Voters will shape workers' comp law in upcoming election: Guest view
Since last fall, state lawmakers have been rounding up support for legislation designed to revive a cost-saving measure in Pennsylvania's workers compensation system.
House Bill 1840, also known as the IRE Bill, would bring back the use of impairment rating evaluations (IREs), which were ruled unconstitutional by the State Supreme Court ruling last summer.
Essentially, IREs had allowed companies to cap the amount of money they were responsible for paying out, due to lost wages, to workers who were injured on the job. Supporters of HB 1840 claim that the bill’s purpose is to repeal the subsection invalidated by the court, reenact the language and clarify the guidelines to be used for IREs; however, the truth is these changes stand to do more harm than good.
HB 1840 is problematic for injured workers for a few reasons. First, IREs are a fiction created by the law to put an end to an injured worker’s benefits even if they cannot perform work. This means that workers who are still disabled, without any question or controversy, may still have their benefits stopped, leaving them without any income. For this reason alone, HB 1840 should be opposed by Pennsylvania workers.
Second, the Protz decision (the ruling made by the State Supreme Court last summer) can be read to prohibit any delegation of authority to a private entity by the Pennsylvania General Assembly. In the context of the law, the legislature has delegated the impairment determination to the American Medical Association (AMA). HB 1840 still provides this delegation, and this will likely lead to further constitutional challenges/legal battles. The bill attempts to resolve this issue by picking one specific edition of the AMA guides; however, in no reality is this enough to resolve the State Supreme Court’s constitutional concerns in its decision.
Additionally, even if it is enough to resolve the court’s concerns, the specific edition chosen by HB 1840 is more severe than past editions. By lowering the whole-body impairment rate from 50 percent to 35 percent, fewer injured workers will be eligible for lost-pay benefits than the previous version of the IRE law. As a result, injured workers truly disabled from work will have their benefits negatively impacted by the law.
Last, there is no credible support to be found that shows that IREs have the impact on claims that insurance companies say they do. The reality is that most claims settle and there are more than enough tools in the tool box of insurance companies to continue to keep settlements as they were before the State Supreme Court’s ruling on Protz.
When it’s all said and done, if HB 1840 is passed, injured workers have the most to lose. In fact, three key pieces of current legislation: HB 1781 (reclassification of employees), SB 676 (UEGF bill) and HB 1840, will have a combined major impact on Pennsylvania’s Workers’ Compensation Act. The lawmakers voted into office this General Election will, without a doubt, have a significant impact on one of Pennsylvania’s most important safety nets for injured workers. It’s critically important that voters remain educated on this issue so that they can make an informed decision to support lawmakers who will fight for a system that is fair to Pennsylvania workers.