Illinois Industrial Commission Industry Watchdog Packs Too Little Bite

Isn’t it time we did something about the Illinois Industrial Commission? Illinois law entrusts the commission with several duties, including resolving Workers’ Compensation disputes, protecting the rights of workers and employers and keeping statistics. It does none of them well.

Workers’ Compensation is insurance created to provide wage replacement and medical bill benefits to workers hurt on the job. Compensation was supposed to be swift and automatic, since workers wouldn’t face the delays of going to court. Yet the system often failed miserably, partly because insurance companies dispute a high percentage of claims- especially more serious injuries.

With approximately 60,000 cases filed each year, the industrial commission has only 28 arbitrators to settle disputes. After the pending caseload increased by 4,000 cased per year for 12 straight years, the commission instituted procedures to speed up settlements. Still many workers must wait many months-even years-to resolve their claim. The commission needs more arbitrators and support staff.

Besides additional funding, changes are needed to protect workers’ rights. Too often, insurers collect premiums, then shirk their duty to the people who become disabled. Insurance companies love delay-after all, they’re holding the workers’ money. When workers get discouraged and give up-or even die- the insurers keep the money.

One way to keep workers’ money is to terminate benefits for no reason, leaving workers without income or access to medical care. The commission should require insurers to show cause for terminating workers’ benefits.

Reforming the commission’s funding mechanism could make needed changes painless for taxpayers. Most states fund the commissions counterparts through assessments on insurance companies. In Illinois, taxpayers fund the commission while insurers keep the profits-$386 million in 1997. By stopping the insurers free ride and instituting a few reforms, Illinois finally could have a high quality Industrial Commission.

Steve Frederick

Chicago Area Committee on Occupational Safety and Health