Journalism in the Public Interest

Injured Worker in ProPublica/NPR Story Testifies Before Illinois Legislature

In an eight-hour hearing, Democratic lawmakers challenge governor’s proposals to change state’s workers’ compensation law.

John Coffell lost his house after he injured his back. His family was forced to split up due to financial problems caused by his low workers’ comp benefits. (Brett Deering/AP for ProPublica)

An injured worker featured in a ProPublica and NPR investigation into the rollback of workers' compensation nationwide warned Illinois lawmakers on Tuesday not to make the same drastic cuts that his state has made in recent years.

John Coffell, who lost his home after hurting his back at an Oklahoma tire plant, testified as part of an eight-hour hearing on workers' comp before the entire Illinois state assembly. The rare hearing of "the committee as a whole" was called by Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan as a preemptive strike of sorts as newly elected Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner prepares a number of changes to reduce costs for employers.

As part of his "turnaround agenda," Rauner has proposed:

  • Toughening standards so that employees must prove that work caused more than 50 percent of their injuries rather than just aggravating an existing condition
  • Relying more heavily on disability rating guides that reduce compensation for workers who suffer permanent injuries
  • Allowing workers' comp judges to give equal weight to opinions of doctors hired by insurance companies rather than giving deference to workers' physicians
  • Reducing the maximum medical fees that doctors and hospitals can charge by 30 percent

ProPublica and NPR reported earlier this year that more than 30 states have changed their workers' comp laws since 2003, largely to appeal more to business. Those changes — which mirror some proposed in Illinois — have reduced benefits for injured workers, created hurdles to medical care, or made it more difficult for workers to qualify.

As in many states, workers' comp in Illinois has become a bargaining chip. Rauner has insisted that changes to the laws must be made in exchange for any increase in the state's minimum wage.

During the hearing, Rep. Jay Hoffman, a Democrat from southwestern Illinois, said the assembly should learn from the experiences of workers like Coffell, who were victims of both tragic accidents and "short-sighted policies" enacted by their legislatures.

"Their representatives may have called these actions 'reforms.' They may have talked about the business climate. They may have talked about the need to root out fraud. But what they really did is they denied hard-working, middle-class families the care they need and the support they deserve," Hoffman said. "This side of the aisle will not join other states in a race to the bottom."

The ProPublica and NPR series has led to bills to raise benefits in Alabama and prevent medical care from being cut off in California. Officials have also warned insurers in California not to abuse the process and have launched an audit of how one insurer handled a claim in which a paraplegic's home health care was terminated. In Illinois, Coffell's testimony appears to have been used to try to douse the governor's proposals.

Coffell told the legislators that after injuring a disc in his back last summer, his pay dropped dramatically because Oklahoma had reduced the maximum wage-replacement benefits injured workers could receive from $801 a week to $561 a week.

Almost immediately, he said, his utilities were cut off, his truck was repossessed and his family was evicted from their rental home. Because no relative could accommodate all of them, Coffell sent his three children, aged 5 to 9, to live with grandparents. He and his wife only had enough gas money to see them on weekends. They've had to rely on food stamps to get by.

Asked by a legislator how it felt to not be able to support his family, Coffell said, "It's indescribable, really. Pretty much if I was to give a crazy example, if you were to see your husband or child drowning in a pool, but not being able to get them out of it. Kind of the same feeling."

The hearing repeatedly drew comparisons between Illinois, which has relatively high benefits and costs, and Indiana, which has relatively low benefits and the second cheapest insurance rates for employers in the country.

Workers and their families praised Illinois' law. Christine Fuller — who lived in Indiana, but whose father died from falling off a roof on a job in Illinois — said the survivor benefits she received from workers' comp helped pay the mortgage and put her through college and graduate school.

Meanwhile, Laurie Summers — an Illinois nurse who dislocated her shoulder lifting a patient at a hospital in Indiana — said she had to drain her retirement savings and fight to get surgery.

"I believed with all my heart that my hospital would take care of me," she said. "What I did not know, however, is that working in Indiana takes away that simple security."

Republican lawmakers repeatedly assured other legislators that the governor's proposal would not make Illinois' law as harsh as Indiana's. And they insisted it wouldn't cut any benefits.

Greg Baise, president of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association, said workers' comp costs have been a barrier to keeping and attracting factories. Businesses haven't seen the promised savings from previous changes to workers' comp laws, he said.

One metal forging company, an association official said, recently moved hundreds of jobs to Indiana, citing Illinois' high corporate income tax and Indiana's local tax incentives and training grants. In his state of the state address earlier this year, Rauner also referred to the forge, saying it had paid between $700,000 and $1.5 million a year in workers' comp premiums in Illinois, compared with $250,000 in Indiana.

"What we're looking for is a fairness in the system to move us to more middle of the pack," Baise said, so that workers' comp is no longer "the No. 1" reason companies "don't like doing business in Illinois."

Representatives from the business and insurance communities also cited ProPublica data on workers' comp benefits for various body parts to note that Illinois is relatively generous. For example, the most an Illinois worker who suffers a complete arm amputation can receive is roughly $440,000 compared with about $200,000 in Wisconsin. Illinois' law encompasses higher wage earners and pays additional benefits for amputations. But most workers in Illinois receive far less.

Several hearing witnesses challenged the notion that the governor's proposal wouldn't hurt injured workers.

Kim Janas, legislative affairs director for the Illinois State Medical Society, said reducing the fees medical providers can charge will make it harder for workers to find qualified doctors. The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, which specializes in complex cases like spinal cord injuries and amputations, nearly pulled out of treating workers' comp patients a few years ago because of an earlier fee reduction, she said. But the state intervened to raise reimbursement rates.

And toughening the causation standard would shut out a number of workers with legitimate injuries at work, said John Burton, a Republican economist who has studied workers' comp for nearly 50 years. In other states that have adopted the standard, he said, workers who had no symptoms until their workplace injuries were denied benefits. Insurers argued that their accidents merely aggravated existing conditions caused by aging, prior injuries or the structure of the workers' bodies.

"Many workers no longer qualify for benefits who previously would have," Burton said. "So you're reducing benefits."

An example of what could happen came earlier in the hearing when Illinois coal miner Steve Emery spoke of his fight to get benefits restored after hurting his hands over years of breaking rocks with a sledgehammer.

According to Emery, the insurer initially denied his claim, attributing it instead to pushing a lawnmower and playing baseball as a child. But Emery told the assembly he never played organized baseball and always used a riding mower.

Under the current law in Illinois, Emery eventually won his case.

NPR correspondent Howard Berkes contributed to this report.

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