Bill Melds Health Reform Goal With Shift in California Workers’ Comp System

California’s workers’ compensation laws — much like the health care system — are built to help when something goes wrong. California employers send lots of money every year to workers’ comp to “minimize the adverse impact of work-related injuries on California employees and employers.”

One of the goals of the Affordable Care Act and a wide array of related efforts in California is to shift toward keeping people healthy rather than curing them only when sick or injured.

A California legislator is proposing a similar reform for the state’s $15 billion workers’ comp system. The proposal is aimed initially at farm workers with no health insurance, but proponents say if the idea works there, it could spread into other parts of the workers’ comp system.

AB 1170, by Assembly member Luis Alejo (D-Salinas), calls for a two-year pilot project, creating a new bucket of money — the Care of Agricultural Workers Fund — to pay for farm workers’ health coverage. The goal is to provide insurance to cover all injuries and illnesses — work-related and non-work related.

The bill directs the Department of Industrial Relations to determine the amount of money spent on workers’ health care through the workers’ comp system. Growers would redirect that amount of their workers’ comp payments toward the new fund, which would pay for comprehensive coverage for employees without insurance.

Stakeholders Taking Time To Decide

The idea — introduced in the Legislature in February — is taking a while to sink in. Labor groups, growers and attorneys are still deciding whether they like the idea or not.

“We applaud the sentiments behind the bill,” said Mark Schacht, deputy director of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.

“Mr. Alejo is to be commended for trying to address the health care needs of farm workers and their families, including the undocumented, but the bill makes dramatic changes to the existing workers’ compensation system, which is critical to injured farm workers and we have many questions that remain unanswered. So, at this point we have no position on the measure, and we continue to study it,” Schacht said.

Several other organizations — including the United Farm Workers, the California Farm Bureau Federation and the Western Growers Association — had similar responses or didn’t respond at all when asked about the bill.

Two lawyers’ groups — the California Applicants’ Attorneys Association, which represents lawyers specializing in workers’ comp cases, and the California Employment Lawyers Association — have not taken a position on the bill.

The Nisei Farmers League, a Fresno-based organization that says it represents growers and farm workers, supports the idea. Manuel  Cunha, the organization’s president, said he and Alejo came up with the germ of this proposal more than two years ago when discussing the problem of coverage for farm workers — especially undocumented workers — falling through the health reform safety net.

“The Affordable Care Act is supposed to be 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for all health problems — on the job and off the job. But there are a lot of farm workers in California who don’t benefit from that,” Cunha said.

Undocumented immigrants are not covered under the ACA.

“We thought since employers are paying into the workers’ comp system already, why don’t we take a piece of that workers’ comp fund and use it for health coverage for farm workers who don’t qualify for coverage in other ways. Why shouldn’t it come out of employers workers’ comp contributions?” Cunha said.

Cunha said he will not be surprised if lawyers don’t like the idea. “This will dip into attorneys’ pockets because it could have a bearing on a lot of litigation around workers’ comp cases,” Cunha said.

Cunha said he would be surprised if labor groups like the UFW and growers groups like Western Growers and the Farm Bureau oppose the bill.

“I don’t know how they could be against this because it’s going to provide health coverage for those who don’t have it now. How could you be against that?” Cunha asked.

Potential To Grow Beyond Agricultural Workers

Cunha and staffers in Alejo’s office agreed that if the idea is proven effective in a pilot program for farm workers, there’s no reason it couldn’t be tried in other, non-agricultural professions.

“There’s an awful lot of money going into workers’ comp — more than $15 billion every year,” Cunha said. “If we took the health care side of that — not the unemployment part, just the health care side — we could do amazing things. Some estimates go as high as $11.4 billion a year for medical expenses in workers’ comp,” Cunha said.

Alejo’s bill, slated to be heard in the Assembly Committee on Insurance, is not the only legislative discussion of workers’ comp this session.

The state Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee is reviewing a 2012 overhaul of the system, partly in response to state officials issuing a warning to insurers not to use the new law to deny treatment — especially home treatment — that had been previously approved.

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