Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The Jackson Sun:
Since 1919 workers’ compensation has given hardworking men and women injured on the job the security they need to continue to take care of their families. Workers’ Comp has come to mean security, well being and peace of mind for dependents. It is, quite frankly, the only recourse workers who are injured on the job have to make ends meet until they are able to work again.

In a few days, the legislature will begin to debate the changes to workers’ compensation proposed by Go. Bill Haslam. Jackson’s own Rep. Jimmy Eldridge will preside over the debate.

Under Haslam’s plan, all workers’ compensation cases will be removed from the impartial court system and brought under a newly created workers’ comp government bureaucracy with appointed, not elected, judges. This brand new state agency will handle all workers’ compensation claim disputes and will be yet another hoop to jump through for workers who are injured on the job.

The governor’s representative recently explained to Rep. Eldridge’s committee that the governor wants the changes to create a ‘fair playing field.’ But what is fair about a system with zero impartiality? Currently, the system is fair and impartial because elected judges hear the cases. If Haslam’s changes are approved by the legislature, the Governor will get to appoint a workers’ compensation “czar,” who will have the power to choose all the judges (and review all decisions). The “czar” and staff will also determine if injuries are work related, determine the allowable treatment for each injury (including the number of therapy visits, the type of surgery, the types of medications, etc.), reduce physician judgment, and ration treatment.

In addition to the “czar,” the governor will also appoint all three appeals judges.

Even the supposed “neutral” ombudsman is an executive appointee. In this insular system, decisions made will become political, susceptible to even more influence of special interests. Instead of “fair and impartial,” the governor will trade the well-being of the hardworking people of the state for a favor to the insurance industry.

The proposed changes would also cut paychecks to injured workers who can eventually return to work by one-third and drastically cut payments to workers who are so injured that they cannot go back to work. These cuts, along with cuts made in 2008, mean an injured worker who goes back to work collects 60 percent less than in 2007. Has anyone considered the families of injured workers in this proposed “new normal?” Has anyone considered that if an injured workers has less in his paycheck, then he has less to sustain his or her family?

Finally, under current Tennessee workers’ compensation law, employers have an economic incentive to put injured and recovered workers back to work. The new system removes that incentive and makes it easier, and cheaper, for an employer to fire an injured worker and hire a younger or healthier worker. Hardworking Tennesseans are our most valuable resource. They manufacture, fix, create and build. They are the engines of the economy. Why would we want to treat them as if they are disposable?

As they consider the changes, they have a choice to make: Are they going to fight to protect the families of the hardworking Tennesseans who elected them OR will they side with special interests like big insurance companies and large corporations who already benefit from so many loopholes and tax giveaways?

At a time when almost no one in politics agrees on anything, everyone can agree that when workers get injured on the job, they should be able to take time to heal without worrying about the health and well-being of their family.

The Tennessee General Assembly must get serious about strengthening Tennessee by saving workers’ comp and protecting the families of working folks. That means prioritizing working families ahead of special interests and large corporations.

The Legislature and the Governor that the people of Tennessee elected to represent their interests are about to strip those citizens from rights they have had for almost 100 years. What they are doing is cynical, self-serving, damaging to working people everywhere, and just plain wrong.

If you did not elect your state senator and representative to take away your rights, call, wirte and email them and let them know you oppose this legislation. You can find your legislator here.

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