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July 6, 2016

Are Workers’ Comp Systems Broken?

Summary:

Here is a summary of research on how injured employees fare in workers' compensation systems.

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As national conversations occur about the direction of workers’ compensation (WC) systems, I sometimes hear comments that “WC systems are broken.” Rarely are public programs either all black or all white. The material below summarizes relevant information from a variety of published Workers Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) studies about how most workers fare in WC systems. How workers fare is critical to assessing the performance of WC systems, and the effectiveness of these systems affects the competitiveness of American business.

See also: States of Confusion: Workers Comp Extraterritorial Issues

The data from WCRI illustrates that the majority of workers in the workers’ compensation system:

  • Return to work within a few weeks of the injury, typically to their pre-injury employers at the same jobs and pay as before the injury
  • Receive their first income benefit payment in 30 days or less from the time that the payer is notified of the claim
  • Report that they were satisfied with the overall medical care received, including the time it took to have the first non-emergency visit with a provider and access to the desired medical services

See also: Return to Work Decisions on a Worker’s Comp Claim

Here is more detail:

Return to work and recovery of earnings capacity

The overwhelming majority of injured workers return to work and do so to their pre-injury employer at the same or higher pay:

  • 75% to 85% of workers had less than one week of lost time[1]
  • 80% to 90% of workers had four weeks of lost time or less[2]
  • 85% to 95% of workers had six weeks or less of lost time[3]
  • Only 5% to 10% said they earned a lot less when they first returned to work (for those who returned to work)[4]
  • 87% to 95% said they returned to their pre-injury employer[5]
  • Half of those changing employers reported that the change was not due to the injury[6]

Timely payment

Most workers receive their first indemnity payment without dispute or substantial delay:[7]

  • 40% to 50% in 14 days or less from the time payer was notified of injury
  • 60% to 75% in 30 days or less

Satisfaction and access to medical care

By an overwhelming majority, most workers were satisfied with medical care received (workers with more than seven days of lost time):

  • 75% to 85% reported somewhat or very satisfied[8]
  • 85% to 90% reported no problems or small problems getting desired care[9]
  • 80% to 90% reported being somewhat or very satisfied with the time it took to have the first nonemergency care[10]

While the systems may serve most workers reasonably well, the data also shows that there are injured workers with certain attributes that make them less likely to receive these good outcomes. Discussions that focus on system changes that improve outcomes for these injured workers have high-impact potential. A subsequent post will highlight the evidence on who these workers are.

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About the Author

Dr. Richard A. Victor is a senior fellow with the Sedgwick Institute. He is the former president and CEO of the Workers Compensation Research Institute (WCRI), an independent, not-for-profit research organization that he founded.

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