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Response on Workers' Comp

From: Walter Ballin wallyjballin@sbcglobal.net
Date: Fri, 29 Apr 2005

April 29, 2005

Dear Ms. Stewart:

I READ YOUR column, "Workers' Comp On The Mend," in Friday's San Francisco Chronicle. As someone who injured my back on the job, I must strongly disagree with you. I was a janitor in San Francisco's downtown highrises for 19 years, until 1999. The building owners and managers, as well as the janitorial contractors have been increasing the workloads to unreasonable levels. I am no longer able to perform that kind of physical work. After I received my treatment and my Permanent and Stationary Report, I attended vocational rehabilitation, and attempted to find office work here in Chico, where I relocated. I was unsuccessful in my job hunt, as most employers wanted someone younger with experience working in offices. And yes, I had a very able attorney represent me, so that I could obtain a decent compromise settlement. I now receive Social Security benefits and a small pension from the union, I belonged to. If the new law that Governor Schwarzenegger pushed for and signed, was in effect when I was injured, I would be in very bad shape. It is fortunate that I gave up the lifetime medical benefits, in order to get a larger final settlement, as under the new law I would have had to fight for them anyway. I now visit a chiropractor using my Medicare, and the treatments I receive from him are more effective anyway. Under the new law, chiropractic care is limited although it is less expensive and can be more effective, as I said.

From most everything that I have read, businesses are not receiving much benefit from the new law, even though many injured workers are now being denied treatment. The best method to cut workers' comp costs, is to have a Single Payer health plan, and put the medical part of workers' comp under such a plan. Another thing that must be done, is much better enforcement of our health and safety laws.

It is very easy for you to make harsh judgements about injured workers with your detective and other friends at parties that you attend, and then type your nonsense columns. You don't have to perform backbreaking work 40 or more hours a week, and work fast doing it. You have no idea what it's like.

Sincerely Yours,
Walter Ballin
Chico, CA


Workers' comp on the mend
Jill Stewart

Friday, April 29, 2005

A JOURNALIST FRIEND of mine recently attended a banquet for hundreds of private-detective agencies, and was fascinated to hear them, one-by-one, introduce themselves. The fascinating part: roughly one-quarter specialized in investigating Californians who claim to be injured on the job.

The fact that California's private-dick industry spends so much time probing claims of back strains, pain and other injuries is testament to the troubles afflicting the most milked, most disastrous workers' compensation system in the United States.

Last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed sweeping reform, Senate Bill 899 by Republican State Sen. Charles Poochigian of Fresno, to cleanse a mess that, by all accounts, was prompting layoffs and ruining companies that could no longer afford their own workers.

SB899 is a big success. Rates are plunging, insurance companies who fled corrupt California are back and severely injured workers receive more money while the barely injured get less. How incredibly sensible. The biggest winners, besides truly injured workers, are small businesses who drive the California economy. As we heard in legislative testimony, employers saw rates skyrocket 250 percent to 1,000 percent -- even if they had no injured workers. That's what happens when tens of thousands of cheaters, greedy doctors and greedy lawyers bleed the system dry.

Now, under the Poochigian-Schwarzenegger reforms, rates are expected to show a total drop of 26 percent by late this year.

So if a small factory saw rates double from $35,000 to $70,000 a month in 2003, that rate will be slashed by $18,200 a month in 2005. That's a lot of small factories that won't have to lay off non-cheating employees.

But as we saw on shameful display April 27, there's a fly in this ointment: Lawyers who got squeezed, and labor fat-cats who don't give a rip if small businesses go bankrupt. A few days ago, these anti-reformers tried to oust workers' comp czar Andrea Hoch. They failed, thanks to the grit of increasingly impressive Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata. Before reform, medical costs per claim in California were 23 percent higher than in 12 other big states. By 2001, that meant $24,235 per claim. The Workers Compensation Research Institute found that once a worker stayed home beyond seven days, claims of "permanent disability" mysteriously soared to 50 percent. By contrast, in Wisconsin it was only 29 percent.

Now such claims are dropping fast. Hoch is strictly abiding by the Schwarzenegger-Poochigian reforms. The number of "disputed claims" plunged from 17,104, in April of 2003, to 10,878 by January of this year, according to Hoch's data.

That's 6,226 legal documents not filed, 6,226 employers who didn't hire a detective and 6,226 attorneys whose wallets aren't fatter. Boo hoo.

Seth Unger, aide to Poochigian, notes that "getting a permanent disability rating from a court is the place where the attorneys really make their money."

California had a "no-fault" system so truly injured workers didn't have to go to court, but lawyers turned it into a travesty. They dubbed themselves "applicants' attorneys" -- implying a harmless nature. They won fat "permanent disability" ratings. Labor bosses loved it, seeing it as a job perk for workers. Statewide, findings of "disability" ranged wildly from doctor to doctor. Your $50 twisted knee was another man's retirement."

California has the worst return-to-work rate in the nation, notes Schwarzenegger spokesman Vince Sollitto, "mainly because they (the cases) were in litigation, it was all being contested and it was highly litigious." Workers were urged to stay home and fight.

Now, as of Jan. 1, Californians who claim "back injuries" or "stress," but are out golfing or moving furniture are the losers. Because now, finally, we use objective American Medical Association guidelines to determine disability -- just as do 41 smarter states and the feds.

Before reform, lawyers and Big Labor made sure AMA guidelines were banned -- actually banned -- in determining disabilities in California. Good Lord. Notes Sollitto, "Both the fakers and the people with significantly lesser injuries will see a reduction in awards. That's very unfortunate for attorneys. "

These past few days, the media often sided with Big Labor and the attorneys in their Hoch coverage. The media's long silence on "permanent disability" is how California became so corrupt in the first place, so you'll see wetlands in Death Valley before you see the media snap to it.

The anti-reformers want Arnold to undercut Hoch. Don't do it, Arnold. Ignore Democrats who insist they never dreamed reform would be so strict (yeah, it's hard to do what 41 sensible states do). Ignore silly Assembly Speaker Fabian Nez, who threatened to hold up the California budget, then relented. Ignore Art Pulaski, of the California Federation of Labor, who accused Perata of selling out.

The alternate plan: Give Hoch, champion of the truly injured and of California's devastated small business community, an award for State Worker of the Month.

Jill Stewart, a print, radio and television commentator on California politics, can be reached at www.jillstewart.net.

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