New Jersey: The Fix is In

October 15th, 2008 by

Back in April, we blogged the troubled status of workers comp in New Jersey, a patronage-ridden system that failed to provide timely benefits to many injured workers. The system suffered from a decades-long inertia: yes, there were problems for injured workers, but employers benefitted from relatively low rates. There was little groundswell for reform; the last effort to update the legislation took place in the 1970s.
This past spring, Dunstan McNichol and John Martin, reporters for the Star-Ledger, ran a lengthy expose of problems in the system. Perhaps muckraking is not what it used to be, but in this case, it worked wonders. Governor Corzine recently signed five reforms bills into law, all stemming from the exceptional reporting performed by McNichol and Martin.
Here is a brief summary of the bills:
S1917/A2969: The governing board of the state’s rating bureau is expanded to include representatives of labor, business and the general public. Presumably, the meetings will be open and, for the first time, actions of the board will be documented.
S1916/A2968: This bill ensures prompt judicial attention to disputed claims. In the past, workers might wait years (literally) for treatment if a carrier disputed the claim.
S1915/A3059 requires employers to submit proof of workers comp coverage on their annual reports filed with the Department of Treasury. As with many states, undercollection of premiums penalizes employers who carry full coverage for their workers.
S1914/A2967 strenthens enforcement through enhanced administrative and criminal penalties against employers who fail to secure comp coverage.
S1913/A2966 increases the power of judges to enforce the law against insurers, employers or attorneys who fail to comply with a judge’s orders or deadlines.
In the original expose, McNichol and Martin demonstrated that the appointment of judges was based almost entirely on patronage. We can only hope that legislative reforms include training for judges and sanctions (including removal) for those who are unable or unwilling to improve the way the system functions.
While it will take some time to determine the effectiveness of the New Jersey reforms, these five laws definitely move the system in the right direction, toward fairness and accountability. The fix is in – and that’s a good thing. Of course, a system is only as good as the people who run it. It’s comforting to know that an independent and quality press – exemplified by McNichol and Martin – will be on hand to monitor the results.