Kudos to Beacon Hill for reforming `workers' comp'

SELDOM do Massachusetts lawmakers see eye to eye on anything except routine matters. But when it came to overhauling the state's program for helping injured workers, legislators of all political and philosophical stripes were of one accord.

This unity, dramatized in the 149-to-0 and 36-to-0 roll calls by which the complex measure cleared the House and Senate, would hardly have been possible a few weeks ago. But that was before organized labor and industry closed ranks behind the reforms.

While not exactly what either side wanted, the sweeping revision of the workers' compensation system, signed into law Dec. 9 by Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, is something everyone should be able to live with. More important it reflects a recognition by state lawmakers that a program that sometimes takes more than three years to settle a claim is an embarrassment to Massachusetts and an insult to those it is supposed to help.

While some fine-tuning may be needed, the law should benefit the disabled workers, their employers, and insurers.

Besides speedier resolution of claims disputes and higher benefits for the idled, there will be increased emphasis on rehabilitation and getting those injured back to work as soon as possible.

Some accident victims might not be able to return to their original jobs but could be retrained for other work. In some instances, all that may be needed is a little encouragement and training, which will now be provided.

Those entitled to compensation will no longer have to get along on little more than poverty-level income. Cost-of-living increases have been built into the new measure. Some so-called permanently disabled workers, who have not received an increase in compensation since their claims were settled, are in line for a long-overdue boost.

Workers left seriously handicapped or disfigured by job-related accidents will qualify for a one-third increase in disability compensation. Of the approximately 72,000 workers injured on the job annually in Massachusetts about 17,000 involve at least disability claims.

From the taxpayers' standpoint most of the improvements, including the higher benefits, will cost nary a dime. It will be paid by the employers' insurance.

The injured worker, his employer, and liability-insurance firms should all save money through less drawn-out proceedings. Claim disputes, which may now take years, are expected to be settled, in most instances, within no more than a few weeks. This should mean substantial savings in legal fees. With quicker settlements and many injured workers back on the job sooner, employer premiums are expected to be lower.

Possibly the biggest challenge for the new agency that will administer the compensation program will be settling the hundreds of disputed claims pending before the 12-member Industrial Accident Board. These special judges, whose ranks are under reorganization, will be increased by four next spring, with more streamlined proceedings, should be able to resolve most disputes more quickly. A separate four-member review board will, in effect, be the court of last resort for injured worker cases.

Things certainly should be a lot better than they have been. But how well it works in meeting its main objectives of speed, efficiency, and fairness only time will tell.

That it took decades for state lawmakers to come to grips with what so clearly was wrong with the nearly three-quarter-of-a-century-old workers' compensation system is little short of a disgrace -- something that must not be repeated.

Seeing to it that those injured at their workplace are adequately provided for is an ongoing moral responsibility of the commonwealth.

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