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Illinois Assembly's Rare Hearing Challenges Proposed Workers' Comp Cutbacks

John Coffell sits at his grandmother's table in Hulen, Okla. An injury at a tire plant last year left him unable to work.
Brett Deering for ProPublica/AP
John Coffell sits at his grandmother's table in Hulen, Okla. An injury at a tire plant last year left him unable to work.

Democratic lawmakers in Illinois sought to turn back proposed cutbacks in workers' compensation benefits with a rare eight-hour hearing Tuesday before the entire Illinois House.

House Democratic Speaker Michael Madigan convened the hearing in response to workers' compensation changes proposed by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

The hearing featured the findings of a ProPublica/NPR investigation of changes in workers' comp benefits across the country in the past decade. An injured worker from Oklahoma who appeared in the ProPublica/NPR series testified at the Illinois hearing.

John Coffell injured his back at a Lawton, Okla., tire plant last year, just after a new state workers' comp law cut the maximum temporary wage replacement benefits from $801 a week to $561.

While Coffell was treated, the lower payments made it difficult to pay rent and utility bills and make car payments. He and his wife and three young children were evicted from their home and their vehicles were repossessed.

Coffell told lawmakers the experience was akin to seeing "your husband or child drowning in a pool, but not being able to get them out of it."

Rauner's proposals included:

  • Stricter standards for determining the causes of injuries, forcing employees to prove that work is a primary cause as opposed to pre-existing conditions that may have been aggravated at work.
  • Allowing workers' comp judges to consider 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.
  • Greg Baise of the Illinois Manufacturing Association testified in favor of Rauner's proposals, citing the costs of workers' comp premiums in Illinois compared with neighboring Indiana. He says this is the "No. 1" reason why his members don't like doing business in Illinois.

    "What we're looking for is a fairness in the system to move us to more middle of the pack," Baise said.

    Democratic Rep. Jay Hoffman objected to the proposed changes, saying Illinois Democrats "will not join other states in a race to the bottom."

    "Their representatives may have called these actions 'reforms,' " Hoffman said. "But what they really did is they denied hard-working middle-class families the care they need and the support they deserve."

    ProPublica's Michael Grabell has this detailed report on the hearing.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.