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100 Years of Workers’ Compensation in Pennsylvania: A Peek at the Future

Through June, Katherman Briggs & Greenberg attorneys, in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Bar Association (PBA), will take a deeper look at the history and the future of workers’ compensation. Read our first post on workers’ compensation history here. Our second post on the law as it stands today may be found here.

 

When workers’ compensation was passed in Pennsylvania in 1915, employees surrendered the opportunity to sue an employer, but gained the right to receive monetary coverage of lost income and medical bills related to on-the-job injuries and illnesses.

 

Since then, we have seen tremendous changes in our economy, from the nature of our workforce to the improvement of our medical system. The Act has been amended from time to time to address this changing landscape, sometimes to protect the injured worker, but more often to the benefit of businesses seeking to limit the expenses related to the costs of wage loss and medical treatment. As a result, the benefits available to the injured worker are slowly being eroded.

 

A recent ProPublica and NPR investigation found, since 2003, legislators in 33 states have passed workers’ comp laws that reduce benefits or make it more difficult for those with certain injuries and diseases to qualify for them. Many big businesses and insurance companies push for these changes at the state level, calling them “reforms” and claiming costs are out of control.

 

Yet, according to ProPublica and NPR, employers are paying the lowest rates for workers’ comp insurance since the 1970s. In 2013, insurers had their most profitable year in more than a decade.

 

Some of the reforms that have been or could be proposed in Pennsylvania include:

 

  • Lengthening the amount of time employers and insurers control medical decisions, such as when an injured worker needs surgery. Currently, workers are restricted to picking a doctor for an employer-provided list for 90 days following an injury. After that 90-day period, the injured worker may see his or her own doctor. This results in a limitation of the treatment and testing provided, which benefits the insurance company, but often to the detriment of the worker, whose recovery is stalled or delayed due to lack of treatment or failure to properly diagnose the condition. Legislation is being pushed to expand that captive medical treatment period to six months or longer, and to also control where and how an injured worker obtains his or her prescription coverage.
  • Making it easier to stop or reduce the benefits an injured worker receives when the injury prevents an injured worker from returning to his or her customary occupation. For example, after an injured worker receives 104 of total disability benefits, the insurance carrier can force attendance at an Impairment Rating Evaluation. The sole purpose of an IRE is for the examining physician to determine the injured worker’s whole person impairment, which, if less than 50 percent, the injured worker’s total disability benefits are converted by operation of law to partial disability benefits and these benefits are only payable for a maximum of 500 weeks. This might not seem so unreasonable; however, at Katherman Briggs & Greenberg, we handle hundreds of workers’ compensation cases a year, and we can count on one hand the number of our clients who have reached the 50 percent threshold. For instance, a 20-year-old construction worker who had his right leg amputated above the knee was rated at 38 percent and will have no wage benefits payable to him beyond his early 30s, despite the lifelong financial effect the injury will have.
  • Allowing employers to opt out of traditional coverage. A push is underway by a corporation-funded lobbying group, Association for Responsible Alternatives to Workers’ Compensation, with a goal of dismantling workers’ compensation legislation state by state. In its’ words, ARAWC uses its lobbying efforts to “target” specific states primed for reform. Although Pennsylvania is not yet on ARAWC’s list, other manufacturing lobbying groups are pushing for further changes to the Act.

 

Many proposed changes at the state level attract little national attention, in part because the United States government stopped monitoring state workers’ comp laws more than a decade ago, according to ProPublica and NPR.

 

It is of imminent importance that workers and employers both receive the benefits Workers’ Compensation Act originally intended when it passed in 1915.

 

We at Katherman Briggs & Greenberg defend injured workers. Three of our attorneys are certified as specialists in the practice of workers’ compensation law by the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Section on Workers’ Compensation Law as authorized by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Request a free consultation today with Dean V. Dominick, Drew P. Gannon or Jennifer A. Kline.

 

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