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Reform It, Don’t Just Fiddle Around

Assembly Speaker Willie Brown has introduced a bill of his own to reform California’s dysfunctional workers’ compensation system. And that has a lot of people worried. The San Francisco Democrat decided not to wrap his measure into a reform package already under consideration because, he says, comprehensive bills often fail in the Legislature or are vetoed by governors who find fault with parts of the proposal.

Brown should know. The Speaker has been criticized for inaction on major reform in the $11-billion system that compensates employees injured on the job. California has one of the nation’s most costly systems, yet payments to injured workers are among the lowest. Even so, Sacramento has repeatedly failed to act, adding to the frustration with gridlock in the Capitol and the state’s negative business climate.

Brown’s bill, purportedly aimed at weeding out fraud and abuse, is yet another piecemeal reform effort, when what’s desperately needed is comprehensive overhaul of the entire mess. The bill, which calls for drug-war-style seizures of assets of crooked physicians, fails to fully address other fundamental problems, including rising premiums, medical and legal costs and vocational rehabilitation. Brown rationalizes his narrow approach with the questionable conclusion that recent evidence of a dramatic decline in the volume of workers’ compensation claims reflects, in part, the impact of intensified prosecution of fraud.

Times staff writer Stuart Silverstein reported last week that the decline reflected some initial victories in the battle against fraud and abuse in Southern California, but he also noted that the sluggish job market may be a bigger factor. Reduced statewide employment translated into fewer on-the-job injuries and thus fewer claims. It’s also believed that some employers are underreporting injury claims to save money and that some injured workers are not filing claims, fearing reprisals by the boss.

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Brown reasons that “if nothing else occurs in this session of the Legislature” to reform workers’ comp, lawmakers must enact additional anti-fraud reforms. Really? Brown’s bill is no substitute for comprehensive reform. It serves no useful purpose beyond providing political cover for legislators who don’t want to grapple with the bigger problem.

There’s no doubt that the workers’ comp system contributes to the state’s anti-business image. The Speaker is well aware of the problem, having heard much about it from business people at his economic summit. Or are the lessons of that much-publicized summit, which Brown organized, so quickly forgotten?


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