An attack on injured workers in Iowa

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Radical legislation to take rights away from Iowans and push bills onto the taxpayers is about to happen in Des Moines. The Legislature developed in secret and is racing to pass a bill to strip injured workers of their rights. The end result would be to shift the costs of medical treatment and lost wages for workers who were injured away from workers’ compensation insurance companies and onto taxpayers.

For over 100 years, Iowa law has protected employers from lawsuits so long as they provide limited benefits to injured workers. The law establishes a no fault system intended to protect all workers, in all industries, from financial ruin following a serious work injury.

The Iowa workers’ compensation system has been viewed by outside groups as being a model for the nation. It is recognized for its balance between employers and employees. This year the premium costs dropped significantly for work comp insurance. This is remarkable, particularly in view of the skyrocketing costs of health and prescription drug insurance.

The Iowa safety net that exists to protect workers and their families is soon to be shredded. House File 518 was approved last week and Senate File 435 is eligible for debate. Unless it is stopped, it will be signed in to law by Gov. Terry Branstad very soon. What would this mean? This new law includes 22 sections, each creating new ways for insurance companies to delay, deny or reduce benefits for injured workers. For example, the bill will make it harder if not impossible for an employee with a pre-existing condition to receive medical care or compensation, regardless of how serious he/she has been disabled by their work injury. This eliminates worker protections that have existed since World War II. These are legitimate insurance claims that will now be denied. But denying the claim doesn’t eliminate the need for medical care, and it doesn’t change the fact that this worker can no longer earn an income. Denying these insurance claims forces that worker to go on public assistance.

If a worker is overweight, that can be used to deny a claim.

What if pre-existing arthritis is aggravated? Sorry, no benefits.

The bill also targets older workers. If a work injury leaves you totally disabled, weekly benefits end at age 67. So, if a 66 year-old construction worker falls through a roof and is left a quadriplegic, he will be taken care of by his employer for 12 months, then delivered to taxpayers.

What if you have a shoulder injury? You will see a fraction of the benefits and coverage. A 60 year-old nurse who tears her shoulder catching a falling patient and is injured so badly that she cannot return to work will be treated the exact same as a 20 year-old temp worker who hurts his shoulder falling in the office parking lot. It is ridiculous.

Who is pushing for this kind of radical change? Gutting benefits as such for a shoulder injury will be a windfall to heavy industry, like meatpacking, where workers are at high risk for shoulder injuries. These companies will now work their employees until their bodies fall apart, then point to the line for taxpayer funded assistance.

So what is the rationale for these extreme changes? The insurance industry lobbyists claim fraud and high costs in our system. This is an example of alternative “facts”. There is prevalent fraud in our system, committed by employers. It is a felony crime to not provide workers’ compensation coverage, yet many Iowa employers do it on a regular basis. These cheaters not only defraud their employees, they undercut their business competitors. Also, costs for Iowa business literally mirror the national average.

Then those darn lawyers must be to blame? This is where the lobbyists spread one their biggest tales. Gov. Branstad’s Workers’ Compensation Commissioner can review every attorney’s fees. We are closely regulated, and we follow the rules.

It seems we’re going backward, back to the 19th century, to a new Gilded Age, where business and industry dump the costs of their own greedy pursuits onto an unwitting public. Unless you do something, quickly, to stop this. Please let your legislator know this radical measure should be voted down.

• Bob Rush is past chair of the Iowa State Bar Association Workers Compensation Section and a former state senator.

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