If you live and vote in Kansas please take the time to read this. Changes are being made to the workers' compensation system that will have a very real and very damaging impact on individuals and families. There is still time, however, to stop it.
When an injured worker is left with a permanent disability following an industrial accident, he or she is paid benefits for the resulting physical impairment. If the injury also causes that worker to lose the ability to earn a similar wage, under certain circumstances, he or she can then receive a higher level of benefits referred to as work disability. In other words, if a career path and everything it supports has been lost due to the injury, additional money can be obtained to help that individual and his or her family. These benefits are vital as financial needs are adjusted and to re-educate in order to find a new career path. Under our current government, however, changes are being made that will all but eliminate this vital support to the people they are supposed to serve.
Under previous changes by the Kansas legislature, artificial barriers were raised in an effort to limit who would qualify for work disability benefits. As it currently stands, an injured worker must prove that he or she has suffered greater than a 7.5% physical impairment from the industrial injury or greater than 10% if that impairment is combined with a preexisting disability. This was basically intended to eliminate chronic back strains from then entitling the injured worker to the higher work disability benefits.
Understand that the injured worker is still required to establish the inability to earn a similar wage due to the permanent effects of the industrial injury. You cannot simply choose to retire and cash in if you're still able to do the work. A construction worker, carpet layer or carpenter with "only" a 5% back strain but who no longer can perform their chosen profession is simply out of luck. This existing law has already had devastating effects on your fellow citizens and their families – with the sole purpose of saving insurance companies money. I've seen it far too many times already. If we don't change course, it's about to get a whole lot worse.
The Kansas legislature and Governor Brownback have approved a new and controversial way to calculate the percentage of permanent impairment: the AMA Guides to Permanent Impairment, 6th Edition. If put into effect on January 1, 2015 as planned, it will be all but impossible for injured workers to even meet the artificial barrier of greater than 7.5% that currently exists.
Let me give one example: A 30 year old construction worker, husband and father of two suffers injury to his neck so severe that it has shifted his vertebrae and has damaged nerve roots exiting from the spinal column. He now has numbness, tingling and weakness down his arm. The only way to at least partially fix this is to actually fuse two vertebrae together. Even after surgery and rehabilitation, the worker is left with pain even when performing simple activities of daily living. In his chosen career, he was earning $34 per hour which allowed for a decent home and to actually save for his kids' college. His permanent restrictions, however, would never allow him to return to construction which he has worked hard to master. His only option is to work at a home improvement store for $12 per hour.
This would be the perfect situation for the higher, work disability benefits. Wouldn't it? The additional money would let him keep his family in their home while he returns to school to learn a new trade. Under the planned changes by the current government, IT'S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN! Under the 6th Edition, the injury, surgery and poor recovery described above will qualify for a only a 7% impairment. Remember, the previous changes that require greater than a 7.5% impairment for work disability? Does anyone else think that this scheme may have been planned all along? The physical disability benefits this lower percentage will support won't be enough to last six months. What's that husband and father supposed to do now?
For years, Kansas has been operating fairly and efficiently under the 4th Edition which was a natural evolution from previous editions. The 6th Edition, however, is a drastic departure that was contrived in private with funding and input from various Chambers of Commerce. Several states have refused to adopt the 6th Edition, and the U.S. Congress has actually held hearings on it. Why would they care? Because they know that it will result in many more injured workers ending up on Social Security Disability since they won't have the means to re-educate and find alternative work. That's right. WE will end up having to support people who would rather work if given the chance.
As indicated above, these real-world impacts are not speculation on our part. They are certainties. We have either defended or prosecuted workers' compensation claims for the past 20 years, and I am not known for grandstanding or exaggeration. What can YOU do about it? Use your voice and use your vote! Contact your state representative to ask where he or she stands on changing to the 6th Edition, and let that person know what you think about it. You can also go to http://votesmart.org. Enter your home address in the red box that says "Find my elected officials" and click on the link in the middle of the page that says, "See upcoming election information only."
Laws are supposed to serve a legitimate purpose, and they are passed by people who are supposed to have their constituents' best interests at heart. Put yourselves in the shoes of the construction worker described above, think about your own family and their financial needs, and then decide whether something should be done to stop this.