If you had asked Gary Countryman a year ago about the status of workers' compensation programs in the United States, he would have described a system plagued by rising costs, bickering factions and an uncertain future.
Now the president of the Boston-based Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. says progress has been made and there are reasons to be hopeful. However, he said there are still problems with the nation's network of state-run workers' compensation programs.
He and other participants in a two-day conference that concludes today in Baltimore pointed to an improved dialogue between representatives of labor, employers, insurers and health care providers.
Workers' compensation provides care and income benefits for employees hurt on the job. Between 1978 and 1987, benefit payments nationwide increased from $8 billion to more than $24 billion.
Efforts to reduce costs have often pitted workers against employers, and insurers against health care providers, with each faction blaming the others for higher prices, inadequate safety efforts and opportunism.
But Countryman said the past year has seen "labor, business and insurance talking to each other more and talking at each other less."
For example, representatives of the National Association of Manufacturers and the AFL-CIO, representing labor, have been meeting regularly over the past year in a special committee looking into workers' compensation issues.
The manufacturers association, along with the Alliance of American Insurers and American Insurance Association, is sponsoring the national conference at the Baltimore Inn.
"We seem to be moving in the right direction. Just keep talking," Countryman said.
Alan Strohmaier, director of unemployment & workers' compensation for General Motors Corp., said the high cost of workers' compensation threatens to erode the ability of the nation's business to compete globally.
However, he added, "While we recognize that more work needs to be done, we should not forget the progress that has been made."
At General Motors, union and corporate representatives are attempting to adapt the workplace to the workers in order to reduce injuries. Also, workers who are partially disabled are being placed in new, productive jobs geared to their abilities, he said. This brings the employees off workers' compensation rolls sooner.
The belt-tightening that has gone on elsewhere in the health insurance field should be brought to bear on workers' compensation, he said.
For example, fee reviews could be established and preferred provider organizations utilized, he said. Under preferred provider systems, patients are encouraged to use participating health care providers who agree in advance on their fees.
One cost-cutting idea that has been suggested but is opposed by labor is the introduction of co-payments or deductions for benefits, said James Ellenberger, assistant director of the AFL-CIO's department of occupational safety & health & social security.
"I don't think it is appropriate to ask injured workers to pay a portion of their work-related illness or injury," Ellenberger said.
Ellenberger praised the efforts of some states that have re-written their worker's compensation laws to speed up the process and reduce the need for appeals.