Commentators Lash Out Against Proposed North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Reforms

June 2, 2011, by Michael A. DeMayo

Advocates of hurt and injured workers have been lashing out against North Carolina House Bill 709 and Senate Bill 544, two proposed reforms to the North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Law currently being debated in the NC General Assembly. A May 13th editorial in the Winston-Salem Journal (“Dismantling the Rights of Workers” by Michael A. Fryar) voices a variety of concerns about the proposed legislation:

• “The bill will remove workers’ rights to privacy with treating physicians and allow insurance companies to talk directly to the patients’ doctors, without the patient even knowing that this is happening or being a part of the conversation.”
• Except under certain circumstances, disability payments will be limited to 500 weeks (approximately 9.5 years)
• “Insurance carriers will have full legal authority to force injured workers into jobs paying only minimum wage without giving any consideration to the pre-injury financial responsibilities.”
• Fryar argues that his research suggests potentially devastating consequences – a wage reduction of up to 75% that will “devastate the average family structure.”

Both advocates and opponents of North Carolina workers’ compensation reform have been putting forth grand pronouncements about how the legislation will impact the state on many levels. Fryar’s attack on the legislation – likely grounded in good statistics – suggests that hurt and injured workers will lose significant rights if the new law passes.

Advocates of the law, on the other hand, say that the state simply cannot afford to finance the entitlement system, at least in its present state. Both sides seem prone to speak in catastrophic terms. And while professionals at experienced North Carolina workers’ compensation law firms are obviously very concerned about the potential fallout that the legislation might have on workers, it’s important to look at the situation with a cool head and an open perspective.

When you are caught up in a debate over any sensitive topic, it’s easy to think catastrophically – or, conversely, manically. But this way of perceiving events may not only be inaccurate but also destructive. Obviously, hurt workers should advocate forcibly for their rights and benefits. But workers, attorneys, and advocates have far more tools and resources at their disposal than many people realize. For instance, disabled workers bumped off their benefits after 500 weeks (if the legislation passes) will not be simply left to starve on the streets. They will be picked up by some other social safety net, like Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid. Not that this is necessarily a good thing – it shifts the burden of their care from insurance companies to taxpayers, according to critics. But it’s not as nearly as catastrophic as some might fear.

Conversely, North Carolina workers’ compensation reformists might be vastly overestimating the beneficial effects that the passage of the legislation would create. Yes, according to best projections, the state could save substantially. But would the state really put those savings to best use? What about the long-term repercussions of curtailing certain workers’ rights in terms of longer recuperation times and greater chronic frustration among the hurt/injured population, which could translate into reduced spending. Etc, etc.

Over the long-term, the best fixes to the system will likely involve identifying and solving major occupational health issues, such as obesity, diabetes, repetitive stress syndrome, stress at work, and “distractedness.” These issues are apolitical, but they are real, and they likely anchor the system in ways that statisticians, lawmakers, and analysts are only beginning to understand.

More Web Resources:

North Carolina House Bill 709

Dismantling the Rights of Workers