Inside Corporate America’s Campaign to Ditch Workers’ Comp

https://www.propublica.org/article/inside-corporate-americas-plan-to-ditch-workers-comp

STANDING BEFORE A GIANT MAP in his Dallas office, Bill Minick doesn’t seem like anyone’s idea of a bomb thrower. But backed by some of the biggest names in corporate America, this mild-mannered son of an evangelist is plotting a revolution in how companies take care of injured workers.

His idea: Let them opt out of state workers’ compensation laws — and write their own rules…

The investigation found the plans almost universally have lower benefits, more restrictions and virtually no independent oversight.

Already in Texas, plans written by Minick’s firm allow for a hodgepodge of provisions that are far different from workers’ comp. They’re why McDonald’s doesn’t cover carpal tunnel syndrome and why Brookdale Senior Living, the nation’s largest chain of assisted living facilities, doesn’t cover most bacterial infections. Why Taco Bell can accompany injured workers to doctors’ appointments and Sears can deny benefits if workers don’t report injuries by the end of their shifts…

Unlike traditional workers’ comp, which guarantees lifetime medical care, the Texas plans cut off treatment after about two years. They don’t pay compensation for most permanent disabilities and strictly limit payouts for deaths and catastrophic injuries…

The plans in both Texas and Oklahoma give employers almost complete control over the medical and legal process after workers get injured. Employers pick the doctors and can have workers examined — and reexamined — as often as they want. And they can settle claims at any time. Workers must accept whatever is offered or lose all benefits. If they wish to appeal, they can — to a committee set up by their employers.

In many cases, ProPublica and NPR found, the medical director charged with picking doctors and ultimately reviewing whether injuries are work-related is Minick’s wife, Dr. Melissa Tonn, an occupational medicine specialist who often serves as an expert for employers and insurance companies…

Two months later, Pinckard said, he was pulling a cart loaded with frozen French fries when he slipped on some ice in his trailer and suffered a hernia. He had previously had two hernias on the job that were covered by workers’ comp and figured this time would be no different. But the denial letter said the plan for Reyes Holdings, which owns Martin-Brower, only covers two types of hernias — not the kind Pinckard suffered.

“The only way it was covered was if it was directly under my belly button,” he said. “Mine was slightly above my belly button.”

In this instance, as in others ProPublica and NPR found, the costs of the injury were shifted to the employee, group health or government programs…

Minick was a young lawyer for one of Dallas’ oldest firms in 1989, when some of the firm’s business clients, gambling that the cost of any lawsuits would be cheaper, began dropping workers’ comp. The senior partners assigned Minick and several colleagues to come up with an alternative. They found it in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, a federal law passed in the early 1970s to protect workers as employers were shedding their pensions.

ERISA had been applied similarly to other worker benefits, such as health plans and disability policies. Minick and his colleagues decided it could provide a legal framework for plans covering on-the-job injuries.

Texas courts agreed, even though, compared to workers’ comp, the ERISA-based plans gave employers critical advantages. Under ERISA, appeals are heard in federal court, rather than state workers’ comp courts. And in general, judges could rule only on whether a denial was reasonable — not whether it was fair. This gave employers far greater control…

The fine print of opt-out plans contains dozens of opportunities for companies to deny benefits. Employers can terminate workers’ benefits for being late to doctors’ appointments, failing to check in with the company or even consulting their personal doctors…

Under workers’ comp, employees can’t be fired in retaliation for a claim. But employers that opted out argued that their workers weren’t entitled to that protection, and in 1998 the Texas Supreme Court agreed.

Gillespie, of the insurance association, said such provisions blatantly shift costs to taxpayers, in the form of Social Security disability, Medicare and Medicaid. Some plans state it explicitly: The plan for Russell Stover Candies said its benefits are secondary to all other sources of benefits. Home Depot requires its employees to “take whatever benefits are available,” including enrolling in Social Security disability…

“Sometimes I have to make a choice,” he said, sitting uncomfortably on his worn sofa. “Do I buy my pain meds or whatever other medicine that I need or do I buy groceries?” …

Many companies have further limited the risk by requiring employees to sign arbitration agreements. Instead of going before a jury, workers’ disputes are handled confidentially, out of court, before an arbitrator, typically a former judge or defense lawyer. A 2010 survey of large employers with opt-out plans by a Stanford law professor found that 85 percent used arbitration agreements…

But there’s one big difference. Benefits under opt-out plans are subject to income and payroll taxes; under workers’ comp, they’re not. As a result, 80 percent of the plans actually provide lower benefits, ProPublica and NPR’s analysis found…

Under comments:

abinico • 7 hours ago
During the dark ages people unable to work starved to death – looks like the dark ages are coming back.

https://painkills2.wordpress.com/2015/10/03/pain-patients-on-workers-comp-are-screwed/

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