A series of well-researched articles and radio broadcasts by National Public Radio and Pro Publica have detailed a concerted effort in many states across the country to deny or curtail workmen’s compensation benefits to those who have been injured on the job.

What Happened to Workers Comp?

Since 2003, state legislators in 33 states have made it harder for workers to qualify for compensation, have decreased benefits, or have moved to cut off benefits after an arbitrary time limit. Florida was cited as a particularly extreme example, having slashed benefits to injured workers by 65% since 1994. Some states have also sharply reduced the payments due to workers for specific injuries. For example, in Pennsylvania, the maximum payment you can receive for a lost eye is $261,525. Compare that with Alabama, which has capped the payment for a lost eye at a mere $27,280.

Changes Shift Choice, Power Away From Injured Workers and Towards Employers

In addition to lowering the compensation an injured worker may receive, other changes in the system have put more power in the hands of employers and insurers to dictate what kind of medical care an injured worker is entitled to. Many states allow companies to restrict whether a worker can pick their own doctor to care for their injuries, or allow them to pick from only a limited list of doctors pre-approved by the insurance carrier. The power to make important decisions about medical care, such as whether to undergo surgery, increasingly rests with employers and insurers, not patients and their doctors. Similar to what many Social Security Disability claimants experience, workmen’s comp applicants will often have their cases reopened and reviewed by doctors who have never examined them. These non-examining doctors often deny the injured worker needed medical care.

Employers and insurance companies have claimed that these changes to the system are necessary due to increasing costs. This premise, however, is inconsistent with reality – employers are paying the lowest insurance rates seen since the 1970s, and insurance companies are enjoying profit margins of 18% in 2013.

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Does This Affect Social Security Disability Benefits?

While the Social Security Disability Program is separate and distinct from workmen’s compensation programs, changes to workmen’s comp programs can have an impact on the number of SSDI claims. When workers who are injured on the job are unjustly denied benefits, or have their benefits cut off after a few years while they are still unable to work, they will likely apply for SSDI, as well as food stamps and other forms of public assistance. This means that both employers and insurance companies are shifting the costs of caring for injured workers from their balance sheets to the American tax payer. In response to Pro Publica’s investigation, lawmakers are calling for more oversight from the Department of Labor of state programs to protect both injured workers and taxpayers.

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