Voinovich's workers' comp legacy Featured

10:09am EDT July 22, 2002

Voinovich's workers' comp legacy

Ohio's governor will leave office with the task of reform half-finished. Did small business get used as window dressing in the debate?

By John Ettorre

When George Voinovich looks back at his eight years in office as Ohio's 65th governor, will he see the glass half full or half empty as it pertains to one of his original top priorities, reforming the state's feudal workers' compensation system?

He and his longtime aide, now Bureau of Workers' Compensation Director Jim Conrad, can take genuine pride in having introduced managed care to the system as shock therapy to jolt the bloated state-run insurance pool out of its decades-long trance. But his master plan for finishing the job-by, among other things, radically paring back the time during which non-working injured people can claim benefits-was dashed by voters' thumbs-down on state issue 2, which failed by an almost three-to-one margin last November.

So with time running out on Voinovich's second and final term in the governor's chair (he's now running for the U.S. Senate seat of the retiring John Glenn, and Conrad will undoubtedly follow) there will be no time to revisit the battle, at least for this governor.

The bottom line, maintains National Federation of Independent Businesses Ohio chapter chief Roger Geiger, clearly a glass-half-full guy, is that "companies and individuals are still a lot better off with just half the reforms." Injured workers will get back on the job faster, prevention and rehabilitation will be increasingly stressed, and elaborate gaming of the system as well as outright fraud will be reduced, he and many others say.

But to John Polk, former Council of Smaller Enterprises executive director, last November's defeat at the polls was notable more for pointing out the impotence of what he likes to call the small-business "movement." He maintains that it has all but collapsed in Ohio and elsewhere around the country, a victim of co-option by big-business lobbies.

Both the current system and the larger political debate around it were keyed more to the needs of huge employers such as Procter & Gamble and Timken Steel, which are self-insured and thus not subject to the state's captive $12 billion risk pool, overseen by BWC. Critics say that Voinovich, famous throughout his career for systematically disarming potential opponents by cutting masterful truce deals, never took the concerns of the bulk of employers into account on this issue.

With his former group, COSE, now politically neutered as a lobbying force representing small business, Polk notes that the NFIB was the leading small-business voice in the workers' comp debate. But Polk flatly calls that group "an arm of the Republican Party," not an authentic representative of its members. Indeed, Geiger can't point to a single one of his 36,000 member companies that actively lobbied on the issue. "Our members don't have time to follow all the ins and outs of legislation in Columbus," he says.

Polk maintains that's merely a function of the group's top-down, rather than grass-roots, approach. "They say they have a state chapter, but we never see volunteer leadership," says Polk. "In the case of Issue 2, small business was so nakedly put up as window dressing for the large employers to get by fiat what they couldn't get by negotiation" in the legislature a few years ago.

"Workers' comp is one of the few remaining sticks that big business and big labor have to beat each other with," he says.

Regardless, virtually every serious observer can agree that with the job of changing the system only half-accomplished, dangerous structural problems in Ohio's workers' comp system remain, problems which even the historic bull market's surge in investment earnings can't obscure forever. Take carpal tunnel, for instance. Issue 2 would have recategorized the condition as a disease rather than an injury covered by the system, which would have vastly reduced the pool's exposure to claims arising from what might be America's No. 1 growth malady.

In the interim, however, a federal appeals court in April has raised the stakes by firing the shot heard round the employment-law world: It declared carpal tunnel syndrome a disability covered under the much-dreaded Americans with Disabilities Act. If that becomes the law of the land, all hell could break loose. Almost overnight, actuarial tables compiled for risk pools such as BWC's would be rendered meaningless.

The upshot: On an issue which then-new-Governor Voinovich constantly referred to as "the silent killer of Ohio's jobs," the governor will leave office having detained the perpetrator, convicted him, but then failing to obtain a life sentence.

Voinovich is likely to be remembered as a man who dragged the giant system, a relic of the Industrial Revolution and its clashing dinosaur approach to labor-management issues, into the 20th century. By redirecting responsibility for providing medical delivery under the system from ossified state bureaucracies to regulated insurers with built-in incentives to be efficient, he's sparked more than a little hope that the state and its employers can at last get some semblance of control over runaway costs.

But absent the other changes, the history books may also one day point the finger at him for helping pave the way to yawning revenue shortfalls in the insurance pool.

But then, who ever said being governor was easy?