SPRINGFIELD — Members of an Illinois House committee on Monday spent a portion of their hearing on a proposed workers compensation overhaul debating whether the hearing should have been held at all.
Following a meeting earlier this month among Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the four top leaders of the General Assembly, the House Labor and Commerce Committee scheduled a hearing on a long-dormant bill from House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs.
With a stopgap spending plan that’s funding most state operations set to expire after Dec. 31, Rauner has said he wants business-friendly changes to the state’s workers compensation laws to be part of a comprehensive compromise to end the ongoing budget stalemate.
Durkin’s bill, which was introduced in July 2015 to reflect Rauner’s position at the time, would tighten the standards for what counts as an on-the-job injury and reduce the fees doctors and hospitals receive for treating injured workers, among other changes.
But Republicans on the committee, including Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, said the bill doesn’t reflect progress made last spring in negotiations among a bipartisan group of rank-and-file lawmakers.
“I don’t know what we’re going to accomplish today,” Brady said, noting that Republicans did not ask for the hearing and that Durkin was in a meeting with Rauner and the other legislative leaders at the same time.
In fact, Durkin sent a letter to House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, objecting to the hearing after it was scheduled more than a week ago.
“I believe it is premature to hold a hearing on the matter,” Durkin wrote. “Our goal should be to use the legislation as a starting point for discussion at our leaders’ meeting that day.”
Durkin said workers compensation was part of Monday’s discussion among the leaders behind closed doors.
As for the hearing on his bill that was taking place at the same time, Durkin described it as political theater.
“If we’re going to solve work comp, it’s not going to be done in that committee; it’s going to be done in that room over there,” he said, pointing to the governor’s Capitol office, “between the four leaders and the governor.”
Without going into much detail, Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, said following the meeting that Democrats would come back to a scheduled meeting today with counterproposals on workers compensation and pension reform.
Madigan, however, made no such commitment in his comments to reporters, saying only, “That’s fine,” in response to Cullerton’s remarks.
Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, chairman of the House Labor and Commerce Committee, said the hearing was necessary to establish where the discussions stand. Hoffman said a working group of lawmakers hasn’t talked about the issue since June, something he blamed on the governor.
The hearing showed that little has changed in the interim.
Republicans and their allies in business want stricter requirements for workers to prove that injuries occurred on the job, among other changes they say will reduce costs for employers and make Illinois more competitive.
Democrats, meanwhile, argue that a 2011 workers compensation overhaul has been effective at cutting costs, but they say insurance companies have held on to those savings rather than passing them along to customers in the form of lower premiums.
The 2011 law also cut the payments doctors and hospitals receive for treating patients with workers compensation claims.
Representatives for medical providers warned against further fee cuts such as those proposed in Durkin’s bill.
Additional cuts could drive providers to stop accepting new workers compensation patients, they said.
“The bottom line here is that access to care for injured work would suffer,” said Patrick Gallagher, a vice president with the Illinois Health and Hospital Association.