This past summer, Governor Quinn signed into law an overhaul of Illinois’ workers’ compensation system in an effort to decrease costs. Among the changes were a 30 percent reduction in medical fees, the establishment of preferred provider programs and different disability determinations guidelines. Additionally, part of the Illinois workers’ compensation reform included the appointment of new workers’ compensation arbitrators. A number of these reforms have now been put into place.
In January 2012, Governor Quinn announced that he had appointed three more arbitrators to the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission (IWCC). The Governor already appointed 27 arbitrators in 2011. The latest round of appointees will join those 27 in ruling on claims submitted under Illinois’ Workers’ Compensation Act.
All of the arbitrators went through a demanding vetting process before their appointment. The reforms called for Governor Quinn to consider recommendations from the Advisory Board when appointing arbitrators. The Advisory Board is made up of 12 individuals, six representing workers and six representing employers.
The reforms also require that new arbitrators be attorneys and adhere to the ethical practices and rules of judges. Additionally, every two years arbitrators must receive 20 hours of education on ethical and professional standards, evidence-based health care treatment, fraud detection and coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (also called black lung disease).
Governor Quinn stated that “The vetting and appointment of arbitrators was a critical step in our overhaul of Illinois’ workers’ compensation program, and I am pleased to appoint these additional arbitrators to the IWCC.”
The three most recent arbitrator appointees all have many years of legal experience specializing in the area of workers’ compensation law. All three join the IWCC from private practices.
Governor Quinn explained that “These arbitrators bring years of professional experience to judge workers’ compensation cases, and are an important part of the reform process that will help improve Illinois’ business climate.”
The appointees will be assigned their territories after they complete training.
Beginning in January 2012, new arbitration regions took effect in downstate Illinois. This change was made in an effort to consolidate hearing locations to reduce facility costs and more evenly distribute caseloads. Additionally, the change was made to accommodate the new rotating arbitrator mandate. This requirement was put into place to prevent close relationships from developing between arbitrators and attorneys regularly appearing at certain locations.
The new hearing sites listed by region number are as follows:
These 16 hearing locations are a reduction from the previous 23. Three arbitrators will circulate within each region and hear randomly assigned cases.
One criticism of this reform is that it requires some injured workers to travel farther to have their workers’ compensation claims heard. Delays stemming from the reduction in hearing locations have also been reported.
Other reform measures are also moving forward. Perhaps the most significant change is the reduction of the maximum medical fee paid to doctors by 30 percent. There is a concern that this reduction in payments may result in some physicians refusing workers’ compensation patients.
Advocates for injured workers are also worried about the establishment of preferred provider programs (PPPs). If an employer uses a PPP, an injured employee may either select two physicians from within that network or “opt-out” of the PPP in writing. Opting out, however, limits an employee to one choice of provider. Since employers are given more control over an injured worker’s selection of providers, there is a concern that employers will select those doctors most aligned with their interests of minimizing costs and therefore treatment.
Yet another reform involves the adoption of the AMA guidelines in the determination of disabilities. Several states already use the AMA guidelines, but critics claim that frequent errors in their application may result in injured Illinois workers not receiving adequate compensation.
Supporters of Illinois workers’ compensation reform estimate it will save the state $700 million annually. Even if the reform accomplishes such significant savings, there is great concern that it will be done at the expense of the state’s injured workers.
With the Illinois workers’ compensation system in a state of flux, the guidance of an experienced workers’ compensation attorney can be extremely helpful. A lawyer can advocate on your behalf and help you pursue the compensation you need and deserve.