Opportunity to Modernize and Reform State’s Workers’ Comp System Must Be Seized

Partner Voices Blog: Greg Biryla, Executive Director, Unshackle Upstate

Recently, the New York State Comptroller’s office released a report outlining the shifting trends in New York State’s regional labor forces. Sadly, Upstate New York’s economy again shows serious signs of struggle while Downstate continues to experience healthy growth. Of the state’s ten designated economic development regions, eight experienced a decline in labor force – all of them located Upstate. Upstate regional unemployment rates are also increasing, mirroring this trend.

There are many reasons for Upstate’s continued economic malaise, but most find their origin in the State’s Capitol, which for decades has taxed, mandated and regulated New York State into the New York State Capitolleast economically competitive in the nation.

One such obstacle that has long stifled growth and investment is prohibitively high Workers’ Compensation insurance costs, which ranked the third highest in the nation as of 2016.

Needlessly exorbitant workers’ compensation costs impact every New Yorker. Businesses of every size struggle to hire skilled workers, compete with businesses in other states and grow their operations. Not-for-profits with tight operating budgets are not able to increase prices to compensate for spiking premiums which can lead to reductions in labor or services provided. Lastly, municipalities of every kind – counties, towns, school districts – pass high premium costs down to taxpayers, exacerbating New York’s notoriously burdensome state and local tax burden.

Until this year, New York’s Workers’ Compensation system had not been reformed in nearly a decade. To their credit, Governor Cuomo and the Legislature prioritized and passed reforms in the 2017 State Budget that if properly implemented, will reduce costs for businesses and taxpayers while enhancing protections for seriously injured workers.

The reform legislation empowers the New York State Workers’ Compensation Board, with stakeholder input, to update New York’s medical impairment guidelines, which determine one-time schedule loss of use payments, to ensure they are “reflective of advances in modern medicine.” The state’s medical impairment guidelines were last updated in the early 1990’s and therefore ignore more than two decades of medical and scientific advancement in the testing, diagnosis, and treatment of injuries.

Certain injuries that once took weeks or months to heal can now be treated in days thanks to advances in modern medicine. The nature of work has also changed drastically in the two decades since the state’s impairment guidelines were last updated.

Downtown Albany, NYA draft version of the proposed new impairment guidelines was made publicly available for comment earlier this month. While just a first iteration, these proposed reformed guidelines are still too reliant on subjectivity and ambiguity over the use of clear, objective medical standards to determine injuries, their severity, and impact.

Additional steps need to be taken to provide employers, workers, and taxpayers with a Workers’ Compensation system that is modern, effective and affordable.

Even though medical guideline modernization was bargained for and agreed to as part of the final 2017 adopted state budget by Democrats and Republicans, with input from business, labor, and other stakeholders, we are now seeing an avalanche of special interest propaganda assault the process in an effort to protect a broken status quo. This is unfortunate and irresponsible.

Updating our decades-old structure to reflect advances in medicine, technology, and science is imperative and would result in better outcomes for injured workers, returning them to the job safer and more expeditiously. Concurrently, modernizing the state’s $10 billion Workers’ Compensation system will also ease a significant cost burden for employers, not-for-profits, municipalities and ultimately, taxpayers – something desperately needed across Upstate New York.