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Editorial: Workers' comp reform should be on 2013 agenda

As everyone knows, Gov. Tom Corbett and the General Assembly will begin 2013 with a full agenda of major issues — including infrastructure funding and pension reform.

Overarching those matters, though, is the fundamental question of how to improve Pennsylvania's business climate: How do we attract business? How do we retain the businesses we have and help them grow? How do we create jobs and develop a workforce prepared to fill them?

When it comes to business climate, though, the commonwealth got another disappointing ranking this week when Forbes released its annual list of "best" states for business. Pennsylvania dropped four spots to 30th, largely because of the cost of doing business, labor supply and growth prospects.

Of course, one magazine's rankings are not definitive. But in a range of surveys in recent years looking at business "friendliness" — from organizations such as the D.C.-based Tax Foundation, the Pennsylvania Business Council, various think tanks and others — the commonwealth consistently falls in the middle of the pack, if not below. That starts to look like consensus.

It will take more than one legislative session, or even one governor's term, to unwind the state's complicated tangle of business regulations and rationalize its corporate tax code.

But there's one area ripe for reform that could be addressed quickly and should be. That's workers' compensation.

Bills to modernize workers' comp have died in every legislative session since 2003. The latest version, House Bill 808, is set to be reintroduced next year. Aimed at reducing fraud and waste, its mandate is simple — double the so-called captive period in which injured workers must use employer-selected medical experts, from 90 to 180 days. Proponents say this will cut down on dishonest workers' ability to shop around for friendly doctors who will keep them on benefits longer than necessary.

The timing couldn't be better for such a bill than now. Thanks to a mix of safety improvements in the workplace and the current high unemployment rate, employers' workers' comp costs are down. Historically, when the economy improves, employers will be hit with a jump in those costs. That's just common sense; having more employees increases the likelihood of on-the-job injury claims.

But without the needed change, it's also common sense in the reverse — yet another brake on hiring.

Right now, Republicans, supposedly business friendly by nature, control state government. So the failure to move workers' comp reform forward is puzzling. It shouldn't take more than a determination to get it done to make a bill into law.

Don't let workers' comp reform get lost among the bigger issues next year.

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