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Michael Grabell: Alabama Bill Would Increase Workers’ Comp Benefits for Amputees

Alabama to have the lowest permanent partial disability benefits in the country.

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Image from Flickr via jamiedfw

By Michael Grabell
By arrangement with ProPublica

The bill, filed April 2, comes less than a month after a ProPublica and NPR investigation showed that Alabama had the lowest such benefits in the country and provided injured workers with an amount that left them far below the poverty line.

The story highlighted the stark disparity in workers’ compensation among states. It profiled a man who lost his arm at an Alabama chicken feed mill and received $45,000—far less than another man who lost his arm at an auto supplier just across the Georgia state line, who received benefits that could exceed $700,000 over his lifetime.

The Alabama bill would eliminate a cap of $220 a week that had been in place since 1985. It would raise the maximum benefit to 80 percent of the state average weekly wage, or about $635. Under the new formula, the most a worker could receive for losing an arm would rise from $48,840 to about $140,000—a big increase, but still below the national average of $169,878.

These increases would be offset by new limits on payments to permanently and totally disabled workers.

Legislation to raise the cap has been proposed in the past. But this bill, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh and Sen. Cam Ward, both Republicans, contains the largest increase to date.

The bill also lifts benefits for workers who suffer serious back and shoulder injuries, allows compensation for psychiatric illnesses, raises attorney fees, and gives workers more choices if they don’t like the doctors selected by their employer.

These increases would be offset by new limits on payments to permanently and totally disabled workers, who would no longer receive lifetime benefits. Instead, their workers’ comp would be cut off at age 75 or about 10 years after the accident, whichever provides benefits for the longest period.

In addition, the bill places stricter limits on the fees physicians and hospitals can charge for treating injured workers. And it gives employers and insurers more control over setting those fees.

Lifetime benefits remain the norm in the vast majority of the country under the idea that the most severely disabled workers do not get a chance to earn raises and save for the future.

“This bill is designed to force all three—the business community, trial lawyers and the medical community to get in the same room,” Ward said in an interview. “This bill will change many times, but we’ve got to start somewhere.”

The bill is likely to face opposition from the medical community and some attorneys for injured workers.

While employers in Alabama have long complained that medical costs are higher than in other states, health care providers say limiting fees causes doctors to stop treating injured workers, making it harder for them to find good medical care.

Several states in the Southeast, including Florida and North Carolina, have passed laws in recent years cutting off workers’ comp benefits at or near retirement age. Others, such as Mississippi, have long limited permanently disabled workers to no more than nine years of benefits.

Supporters of such caps say workers’ comp isn’t a retirement plan and that most workers don’t receive pensions or earn wages after a certain age.

Still, lifetime benefits remain the norm in the vast majority of the country under the idea that the most severely disabled workers do not get a chance to earn raises and save for the future and shouldn’t become taxpayers’ burden when they get old.

The bill now awaits debate in the Senate committee on fiscal responsibility and economic development.

Michael Grabell covers economic and labor issues for ProPublica.

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