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Business groups on Thursday praised proposed legislation that changes workers' compensation laws in ways that lower employer costs, while workers and the lawyers who represent them complained the victims of workplace accidents could be cut off from their only income.
Employers want to limit a system that now has the potential to turn a workplace injury, no matter who was at fault, into "a multi-million-dollar event with no legal means to ever end or settle the open-ended, life-long claim. This is not what good and fair workers compensation systems do around the country and it should not happen here," said Bruce Clark, president of Capital Associated Industries, which advises companies on employment issues.
With Republicans newly in control of the General Assembly, easing employer responsibility for workers compensation claims is one of the top priorities of the state's chamber of commerce.
"Everything we need to be looking at to make this state attractive to business needs to be addressed," NC Chamber President Lew Ebert said. The current system limits job creation, he said.
The bill would limit payment of temporary total disability payments, which now can run for an injured worker's lifetime, to just over nine and a half years. Benefits to dependents of workers killed on the job would be extended from 400 weeks to 500. Burial benefits would be increased for the first time in decades to a maximum $10,000.
Opponents object to a provision that would allow employers, their attorneys and their insurers access to the medical records and physician of an injured worker seeking compensation. Workers also would have a harder time choosing the physician treating them.
Worker's advocates said while some people try to game the system by faking or extending injuries to collect compensation checks, every insurance company works overtime to limit payouts, sometimes by putting injured workers on a carousel of different doctors until one provides an employer-friendly diagnosis.
That's what happened to Levi Grantham, 42, of Franklinville in Randolph County. He was working for a tree-trimming business in February 2007 and was cutting branches away from a cell-phone tower on a mountaintop in western North Carolina. A wind gust blew the 6-foot-7, 290-pound man off the branch that was about 30 feet off the ground.
Grantham spun around and grabbed the branch behind him. Thanks to the brace he wore, he never hit the ground. But the weight of his body after grabbing the branch damaged his shoulder, arm and back. His employer's insurer then sent Grantham to five doctors after the initial diagnosis in a pattern of "persistent refusal to provide timely treatment," the state Industrial Commission determined.
The commission ordered that Grantham collect $717 a week -- two-thirds his working wage as normal for workers' compensation cases.
Grantham said he's concerned that if the changes sought by employers are adopted: "A lot of people who get hurt won't get help."
State and local governments, which go without insurance and pay their own workplace compensation costs, could save hundreds of millions of dollars with the changes that would both end lifetime payments for some types of compensation and add years to the limits of other payments, said bill sponsor Rep. Dale Folwell, R-Forsyth.
But taxpayers also could be forced to support injured workers whose benefits run out, said David Anders, president of the Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics of North Carolina.
"The way we see this bill, there is a much higher possibility that these people could be moved off of worker's comp. If they are, there's a very big possibility that their benefits could be transferred from the insurance company or, in some cases self-insured people, to the taxpayer," he said. "It's not a good thing."