Friday, January 21, 2000
Section: Business
Edition: Final
Page: 1C
By HARRIET JOHNSON BRACKEY, Herald Business Writer

In this full-speed-ahead economy, there's not much of a focus these days on the folks who aren't running as fast as everyone else.

The public is not talking about the injured worker. That could mean things are going well with the insurance system that tends to their needs. Or it could mean just the opposite.


Florida has been there and done that on this issue. In 1989, when the state system was paying out $1.50 in claims for every dollar it collected, a crisis was in the making. By 1993, premiums paid by employers were rising so fast that they threatened small companies' survival.

A special session of the Florida Legislature was called. The system it worked out was one of Gov. Lawton Chiles' crowning achievements. Benefits paid to workers are far lower today than back then.

Does that mean all's well?

The answer is difficult. Something about workers' comp - designed to provide prompt and adequate medical care for employees in exchange for a guarantee that they wouldn't sue their employers - frustrates everyone. In that way, it's a perfect compromise between competing interests.

On the plus side, employers have seen their assessment rates capped and injured people are returning to work at higher rates than pre-reform.

People are not filing nearly as many workers' comp claims as in the past, mirroring a nationwide trend of improving workplace safety records. In Florida, preliminary figures for 1998 show 68,573 claims, down significantly from 94,760 in 1990.

On the negative side, attorneys who represent injured workers say the system is still in need of repair. Miami attorney Mark Zientz recently worked with Consumer Reports on a nationwide study of the issue.

In this story, to be published in the magazine's February issue, Florida doesn't look great.

The tale is told of a Fort Lauderdale carpenter who became so frustrated about delays that he committed suicide. Employers here are said to save a dime by reclassifying workers to less-dangerous categories in order to avoid the most expensive premiums. Or they just don't pay at all.

Two provisions of the 1993 reform have gone nowhere. A fund to give large employers an incentive to employ injured workers no longer exists. And rules have yet to be written outlining an employer's obligation to rehire them. The state's Division of Workers Compensation says it is trying to put those rules out now.

Zientz notes that in 1974, there were nine judges devoted to workers' comp in Miami-Dade County. Today, there are five.

Delays are long. Richard Sicking, general counsel for the firefighters union in Miami-Dade, says it takes about 21 months to get mediation set up after a petition is made for benefits. But the law calls for that to happen in less than a month.

The bureaucratic hassles are so high that physicians, including those at the University of Miami, often don't want to deal with workers' comp patients, Sicking says.

What's behind it? ``A battle for the worst workers' comp laws,'' Zientz says, ``meaning the least expensive to business, is being won by Texas, Florida and Louisiana.''

Looking ahead, there are slim prospects for change. Fixes are hard to come by and don't seem to last long enough. Says Sicking, ``The Legislature would rather take up almost any issue - term limits, campaign finance - than this.''



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