Viewpoints

Despite ‘reforms,’ California’s workers’ comp system remains the nation’s most costly

In 2004, in one of the many attempts over the decades to fix the workers comp system, Richard Perez held up a bag of medications he has been prescribed as he joined others protesting the proposed new laws to workers comp claims outside the Capitol.
In 2004, in one of the many attempts over the decades to fix the workers comp system, Richard Perez held up a bag of medications he has been prescribed as he joined others protesting the proposed new laws to workers comp claims outside the Capitol. Sacramento Bee file

The progressive era of California government a century ago spawned many innovative reforms, among them a “grand compromise” between workers and their employers.

Under workers’ compensation enacted in 1914, workers gave up their right to sue employers for injuries and in return, employers were obligated to pay for medical care and provide cash benefits while disabled employees recuperated.

Today, workers’ comp is a huge program – well over $20 billion a year – whose operating rules are a source of perennial political jousting.

Five major stakeholder groups – employers, insurers, unions, medical care providers and lawyers who specialize in work comp – maneuver incessantly behind the scenes. About once a decade, several of the big interests agree among themselves on rules changes and get the Legislature and the governor to enact them.

Usually, what’s called reform involves financial gains for its sponsors and hits on those left out of the deal. It last happened in 2012 when employers and unions, with the tacit approval of work comp insurers, agreed to raise cash benefits and pay for them by tightening medical care and rehabilitation services. It angered medical providers and lawyers, of course, but followup studies indicate it has done what it was supposed to do.

However, California employers still had the nation’s highest work comp burden. A 2016 survey by the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services kept California in the No. 1 spot with an average cost of 3.24 percent of payroll for work comp insurance, 76 percent above the national average.

Obviously, working in California is not inherently more dangerous than in other states, and cash benefits to disabled California workers are not out of line, so the enormous cost differential must be rooted in the system itself, which explains why its rules are the subject of constant political infighting.

One factor in those costs is what officials say is an enormous amount of fraud, concentrated in Southern California.

Last year, the Center for Investigative Reporting reviewed work comp fraud cases and reported they totaled more than $1 billion. Authorities believe that prosecutions merely are the tip of the iceberg.

Why Southern California? Its large numbers of immigrant workers are easily persuaded by recruitment agents, called cappers, to file claims that allow unscrupulous lawyers and medical providers to milk payments for nonexistent injuries.

The Legislature occasionally addresses fraud. Last year, Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Cerritos, carried Senate Bill 1160 to prevent medical providers charged with work comp fraud from making claims for payment until their cases are settled, citing “fraudulent or unnecessary surgeries and compound medicines, as well as the selling of patient referrals to lawyers and doctors.”

The litany of cases underscores that concern. Just last month, Orange County prosecutors filed fraud charges against 10 attorneys and six others in an alleged scheme involving more than 33,000 “patients” for which more than $300 million in insurance payments had been made. Two months earlier, Orange County had busted a similar operation, bringing charges against more than two dozen doctors, pharmacists and business owners.

The grand compromise is just as valid today as it was in 1914, but it could collapse if costs – and the unseemly aspects of work comp that drive them – are not tamed. The next overhaul should be systemic, not just another backroom deal.

CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how the Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary, dan@calmatters.org.

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