By Mark Fitton
Illinois News Network
SPRINGFIELD — Without saying a word Tuesday, House Speaker Michael Madigan displayed the power of the Illinois House.
In a daylong “committee of the whole” hearing called by the speaker, representatives heard from nearly 20 witnesses as its members began to publicly ponder the sensitive and expensive issue of workers’ compensation.
Illinois is among the top seven states in the country when it comes to workers’ compensation insurance costs. And, according to Gov. Bruce Rauner’s office, Illinois’ costs are higher than all five of its neighboring states and higher and than the national average.
The result, Rauner and pro-business groups say: Illinois is missing out on growth opportunities and losing existing jobs to states where it is cheaper to do business.
Reducing workers’ compensation costs has been a key item in Rauner’s “Illinois Turnaround” agenda, but it is the first Rauner item for which the speaker, a Chicago Democrat, has dedicated an entire day on the floor of the House.
The speaker knows how to draft a witness a list, and many of those witnesses delivered the message: Don’t further hurt already injured working people by decreasing workers’ comp benefits.
Even before the first of nine injured workers or their family members began to testify, House Minority Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) expressed some reservations about Tuesday’s format.
The Republican leader said his members were happy to hear the testimony of workers. But, he asked, when would there be equal time for employers, for job creators?
“It’s important that this is the first day, not the last day, that this House of Representatives has a committee of the whole on workers’ compensation reform,” Durkin said.
But committee chairman Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Collinsville) gave an indication Tuesday might belong to workers.
“We support rooting out fraud and corruption, but this side of the aisle will not join other states in a race to the bottom, Hoffman said.
“We should not jeopardize the safety of Illinois workers or the economic security of middle class families and pretend that’s reform,” he said
House GOP members and business leaders took pains to say they were not asking for a reduction in benefits for those actually hurt on the job.
“In discussion, I think it helps to know that we’ve not proposed any benefit reduction and maybe, going forward today, that would be useful,” Rep. Dwight Kay (R-Glen Carbon) said.
Members then heard from Illinois workers and workers injured in other states. The message seemed to be that while Illinois’ system might be flawed, it works better than many.
John Coffell hurt his back while working for a tire company in Oklahoma. As he tried to get well enough to work again, his family lost its car and its rented home and had to turn to food stamps.
“I do understand there is nothing you can do for me here,” he said. “But there are people just like me here in Illinois who will pay the price if you choose to go down the same path that my state did. Please stand up for your working families in Illinois and not against them.”
Both in a pre-session news conference and in their own chance to give testimony, business representatives said they weren’t out to take money from honest people hurt at work.
“We are not interested at all in taking away benefits of legitimately injured workers who are injured on the job,” said Kim Maisch, Illinois director of the National Federation of Independent Business.
Greg Baise of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association told House members his group and others weren’t asking for across the board cuts in benefits or reduced limits for injury or for indemnification payouts.
Rather, Baise said, Illinois desperately needs three major reforms.
The first, he said, is creation of a standards for fair cause or apportionment so that employers are paying for only job-related injuries.
“Illinois employers should not be on the hook for 100 percent of medical payments and indemnity payments if they are not the major cause of an injury or aggravation,” Baise said.
Baise and others said weekend basketball or softball injuries, for instance, shouldn’t become Monday morning workers comp injuries and claims.
Illinois must also fully implement, without exception, American Medical Association guidelines regarding the medical determinations for impairment and rewards, he said.
And Illinois must further reduce its medical fee schedule for workers’ comp cases, Baise said. Despite fee-schedule reductions in 2011, Illinois still remains at No. 3 in the nation for medical fees, he argued.
He and other witnesses argued Illinois workers comp schedules pay medical providers more generously than private insurers or even Medicare.