NPR and ProPublic provide reality check on US workers' comp system

A quick way to lose someone in a conversation is to mention workers' comp.  No doubt I’ve already lost readers because my headline included the phrase. But you’ll think differently about the topic if you take a look at this week’s reporting by ProPublica and National Public Radio. Read just the first 400 words of “The Demolition of Workers’ Comp” and you’ll be hooked on the story.

Yesterday morning, investigative reporters Michael Grabell and Howard Berkes discussed their reporting with NPR host David Greene. In the interview they noted:

  • “Since 2003, more than 30 states have passed laws that either reduce benefits, created hurdles to getting medical care or simply made it harder for workers to qualify.”
  • “Employers are actually paying the lowest cost for workers' compensation insurance since the 1970s. And insurers are doing fairly well too. In 2013, they had an 18 percent profit - their best year since the 1990s.”

In the full ProPublica piece, they describe the degeneration of workers' comp protections over the last 40 years:

  • “Only seven states now follow at least 15 of the [19] recommendations made during the Nixon administration [for minimum standards for workers compensation benefits.] Four states comply with less than half of them.”

Most importantly, Grabell and Berkes introduce us to several injured workers. In different ways, each are dealing with the consequences of their states’ successes in creating business-friendly ‘reforms’ to their workers’ compensation system. John Coffell , 30, Joel Ramirez, 48, and Dennis Whedbee, 53---and their families—are on the dirt-side-down of those policy changes.

There are consequences for taxpayers, too. Grabell and Berkes report that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are filling the gap for costs that should be paid by workers’ compensation. It’s a hefty $30 billion price tag.

When NPR host David Greene kicked off his interview yesterday, he invited listeners to:

“...imagine you're on the job and you suffer a serious injury. Your expectation is that workers' compensation is going to serve as your safety net.”

NPR’s listeners and ProPublica’s readers will be learning that the safety net is in tatters.

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