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Workable Workers' Comp

March 31, 2004

The final deadline for a new package of legislative reforms for the costly and troubled workers' comp system keeps sliding. The latest date is April 16, when state business leaders will, absent a deal in Sacramento, turn over 598,000 voter signatures to make good on their threat to put a harsh workers' compensation reform initiative on the November ballot. The delays in legislative negotiations aren't necessarily bad. In fact, it's just as likely they mean the two sides are going to reach a deal. Sacramento periodically buzzes with rumors that agreement is near.

It's been harder than it should be. Other states operate workers' comp programs that are cost-effective and deliver necessary care to injured workers. There's no reason the governor and state Legislature can't fix the $22-billion system that is the single largest drag on California's economy. The hard part is shutting out the noise generated by insurance companies, doctors, lawyers, unions and others with a financial interest in the outcome. Here are three key barriers and ways that negotiators can get around them.

* Democrats and laissez-faire Republicans are at odds over re-regulating private insurers to assure that rates charged employers come down. The state could sidestep the issue by granting insurers a grace period while making it clear that regulators will act if reforms are enacted and premiums don't substantially fall.

* Labor and management can't agree on who should pick a worker's doctor when an injury occurs. It's a no-win argument because employees risk being sent to the cheapest alternative if employers choose, and the system is open to abuse if employees alone choose. The state should allow employees to choose, but from a pool of credentialed doctors and therapists. The state also must keep track of charges to root out healthcare providers who abuse the system with bogus treatment and exorbitant fees.

* Business insists that injuries be determined solely through "objective" medical means. That ignores the medical reality that X-rays and CAT scans don't always uncover painful and real back problems and other soft-tissue injuries. Other states bring objectivity to the process by using guidelines established by national medical organizations. California should incorporate one of the national standards, adapted to meet the state's mix of occupations.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has telegraphed how he would campaign for the November initiative. Like most bumper-sticker slogans, his call to "join Arnold, fix workers' compensation and terminate fraud" is simplistic. California employers pay the nation's highest workers' compensation insurance premiums, while workers have some of the weakest benefits. Any solution that isn't balanced will, like power deregulation and other hasty, one-sided "reforms," fail in the end.

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