read the bill entirely. As observers noted at the time, this was no way to fix workers’ comp. It was like sending first-aid kits to a disaster site, without detailed reports from the scene, much less diagnoses, then declaring it a humanitarian triumph.
What about psychological injuries? Under this reform, they’re removed from consideration in an injured worker’s claim. It’s a terrible step backward for California, at a time when state Senate president Darrell Steinberg and others are touting our state as a model of mental health policy in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting. Correcting this error in the new law tops my to-do list in 2013.
And what about the tangle of liens on insurance carriers? Thousands of
injured workers lose out on crucial components of medical attention and
rehabilitation because insurers do not authorize timely care or defer
approval or payment for needed treatments. Some conditions worsen in the meanwhile. Paying out of pocket is rarely on option for injured workers, given loss of income. So is court action, given tie-ups in caseloads due to budget cuts and layoffs. The crisis of liens has united some employers and insurers with injured workers to pursue a realistic, long-term remedy.
And so we shall in the months ahead.
From orchard to laboratory, from ski lift to offshore platform,
California’s workforce is a world-class example of diversity, resilience,
and safety. Lessons learned from thousands of workers injured or killed on
the job each year, then applied and enforced over time, have fueled our
state’s progress to the head of the pack on productivity.
That same dedication to honoring and heeding the voices of injured workers must extend to lawmakers and the executive branch in Sacramento. In fixing workers’ compensation, the new Legislature must improve on the lapses of the last one.
Jesse Ceniceros, a former aerospace mechanic, is board president of Voters Injured At Work, a California statewide advocacy group.
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