The governor’s budget bill may propose to dismantle Wisconsin’s workers compensation system. In 1911 Wisconsin passed the nation’s first worker’s compensation system and it has remained the model for the country for over one hundred years. One of the reasons worker’s comp has worked so well in Wisconsin is the Wisconsin Worker’s Compensation Advisory Council. The Council was created to advise the Worker’s Compensation Department and Legislature on policy matters concerning the development and administration of the worker’s compensation law. One of the most important and enduring principles of the Council is maintaining the overall stability of the workers compensation system without regard to Democrat or Republican changes in the legislative or executive branches of government. The Council is comprised of members representing employers, insurers, labor and government. Its recommendations have formed the basis of all legislative changes since 1968. In 2014, for the first time, the legislature chose to ignore the independent Council recommendations. Now, the governor plans to dramatically dismantle Wisconsin’s model worker’s compensation system through his budget bill.
According to the nonpartisan Wisconsin Association of Workers Compensation Attorneys, the driving force behind the changes appears to be Reggie Newson, the governor’s secretary of Division of Workforce Development, which includes the Worker’s Compensation Division. The plan is to remove the Worker’s Compensation Division entirely from Department of Workforce Development, splitting some functions off to other agencies and eliminating some functions completely.
The job duties and responsibilities of Administrative Law Judges would be reduced dramatically. ALJs would no longer have claim management duties and most significantly would not be required to review and approve compromise agreements or settlements where an injured worker is represented by an attorney. ALJ review was a backstop to prevent advantage being taken by employer and insurer lawyers.
Also, without ALJ oversight, some lawyers and applicants may settle cases without doctor’s bills or health insurance liens being taken care of.
Other changes include reducing the time period in which an injured worker can bring a worker’s compensation claim to three years instead of the current 12 years. Having permanent total disability benefits stop at age 65, despite the fact that many people work past age 65 and in fact get injured after age 65. Reduce benefits if the employee is partially at fault by violating a safety law or other reasons. This is counter to the whole purpose of worker’s compensation, which took fault out of the system in return for guaranteed but relatively low benefit payments.
Wisconsin has one of the best worker’s compensation systems in the country, a system that has functioned extremely well, and is revenue neutral, meaning it costs the state no money to administer.