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Jul 25

Workers’ comp committee to start by nominating arbitrators

A newly appointed panel will begin work today on recommending new arbitrators for workers’ compensation cases.

It is the next phase of sweeping reforms approved by the General Assembly and Gov. Pat Quinn that are supposed to save Illinois businesses hundreds of millions of dollars.

Quinn last week named 12 people to the revamped Workers’ Compensation Advisory Board. Included are two from Springfield.

The board will hit the ground running, with its first meeting scheduled today to begin reviewing applicants to be workers’ compensation arbitrators.  Arbitrators act as judges in workers’ comp cases and are paid $115,840 a year.

The reform bill requires that new arbitrators be appointed, although those serving as arbitrators when the reform bill passed can reapply for the jobs.  That didn’t stop five arbitrators from filing a federal lawsuit against the state, charging that they were unfairly fired.

The five said they did nothing wrong, but that they probably be replaced because of the reform law.  They also said Quinn damaged their reputations by saying that replacing arbitrators was a needed workers’ compensation reform.

The reforms cut arbitrator terms from six years to three, impose a gift ban and require ongoing training in fraud, ethics and medical best practices. New arbitrators have to be licensed attorneys, although former arbitrators who reapply are exempt from that requirement.

 

‘Cozy relationship’

The arbitrator reforms stemmed in part from a situation that emerged at the Menard Correctional Center, where nearly 400 employees were awarded nearly $10 million in workers’ compensation claims over a three-year period.

“One arbitrator heard every case,” said Mark Denzler, a newly appointed member of the Workers’ Compensation Advisory Board. Denzler, of Springfield, is vice president and chief operating officer of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association.

“It was the same attorney, the same doctor.  It was a pretty cozy relationship,” Denzler said.

Now, at least three arbitrators will be assigned to a hearing site, and cases will be randomly assigned.  There are 29 active arbitrators.

“The arbitrators we select will play a key role in the success or failure of the workers’ compensation act,” Denzler said. “The most important thing with every arbitrator is to look at references, background and determine if they will be fair and impartial.”

Another Springfield-based board member, Sean Stott, director of governmental affairs for the Laborers’ International Union of North America, said members have been advised the meetings on arbitrators could continue through mid-week.

“I would hope the board would take into account the history of the arbitrators’ professionalism and work ethic as opposed to how their decisions came down, whether they were viewed as pro-worker or pro-business,” Stott said.

Watchdog group

The advisory board makes its recommendations for arbitrators to Quinn. Ultimately, the Senate must confirm the appointments.

The advisory board is evenly split between representatives of employers and employees.  They are not paid, but can be reimbursed for expenses.

“Each of these appointees brings the knowledge and experience to support us in reforming Illinois’ workers’ compensation system,” Quinn said in a statement when appointing the advisory board.  “Our efforts to overhaul and modernize workers’ compensation are critical to improving our state’s business climate.”

Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, said he is pleased with Quinn’s appointments to the advisory board.

“I think the three goals (for the new advisory board) are qualifications, geographic balance and new faces,” said Bradley, who was instrumental in passing the workers’ compensation reform bill.  “I think he accomplished those goals.”

After making recommendations for arbitrators, the advisory board will work on formulating policies and generally monitoring the reforms.

“I think they are supposed to be an oversight or watchdog group for workers’ comp,” Bradley said.  “They will make sure progress is being made and not only the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law, is obeyed.”

In addition to naming new arbitrators, the reform law stipulates a 30 percent reduction in payments made to doctors and hospitals for workers’ compensation cases.  That is estimated to save businesses $500 million to $700 million.

It also establishes a medical network for workers’ compensation claims, reduces the amount of time a person can collect for carpal tunnel syndrome and changes the burden of proof in proving whether alcohol or drugs played a role in an injury.

 

Doug Finke can be reached at 788-1527.

 

Workers’ Compensation Advisory Board

* Mark Denzler, vice president and chief operating officer of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association

* Sean Stott, director of governmental affairs for the Laborers’ International Union of North America

*  Mitchell Abbett, human resources and safety manager at Holten Meat Inc.

* Richard Aleksy, partner with Corti, Aleksy and Castaneda

* Aaron Anderson, director and representative for the Painters District Council 30 in Aurora

* Michael Carrigan, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO

* John Carpenter, senior vice president of policy for the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce

* David Halffield, vice president of Sears Holdings Management Corp.

* Phillip Gruber, general vice president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers

* William Lowry, a workers’ compensation lawyer with Nyhan, Bambrick, Kinzie and Lowry

* Mark Prince, an injured workers lawyer with Prince Law Firm

* David Vite, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association

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