Injured workers’ groups, trial lawyers and others are sending a clear message to North Carolina lawmakers — leave the state’s workers’ compensation law alone.
Hundreds of people descended on the North Carolina Legislature recently as part of the North Carolina Protect Workers’ Now effort to preempt any law changes that might limit injured workers’ benefits.
The North Carolina Committee on Commerce and Job Opportunity is prepared to consider a bill (HB 709) that would limit injured workers’ benefits while making changes in medical services in an effort to rein-in the state’s workers’ compensation costs. Last Friday, Senator Henry Brown (R-Jones) along with 12 other lawmakers filed a companion bill (SB 544), designated the “Protect and Put North Carolina Back to Work” bill, giving the move toward reform even more momentum.
Among other things, the bill would cap temporary benefits at 500 weeks, allow employers to have access to a worker’s medical records without the worker’s authorization, and allow a change in treatment or health care provider only if it is based on “clear and convincing” medical evidence. Also, the employer would be allowed to contact the injured worker about suitable employment and, if the worker rejects the employment, his or her benefits could be terminated.
“This bill is an absolute assault on working people of this state,” said attorney Dan Deuterman of the Deuterman Law Group. “It strips injured workers of their rights and protections and gives control of the North Carolina’s workers’ comp system to the insurance companies.”
At the center of the debate is the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute which last year released a study on North Carolina that found that the state’s costs per claim were higher when compared with those of 16 other states.
Speaking before the Committee on Commerce and Job Opportunity, Richard Victor, executive director of the WCRI, told lawmakers that the state’s total costs per claims were just over $42,000 for 2006 claims as evaluated in 2009. The $42,000 figure is 41 percent higher than the median of the 16 states.
The WCRI study also found that the state’s indemnity benefits were 64 percent higher than the 16-state median ranking it first on the list with an average cost of just over $23,600. Medical costs were also higher, which helped increase the state’s total cost per claim by 47 percent when 2003/2004 claims are compared to 2008/2009 claims.
A trial lawyers’ group, North Carolina Advocates for Justice, was quick to take aim at the WCRI study, claiming it was unfairly slanted to support the insurance industry. “WCRI is funded by insurance companies and big corporations and routinely issues reports that support reforms that will increase their contributors’ profits,” said Dick Taylor, representing the N.C. Advocates for Justice.
Taylor pointed to an Oregon State Department of Consumer and Business Services biannual study where North Carolina’s rates ranked it 23rd in the country.
The WCRI says Taylor and other critics are misinterpreting its research and he research group has defended its work. It denies being an advocate for any particular public policy changes.
The WCRI says there is no conflict between its research and the Oregon study because a state could have a high cost per claim but rank low in employers’ cost if that figure is offset by a low frequency of claims. Likewise, WCRI says, a state could rank high in the study even if its cost per claim is low but its claims frequency is high.