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Before You Go--Don't Forget One More Thing : Sacramento still needs to nail down workers' comp reform

CALIFORNIA WATCH: One in an occasional series

July 04, 1993

Do it, Sacramento. Get on with reforming California's dismal workers' compensation system. It is the major piece of unfinished business before the Legislature. Passing a bill to get the job done would truly earn kudos for Sacramento--and improve the state's economic climate.

Since May a joint conference committee has had Senate and Assembly versions of reform measures. The state budget represented a huge involvement for the Legislature, of course, but now that it is done there is no excuse for lollygagging.

POLITICAL WILL: There's broad bipartisan support for reform--but is there the political will to change the system? Assembly Speaker Willie Brown has said comprehensive reform is one way the Legislature could help lead California out of the recession. Indeed, employers need relief from the high-cost, low-benefit system that pays doctors and lawyers more than injured workers. Overhauling the system would help small and large businesses cut costs--no small matter in the continuing California recession. Reform also would not only help business, it would produce savings for local governments in the sums they pay out for workers' comp for their own employees.

What's needed in Sacramento is the same spirit of compromise and determination that delivered a state budget on time. Reforming the workers' comp system is a complex, multifaceted task. The issues are many. But the time is now.

The joint conference committee is attempting to fashion a bill that addresses the most troublesome components of workers' comp: limiting the number of medical and legal evaluations, revamping vocational rehabilitation, capping medical services, narrowing the basis for stress claims and changing the methods used to set premiums that employers pay for workers' comp insurance.

Special interests, which have a very great deal to gain by maintaining the status quo, are in full gear to mitigate the proposed changes. They point to a recent drop in the number of workers' comp claims. That is partly due to a crackdown on fraudulent claims that began last year and continues. That has helped relieve some of the upward pressure on costs--but it is only a blip offering temporary relief. What's needed is a huge change in the entire workers' comp system.

URGENCY OF REFORM: Workers' compensation was originally designed to take care of injured workers outside of the court system. That's fine. What has evolved instead is a system riddled with loopholes that enrich special interests at the expense of hurt workers. It's California employers who have to foot the bill for workers' comp. Some entrepreneurs have had to abandon their businesses here because of prohibitive workers' comp costs.

The clock is ticking. On July 16 the Legislature recesses for the summer. Our representatives should work overtime if necessary to nail down the substantive changes needed to correct California's dysfunctional workers' comp system. Failure to do so will demonstrate once again that Sacramento, sadly, is still in the gridlock that voters have come to loathe.

But a comprehensive bill of reform would send a strong signal that California is getting its act together and is positioning itself to be as competitive as any other state. Californians would feel a whole lot better about competitiveness if they woke up in the morning to a state that had cleaned up its sometimes-sordid workers' comp act.

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