How to build on ProPublica’s powerful workers’ comp investigation

With their ongoing investigative project on the “demolition” of workers compensation, “Insult to Injury,” ProPublica’s Michael Grabell and NPR’s Howard Berkes are modern muckrakers of sorts. Grabell and Berkes reveal one unsavory detail after another in a powerful package of stories, interactives, and photos, describing how “over the past decade, state after state has been dismantling America’s workers’ compensation system with disastrous consequences for many of the hundreds of thousands of people who suffer serious injures at work each year.” It’s just the sort of evidence Americans need to understand why safety net programs established to help injured and disabled workers and sustain them in retirement—programs now under assault—are crucial.

Workers’ comp has never been considered a sexy topic in newsrooms, as Grabell told me, just complex and time-intensive—and therefore, too often, not pursued. “Insult to Injury” shows why that’s a mistake and offers a head start for local reporters to dig into workers’ comp laws in their own states.

Grabell and Berkes introduce us to Dennis Whedbee, now 53, who lost an arm in a North Dakota oil field when pressurized oil and sludge ripped into his body. Two and a half years later he is still battling the state’s insurance agency for a prosthesis with a realistic hand and moveable fingers that doctors said might help him live a more normal life. Instead, he was offered a prosthesis with a split hook that costs $50,000 less. A review by the state auditor found that North Dakota was relying entirely on out-of-state physicians–mostly working for private companies–who reversed the recommendations of workers’ doctors 75 percent of the time in disputed cases. Workers can appeal, but the law makes it extremely difficult to win in court.

In California, Grabell and Berkes write, Joel Ramirez was paralyzed from the waist down after a 900-pound crate fell on him in 2009 at a warehouse where he worked. His company’s workers’ comp insurer began providing him with a 24-hour home health aide, a judge ruled him permanently and totally disabled and awarded coverage for future medical care. A month later, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a new law subjecting old cases like Ramirez’s to new restrictions, and Ramirez lost his home aide. After an appeal, he got the home aide back but feels vulnerable knowing the state or an insurer could take away the help he needs every day. (Reading about Ramirez reminded me how union workers must have felt last December when Congress took away pension benefits workers were already receiving, an action that would have been unthinkable 40 years ago when the Retirement Income Security Act was passed protecting workers’ pensions.)

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During the Nixon Administration, a special commission was set up to study the hodge-podge of state workers’ comp laws and concluded, as Grabell and Berkes note, that they were “inadequate and inequitable.” On the commission’s advice, Congress mandated minimum federal standards if states didn’t act on their own, standards that have since eroded–“steered by big business [and] aided by the recent Republican takeovers of state legislatures,” Grabell and Berkes write. John Burton, a Republican economist who chaired the Nixon-era commission, told ProPublica, “I think we’re in a pretty vicious period right now of racing to the bottom.” It is the “false premise” of out-of-control costs that has driven this, Grabell and Berkes write, while in reality “employers are paying the lowest rates for workers’ compensation insurance than at any time in the past 25 years, even as the costs of healthcare have increased dramatically.” In North Dakota, where Whedbee is fighting for a new arm, employers paid the least: an average of 88 cents for every $100 they paid in wages (premiums for workers’ comp insurance are generally based on total payroll). In California, where Ramirez desperately needs his health aide, employers pay the most: $3.48, which is still much less than they paid in 1988.

I asked Grabell what was the most unfair practice he found. He said it was the “geographic lottery” captured in the project’s second story, ”How Much Is Your Arm Worth?”, which describes how variations in state laws result in a man in Georgia receiving compensation of $740,000 over his lifetime for the loss of an arm and an Alabama man receiving only $45,000. “Just because a worker is born or happens to live in one state, he’s stuck with a workers’ comp law that sentences him and his family to a life of poverty,” he explained to me. Most states have “what’s known as a ‘schedule of benefits’ that divides up the body like an Angus beef chart,” Grabell and Berkes write, and “while these benefit tables are just one part of a larger workers’ comp system, they provide a vivid picture of the wildly divergent, sometimes nonsensical patchwork of laws that enrages employers and employees alike.” This all comes to life after a few minutes exploring the project’s interactive graphic comparing compensation for various body parts by state.

There’s a workers’ comp story to be explored in every state, and ProPublica offers some resources, in addition to the body part chart, to start reporters on their way, including reforms by state and workers’ comp rates in each state since 1988. After looking at ProPublica’s tools, here are a few other directions for local reporting:

  • The idea of letting employers opt out of the workers’ comp system, now allowed in Texas and Oklahoma, is spreading to other states. What protections would workers have if the idea catches on? Keeping an eye on statehouse lobbying can familiarize you with the arguments.
  • If injured workers are stymied collecting on workers’ comp claims, where else can they turn? Do they have private disability insurance, which is usually expensive? Can they get Social Security disability benefits, which are also under attack?
  • Have weakened workers’ comp laws in states really attracted new business, as proponents of changing the laws argue? Grabell says he and Berkes did not find a lot of evidence for this claim.
  • How adequate are your state’s payments, considering a family’s budget, other income, and cost of living? How do injured workers and their families survive?

I wanted to know who represented the workers as states changed their laws. That’s done by workers’ comp attorneys and labor, said Grabell, “but their voices aren’t very loud any more.” He added, “Lawyers are discredited as exaggerating and trying to line their pockets. It was surprising how many times we heard [from legislators, state officials, and others who want to revamp the laws] there had not been any complaints from injured workers. But it was not very hard to find injured workers who had been hurt by these laws.”

It’s up to the press to help give them a voice.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.