March 23, 2013 in Opinion

Special to The Spokesman-Review: Don’t ruin the state’s workers’ comp system

Michael J. Walker
 

As a practicing workers’ compensation attorney in Spokane for more than 23 years, I have witnessed firsthand the repeated legislative attempts to eviscerate the promise we made to our workers more than 100 years ago.

But never have I seen such blatant disregard of worker rights, nor a more obvious attempt to upset the compromises forged between business and labor, than the assault from Senate Republicans this year. We should not stand for it.

These unprecedented attacks will further endanger injured workers, their families and even widows and children of workers injured and killed on the job.

The dangerous package pending before the Legislature would explode the use of lump sum payments to young workers with families and mortgages, pressuring them to accept limited settlements and sign away all future claim rights at a time of their greatest economic and medical stress – decisions that will have a lifelong impact on them. In addition, the legislation is fiscally irresponsible because the future cost of care will be shifted onto taxpayers in the form of social safety nets and disability payments in the long term.

Furthermore, the pending legislation would expose settlement information and files to all employers. This means that the private financial and medical information of injured workers would be open to public scrutiny and inspection, greatly sacrificing privacy and potentially allowing injured workers to be blacklisted. As a result, Washington state’s workers’ compensation system would turn into perhaps the least protective in the country.

The pending package would also give Retrospective system employers the ability to interfere in claims management by directing the expenditure of state fund money, and scheduling “defense” medical exams and vocational assessments. Such provisions are obviously designed to prematurely close claims and drastically limit benefit entitlement.

Most importantly, the pending draconian proposals fail to recognize that, less than 18 months ago, the Legislature made the largest series of reforms in the history of the workers’ comp system. These were changes that stabilized the fund, with a projected savings of more than $2 billion. Virtually all of these savings were paid for on the backs of our injured workers. Employers have not seen premium increases for two straight years.

And many of the previous legislative changes have not even taken effect yet.

So why are we having this discussion today? Because the Senate Republican leadership has no intention of protecting injured workers. They are showing their true colors by directly attacking and undermining the social contract of workers’ compensation – a system that has consistently been rated one of the top in the nation.

Over my decades of practicing law, I have strived to help hundreds of workers and their families get the care they deserve for life-altering injuries on the job. We should not let our promise to them be futile. Having been voted out of the Senate, this package now awaits House action. I urge those lawmakers to be bold in rejecting this assault on Washington’s workers.

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