S.C. Statehouse Report
Sunday, Feb. 13, 2005
VIEW: http://www.statehousereport.com/columns/05.0213.workers.htm


COMMENTARY
Workers' comp laws may not need changing
By Andy Brack
SC Statehouse Report

FEB. 13, 2005 - - Business interests quietly are starting to push new changes to the state’s workers’ compensation laws, but it’s not clear yet they’re needed.

When the S.C. Industrial Commission was created in 1935, the state took the responsibility “to compensate employees for the economic consequences of work-related injury, illness, and disease without regard to fault,” according to the Web site of the succeeding agency, the SC Workers’ Compensation Commission.

But the SC Chamber of Commerce is pushing for five “reforms,” two of which appear to be against the interest of workers, the people who commissioners are supposed to look out for.

“The whole plan of the workers’ compensation system was that in exchange for not being able to file tort claims against your employer, you would be able to have a no-fault system you could use when you got hurt on the job, regardless of why or how,” said John Ruoff, research director of SC Fair Share. “Employers are increasingly trying to change it for a system you can barely collect under any circumstances.”

ALSO THIS WEEK

McLEMORE'S WORLD: Nosy ATM

FEEDBACK: Kudos on columns

SCORECARD: Thumbs up/down and mixed reviews

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The Chamber claims workers’ comp insurance rates are “out of control” for employers for a number of reasons, including lack of competition among insurance providers. The business group suggests a way to reform the current system to cut its costs would be to change the process to allow state administrative judges to hear appeals, which would reduce backlogs and free up time for workers’ comp commissioners.

Another idea is for the commission to adopt an alternative system to allow mediations for easier cases, which would cut costs and case loads. The Chamber also supports abolishing the decades-old Second Injury Fund, a state fund that reimburses insurance companies and self-insured employers. The group claims the Fund is outdated and raises costs.

While those ideas may have some merit, two others are of concern. First, the Chamber backs adding a rule to allow employers to talk with an injured employee’s health care provider without the employee knowing, ostensibly to check out the readiness of injured workers to return to work. A state court ruling in Brown v. Bi-Lo that has the Chamber in a sweat essentially says employers have the rights to look at medical records, but can’t have unofficial “ex parte” conversations without the worker being around.

Republican Rep. Greg Dellaney, who represents injured workers in his Chester law practice, says allowing such communications would hurt workers.

“Insurance carriers and the defendant (company) already get to choose the plaintiff’s doctor and have to authorize all treatment,” said Dellaney, who opposed changes to the current law. “If you abolish Brown v. Bi-Lo… it would be undue influence on the doctor because these are the people who chose him and who pay his bills.”

Another Chamber priority would put more burdens on injured workers. The group seeks to reverse another court decision, which essentially said workers didn’t have to have expert testimony to describe how their injuries affected their work. Chamber officials believe relying on a worker’s claims of injuries, instead of having an expert opinion, leads to more costly treatments than often needed.

But Dellaney points out that in 95 percent of workers’ comp cases, injured workers don’t have lawyers. By requiring expert medical testimony, more of a burden is put on the injured worker. Additionally, the Chamber’s position defies the logic of other proposed reforms. By adding another layer to the process, there will be increases in time and cost, both of which other proposed changes seek to curb.

The other thing that doesn’t make sense about the proposal is that defendant businesses currently aren’t prohibited from using their own medical experts to refute whatever a worker would say.

“They’re trying to limit you to their witnesses,” Dellaney said.

The House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee currently is considering workers’ comp changes in subcommittee. More than likely, the House will approve many, if not all, of the changes sought by the Chamber.

But when a bill gets to the Senate, it might not be so easy.

“I am not of the mind to dismantle the workers’ comp system,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston. “[But] if there are some improvements to be made, we’ll look at them.”

RECENT COMMENTARY

McLEMORE'S WORLD
2/13: Valentine's reminder from nosy ATM

A new cartoon from Bill McLemore


LEARN MORE DAILY

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FEEDBACK
2/7: A straight pin in room full of balloons


To the editor:

Many thanks for being willing to be “a straight pin in a room full of balloons.” (See Commentary). The big picture is exactly what isn’t being considered.

-- Rebecca Masters, Rock Hill, SC

2/3: Good explanation of retirement problem

To the editor:

Thanks for taking the time to write a detailed explanation (See Commentary) of the state retirement problem. It saves me the effort of addressing the local legislative delegation when they meet here this week.

It always amazes me that the legislature, in this case Senator Thomas Alexander, will address the problems of the retirement system as though it is the same system for all, including the SC Legislative members. NOT TRUE. There are really three systems; one for the legislature, one for Judges (and everyone else included in law enforcement), and finally one for all the masses: teachers, state employees of various positions,etc. It will be interesting to follow Senator Alexander's recommendations.

-- Dot Gnann, Beaufort, SC

SOUTH CAROLINA SCORECARD

Here's a "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" related to various political events from the past week:

Thumbs up

Public schools. Public education got a big boost this week with a study by Miley and Associates that showed a school voucher bill being pushed by the governor would suck $354 million out of public education over five years.

Mixed reviews

Sanford. The governor says he's not going to sign a tougher seat belt law that it took the Senate two years to pass. Why? Because it's tough enough. Mark "My Way or the Highway" Sanford sticks to his principles ... again ... while more people will die in wrecks.

Bauer. Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer got the bad news that fellow Republican Mike Campbell, son of former Gov. Carroll Campbell, is going to run against him in 2006. While the news isn't good, it probably will make Bauer work harder earlier, which may make it easier for him to win.

Thumbs down

Beyond shame. South Carolinians for Responsible Government, the interest group pushing school vouchers, is being irresponsible with inflammatory rhetoric on its blog on Jan. 28 by referring to State Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum as "Frau Tenenbaum." This is no better than extremist, anti-Semitic language used years ago in former Gov. Carroll Campbell's congressional campaign against Max Heller of Greenville. Campbell's tactics kept him off a presidential ticket. If this group persists, it likely will reflect poorly on its ambitious savior, Gov. Mark Sanford.

SCETV. Offering free time to House Speaker David Wilkins to talk about the Statehouse is fine. But equal time ought to be given immediately to Democrats -- and to say Democrats can tape responses is just silly. ETV ought to follow the model of the weekly presidential radio comment.


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