An injured worker featured in a ProPublica and NPR investigation into the rollback of workers’ compensation nationwide warned Illinois lawmakers on Tuesday not to make the same drastic cuts that his state has made in recent years.
John Coffell, who lost his home after hurting his back at an Oklahoma tire plant, testified as part of an eight-hour hearing on workers’ comp before the entire Illinois state assembly. The rare hearing of “the committee as a whole” was called by Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan as a preemptive strike of sorts as newly elected Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner prepares a number of changes to reduce costs for employers.
As part of his “turnaround agenda,” Rauner has proposed:
Toughening standards so that employees must prove that work caused more than 50 percent of their injuries rather than just aggravating an existing condition
Relying more heavily on disability rating guides that reduce compensation for workers who suffer permanent injuries
Allowing workers’ comp judges to give equal weight to opinions of doctors hired by insurance companies rather than giving deference to workers’ physicians
Reducing the maximum medical fees that doctors and hospitals can charge by 30 percent
ProPublica and NPR reported earlier this year that more than 30 states have changed their workers’ comp laws since 2003, largely to appeal more to business. Those changes — which mirror some proposed in Illinois — have reduced benefits for injured workers, created hurdles to medical care, or made it more difficult for workers to qualify.
As in many states, workers’ comp in Illinois has become a bargaining chip. Rauner has insisted that changes to the laws must be made in exchange for any increase in the state’s minimum wage.
During the hearing, Rep. Jay Hoffman, a Democrat from southwestern Illinois, said the assembly should learn from the experiences of workers like Coffell, who were victims of both tragic accidents and “short-sighted policies” enacted by their legislatures.
“Their representatives may have called these actions ‘reforms.’ They may have talked about the business climate. They may have talked about the need to root out fraud. But what they really did is they denied hard-working, middle-class families the care they need and the support they deserve,” Hoffman said. “This side of the aisle will not join other states in a race to the bottom.”
The ProPublica and NPR series has led to bills to raise benefits in Alabama and prevent medical care from being cut off in California. Officials have also warned insurers in California not to abuse the process and have launched an audit of how one insurer handled a claim in which a paraplegic’s home health care was terminated. In Illinois, Coffell’s testimony appears to have been used to try to douse the governor’s proposals.
Coffell told the legislators that after injuring a disc in his back last summer, his pay dropped dramatically because Oklahoma had reduced the maximum wage-replacement benefits injured workers could receive from $801 a week to $561 a week.
Almost immediately, he said, his utilities were cut off, his truck was repossessed and his family was evicted from their rental home. Because no relative could accommodate all of them, Coffell sent his three children, aged 5 to 9, to live with grandparents. He and his wife only had enough gas money to see them on weekends. They’ve had to rely on food stamps to get by.
Asked by a legislator how it felt to not be able to support his family, Coffell said, “It’s indescribable, really. Pretty much if I was to give a crazy example, if you were to see your husband or child drowning in a pool, but not being able to get them out of it. Kind of the same feeling.”
The hearing repeatedly drew comparisons between Illinois, which has relatively high benefits and costs, and Indiana, which has relatively low benefits and the second cheapest insurance rates for employers in the country.
Workers and their families praised Illinois’ law. Christine Fuller — who lived in Indiana, but whose father died from falling off a roof on a job in Illinois — said the survivor benefits she received from workers’ comp helped pay the mortgage and put her through college and graduate school.