COLUMN: Injured workers are crooks (and other wisdom from the Legislature)
By Tom Blackburn
Palm Beach Post Columnist
Monday, June 08, 2009
Every few years Florida lawmakers reform the workers’ compensation system again. Every time they do, they find something unreasonable to do with it. This year they topped themselves. The reform consisted of taking the word "reasonable" out of the law.
Right. We can’t be reasonable about insurance against job-related injuries.
With the word in the law, judges could award "reasonable" fees to workers’ attorneys who win disputed cases against insurance company lawyers. In 2003, legislators were persuaded that lawyers – the ones for the workers, not the ones for insurers – make too much money. They set up a schedule of fees to limit what lawyers can charge. But they had more ideology than legislative skill. They forgot to delete the provision that allowed payment of "reasonable" fees.
In one case, the schedule gave an attorney $8.10 an hour, 90 cents over the state minimum wage. That case went to the Florida Supreme Court, which held that the "reasonable" standard still applied, so the lawyer should be paid on that basis. The law Gov. Crist signed last week removes that standard and leaves only the lawmakers’ schedule.
Before the state Supreme Court ruling, while most people thought that lawyers could charge only by the fee schedule, the percentage of claims denied by insurers rose from one-fourth to more than one-third of all claims. The percent of cases in which the injured worker appealed the denial dropped considerably.
That’s what could reasonably – strike that word! – be expected from a law that forces people to fight an insurance company without legal counsel. At the same time, the premiums that employers pay for workers comp insurance dropped by 60 percent. That was the objective, of course.
And when Gov. Crist OK’d taking out "reasonable," the Department of Insurance allowed another 18.6 percent rate cut in anticipation of future claims that will be denied without challenges.
As everyone celebrates low premiums, let us pause to consider that the Legislature could put doctors on a minimum wage schedule next. That cut could make brain surgery financially comparable to a burger with fries and cut health premiums by 60 percent at least.
Why not? Surgeons and everyone else are now only hard lobbying by Associated Industries of Florida and the Chamber of Commerce away from being paid what lawmakers find to be fair enough. The lobbyists for the state’s big corporations and for the small businesses worked to get the change for plaintiffs’ lawyers.
They did it for their members, they say. But what does it say about the people who work for their members?
After the 2003 law change that made it harder to fight a denial of benefits, the insurance companies began deciding that 35 percent of the employees who get hurt in Florida had only an ouchie when they broke their arm or are trying to turn a hangnail into prostate cancer or are generally malingering.
Those are your employees, Mr. and Mrs. Chamber Member. It is not a pretty picture. If you want me to accept what may be a better than one-in-three chance that I will be served by a conniving scoundrel at your establishment, you are asking a lot. Maybe I don’t want to deal with them.
You risk more than loss of customers when you put up with so many rascals on your payroll. They’re probably stealing you blind.
I realize that the 35 percent figure of workers who turned out to be liars and crooks in the godlike judgment of the insurer covers only the workers who were injured or claimed to be. But every employee is only one fall off a ladder or a faulty estimate of the weight she must lift from joining the great con game, and that kind of accident can happen to anyone. Better just to fire them all. That is the unexamined, unintended and certainly unstated result toward which the reforms have tended, unreasonably, all along.
Tom Blackburn is a former member of The Post Editorial Board. His e-mail is Tom_blackburn@juno.com.