House approves workers' comp overhaul

ANDY BROWNFIELD

SPRINGFIELD -- Illinois will be a better place to do business after enactment of workers’ compensation reforms approved Tuesday by the state House of Representatives, Gov. Pat Quinn said.

Quinn quickly pledged to sign the package of reforms, which cuts payments to physicians and hospitals, tightens review of injuries and limits awards for carpal tunnel syndrome, among other changes. The measure, House Bill 1698, was approved by a 62-43 vote after the House took up the proposal a second time Tuesday night.

"The legislation approved by the General Assembly today will also achieve significant saving for the State of Illinois, as well as attacking fraud and abuse,” Quinn, who was on the House floor shaking hands after the proposal’s passage, said in a statement. “We have fundamentally changed our system, allowing Illinois to become more competitive and a better place to do business.”

Six Democrats and one Republican, Rep. Chris Nybo from Elmhurst, had a change of heart on the proposal between Sunday, when the House turned the bill down, and its revival Tuesday.

Most other Republicans -- whose ally, the Illinois State Medical Society, vehemently opposed the bill's 30 percent reduction in fees -- voted against it.

Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon, called into question the claims of bill sponsor Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, that the reforms would save businesses between $500 million and $700 million annually.

“The savings you predict don’t add up,” Kay said.

“I suggest that we haven’t done our homework. When you tell someone you’re reforming a bill of this magnitude and you’re predicting a savings between $500 and $700 million dollars, you need to be very, very careful that you’re right, and representative, you’re not right.”

House Minority Leader Tom Cross reiterated that the measure does not contain real reform.

All the bill does is “nibble around the edges,” he said.

“This is not reform,” Cross said. “It does not look like reform, it does not smell like reform.”

Cross said Quinn has demonstrated very little understanding of business in Illinois. Cross also blasted provisions in the bill that allow Quinn to appoint every workers’ compensation arbitrator, which Cross said employers shouldn’t find comforting.

The House previously approved an alternative bill to abolish the workers’ compensation system. That measure was expected to die in the Senate following House passage of the reforms.

After passage, Rep. Jim Watson, R-Jacksonville, who voted “present” Tuesday, said fellow House members should review the legislation in a year to see if the reforms made any difference.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, could be seen walking the floor talking to his members before taking the speaker’s podium to moderate the debate.

During the debate, Rep. Ken Dunkin, D-Chicago, sat behind the speaker’s podium and had a brief exchange with Madigan.

Dunkin had voted “present” the first time the measure was addressed, but supported the plan Tuesday.

When asked if the speaker addressed his concerns, Dunkin said “Yeah, he did,” but declined to provide specifics.

Nybo, who voted “present” the first time, declined to comment on his change of position.

Andy Brownfield can be reached at (217) 782-3095.

What the bill does

House Bill 1698 includes a variety of business-backed provisions, including reductions in payments to doctors and hospitals that care for injured workers. It would tighten reviews that determine an injury’s severity and cost, as well as cap awards for the increasingly common claim of carpal tunnel syndrome.

Employers can organize medical networks for handling workers’ compensation cases. Business leaders say that will lower costs and allow selection of doctors who don’t cater as much to workers. 

The bill also addresses potential abuse by firing the arbitrators who decide claims. New arbitrators – some of whom might be reappointed from the current group -- will serve three-year terms instead of six years and will be barred from accepting gifts. Critics say arbitrators have been too cozy with workers and their lawyers.

Those changes and others are meant to cut the $3 billion cost of the state’s workers’ comp system by up to $700 million a year.

How they voted

Rep. Raymond Poe, R-Springfield – No

Rep. Rich Brauer, R-Petersburg – No

Rep. Wayne Rosenthal, R-Morrisonville – Present

Rep. Jim Watson, R-Jacksonville – Present

House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago – Yes

Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego – No