Workers' comp bill would be benefit to all

Posted: Sunday, April 24, 2005

There's been a lot of talk going around lately about workers' compensation reform.

It's about time.

In the last few years, insurance premium rates have skyrocketed, and there's no sign that things are about to get better. In fact, they're only picking up speed.

Gov. Frank Murkowski is pushing for reform pretty hard, but some legislators and medical officials are pushing back. The Alaska State Medical Association says the state has no business meddling in health-care regulation.

We think they're wrong.

Murkowski's bill targets costs — litigation and medical — associated with the workers' compensation system. These costs are affecting big and small business across the state. Those costs hurt workers, too.

If a business can't afford to pay to insure its workers, it has but one choice: let the workers go.

There are businesses here in our community that have downsized for those very reasons. Yet the costs continue to rise.

Our own Central Peninsula General Hospital is feeling it. In 2001, the hospital paid $390,000 for workers' compensation insurance. In 2005, that cost has reached the $1 million mark. That's an increase of more than 200 percent in four years.

Do you want other figures?

An area machine shop went from paying $40,000 in 2001 to $100,000 in 2005; a fish processor paid $31,000 in 2000 and is paying $148,000 this year.

McDonald's paid $24,000 in 2001. This year the tab is $133,000. That's a jump of more than 500 percent.

Now take those figures and tack them on the small businesses in our communities.

Making a profit these days takes a lot of creative work.

Expanding a business is costly.

And it isn't just businesses feeling the pain. The nonprofit Farthest North Girl Scout Council in Fairbanks is struggling to provide benefits to its camp workers because the workers' compensation premiums have quadrupled in the last few years. They've gone from $1,630 in 2000 to $6,445 this year.

The bottom line is that we all are paying for this. Either we're affected by service or increased costs passed on to make up the difference. Or worse. Many of our small businesses are having to lay off qualified employees and sometimes that's not even enough. Some are having to shut their doors.

Directly or indirectly, it all comes around.

The workers' compensation system is broken and it needs to be fixed.

That's why we need to change the way we do business. That's why we need to get the ball rolling.

Senate Bill 130 is a start. The bill aims to cap rising medical costs and make the process of handling claims more efficient. It also makes sure businesses are following the rules. The goal is to get the injured worker the help they need and get them back to work — all without breaking the bank for the employee and the employer.

Backers of the bill say they want the system to be fair, simple and efficient, and that when it's not, it's not helping anyone. That's true. The system definitely needs to be more flexible than it is now.

Any changes that are made are not going to come about quickly, no matter how much they are needed. And businesses can't be the only ones at the table on this issue. The medical community has to have a seat, as well.

While the workers' compensation legislation proposed in Senate Bill 130 may not be perfect, it is, indeed, a start.

We need to protect our workers, our businesses, our communities and our future. We need to make sure that when we're injured at work, we're taken care of, and we're able to afford to make that happen so we can get back to our job. That's what's best for all of us in the long run.

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