In its recent editorial "Don't Destroy the FTC," The Post pointed out that the Federal Trade Commission "reported not long ago that the buyers of life insurance paid $1.3 billion in excess premiums during one year."
Oddly, in a previous editorial on a bill concerning D.C. worker's compensation, The Post swallowed a seven-year leap in employer premiums from $15 million to $120 million without a nod to the possibility that such an increase might also be an insurance industry rip-off. It's not the insurer, says The Post; it's the worker who's causing all the trouble.
The Board of Trade has made much of the high maximum compensation rates afforded workers injured in D.C. Actually, only a handful earn wages high enough to qualify for maximum benefits, and few of those are ever exposed to the risk of serious injury. The average weekly wage in D.C. for non-governmental employees is $270, which yields an average compensation figure of about $180 per week ($9,360 per year) -- less than 45 percent of the maximum figure quoted in Board of Trade literature.
Of equal concern in the bill as introduced by council member Willie Hardy are the provisions to correct certain "legal anomalies," as The Post delicately calls them. Chief among these is certification of disability only by a company-designated doctor and denial of benefits if a worker refused surgery ordered by such a doctor.
Those who wonder if doctors behave without regard to who pays them need only recall the scandals attached to company drug-testing or to black and brown lung disease -- the very existence of which was denied by industry physicians. And, at best, mandatory surgery might appear coercive to anyone who has suffered a back problem, for example, or who just desires a second opinion.
Another "legal anomaly" at stake is the burden of proof, which would be shifted from the employer to the worker. Historically, workers gained this benefit in return for forfeiting their right to sue the employer for negligence. Now they are expected to give up this presumption without really regaining their ability to go to court.
In this same vein, the Hardy bill would require the victim of occupational disease -- such as loss of hearing -- to cease work for six months to prove the damage is permanent before collecting benefits. The number of working people who can afford this provision must surely be minuscule.
It is ironic indeed that this bill, which would do so much to harm D.C. residents, has been wrapped in the flag of home rule. Shifting administration of the program from the U.S. Department of Labor will cost us much less money, we are told. Estimates of $300,000 or so for administration have been suggested by Hardy's committee, along with a claim that the District will automatically save over $800,000 in payments to the federal government.
It is wishful thinking to assume that an agency with 42 employees handling 12,000 active files can be replaced by a staff one-third the size, as suggested by Hardy. Such a move would promote endless delays and consequent hardship for those most in need. In addition to the obvious ongoing expenses, a multitude of hidden start-up costs initially will have to be paid by the District. These will, it is said, be paid through an assessment on insurance carriers, who will pass on the costs in the form of -- you guessed it -- higher premiums!
New external costs, such as increased welfare, food stamps and medical payments for those unable to obtain worker's compensation, will have to be borne by the District government -- a body already notably short on funds. Meanwhile, the $800,000 now paid to the Department of Labor will not terminate with local administration, but will continue for years to come until all older claims are concluded.
The last-ditch Board of Trade argument is that high premiums are driving business from the District. Oblivious to the din of construction at every vacant downtown lot, the spiraling cost of real estate and the hotly contested effort of hotels to expand in residential neighborhoods, these prophets predict doom.
In fact, a multitude of factors attract business to our city, and passage of the Hardy bill will have no more effect on D.C. growth than it will on worker's compensation premiums. What passage will do is leave injured workers at the mercy of the "predatory business practices" decried by The Post in its defense of the FTC, and it will make the District of Columbia the first jurisdiction in the country to trade in the tried and true principles of worker's compensation for a pig in a poke. For any bill to pass now without examination of the premium rate-making process, already completely controlled by Mayor Barry's appointed insurance commissioner, would surely be a hoax on the city's employees and workers alike.