Madigan puts more pressure on interest groups to deal on workers' comp

ANDY BROWNFIELD and CHRIS WETTERICH

SPRINGFIELD -- In a shot across the bow to bickering interest groups, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said he will back a bill that would kick workers' compensation cases into the courts if the interest groups involved cannot reach a compromise on reforms to the system.

“In the case of workers compensation, you’re dealing with the five most powerful lobbies in the legislature,” Madigan said, referring to doctors, hospitals, labor, business and trial lawyers. “There’s a club among doctors and lawyers and sometimes labor unions, which is not working in the best interests of the injured worker.”

If the impasse can’t be broken through negotiations, Madigan said he will support a bill by Marion Democratic Rep. John Bradley to scrap Illinois’ workers’ compensation system entirely. That would leave workers’ comp cases up to individual circuit judges.

“We have a very healthy roll call in the House on the Bradley bill,” Madigan said.

Madigan’s Republican counterpart, House Minority Leader Tom Cross of Oswego, agrees that meaningful reform is needed, and reaching a compromise is a complicated juggling act with “a lot of balls in the air.”

As for Bradley’s measure, “I just haven’t read it,” Cross said. “I never really thought it was real.”

Bradley has said his measure is neither a joke nor a threat.

Workers' compensation is designed to compensate employees who are injured on the job for their lost wages and medical expenses. In return, employees generally give up the right to sue their employers. Disputes are decided by the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission.

Illinois business groups oppose scrapping the current system.

“I don’t think anybody really wants that to happen,” Illinois Chamber of Commerce president Doug Whitley said. “That’s sort of the nuclear option.”

As for whether Madigan’s comments could be interpreted as an attempt to motivate interest groups to deal, “I think that’s why John Bradley put that bill out there in the first place,” Whitley said.

Illinois Manufacturers’ Association vice president of governmental affairs Mark Denzler disagreed.

“I don’t think this is a shot across the bow,” Denzler said. “I think there are a lot of varying ideas about how you go about resolving the workers’ compensation system, and this is one way to go about it.”

As for the negotiations, both Whitley and Denzler agreed that they are making progress.

“At this point I’m smiling and happy and optimistic that we will see a workers’ compensation bill passed this spring session and that it will be a good one,” Whitley said.

A call to AFL-CIO officials was not returned.

Chris Wetterich can be reached at (217) 788-1523. Andy Brownfield can be reached at 782-3095.