By Joan E. Collier
In the past nine months, ProPublica and NPR have jointly published over a dozen scathing articles demonizing the workers’ compensation system in this country. The articles featured personal interest stories designed to tug at our heartstrings, depicting lawyers, lawmakers, and insurers running roughshod over injured workers.
Recently, The Center for Public Integrity joined the fray with a piece focusing on occupational disease claims. The reporter follows the theme that has proved so effective in the ProPublica/NPR pieces: personal stories handpicked from the annals of “they done me wrong” cases.
I’ll leave it to you to decide if you want to wade through the 6,000-word article. Suffice it to say, we do not come out of it looking good.
However, once you strip away the rhetoric, the report does make several salient points (assuming the research noted is valid):
“When workers’ compensation systems were first set up in the U.S., the major known risk an employee faced was traumatic injury. Mine explosions. Train derailments. Machinery malfunctions. Hazards were ever-present: Some 23,000 people died in U.S. industrial accidents in 1913. Now, though, deaths from occupational diseases outnumber fatal work injuries nine to one, according to a 2011 analysis by J. Paul Leigh, a professor of health economics at the University of California, Davis.”
“The denial rate is markedly higher for disease claims than for injury claims in the few states that track that statistic. In Oregon, for example, 36 percent of disabling-disease claims were denied in 2014, compared with 11 percent of disabling injury claims. In Ohio, disease claims were denied nearly half the time in 2014, compared with just 14 percent of injury claims.” (Again, according to Leigh, in a 2004 analysis)
“Rules written decades ago and never changed are part of the problem. At least 11 states, for instance, set the worker’s deadline to file a claim for most or all diseases based on the time elapsed since the last exposure to the hazard—not when the person was actually diagnosed with the illness. In those states, the window generally closes in one to seven years.” (Many occupational disease take years to manifest.)
OK. If all of the above is true, then a discussion is warranted. But let’s have a real discussion. While personal stories are compelling, they too often can obscure the “why” behind laws and regulations. They remind me of the lawyer adage: If the law is on your side, argue the law. If the law is not on your side, argue the emotions,
Let’s look at the facts, not the rhetoric, and make changes where they are needed. And along the way, could we possibly do a better job of presenting our own side? Could we drop the acronyms, mind-numbing stats, and industry double-speak and just talk to the public? We might find that a reasonable interchange would ensue.
(Read more Work Comp Nation blogs here.)