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WHAT OTHERS SAY: It's a travesty the legislature hasn't fixed Second Injury Fund

Thursday, January 17, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST

The easiest way to understand Missouri's complicated Second Injury Fund is to compare it to the way America keeps its commitment to veterans.

The United States government makes grand promises to those who volunteer to defend the country from our enemies. Health care, money for college, mental health services, even job training.

Sometimes the promises are not kept. Some Veterans Affairs facilities are underfunded and overcrowded. Suicides, among active servicemen and veterans as well, are alarmingly high because Congress and the Pentagon haven't made ongoing mental health care a priority.

In short, all too often, the nation doesn't fulfill what should be sacred promises to those who put themselves in harm's way, sometimes making the ultimate sacrifice.

Unkept promises plague Missouri's Second Injury Fund, too. Ironically, the program — which helps compensate a certain class of workers injured on the job — was created to help keep promises to veterans.

After World War II, many veterans came home with injuries that were bad, but not bad enough that they couldn’t work. The Second Injury Fund served as an incentive to get employers to hire them. If they were injured on the job, the fund protected employers, who pay a tax to fund the Second Injury Fund, from paying for costs stemming from the war injuries.

The way it works today — at least the way it's supposed to work — is to encourage employers to hire or keep employees with prior work-related disabilities. If there's a subsequent injury, the Second Injury Fund covers it.

But for more than two years, the Second Injury Fund has been broke. Last week, state Auditor Tom Schweich confirmed what Attorney General Chris Koster had told lawmakers in each of the last two sessions, and what former Auditor Susan Montee first predicted back in 2007.

The primary reason the fund is broke, according to outside audits, is simple. In 2005, as part of a bill to rein in workers compensation costs that has created many more problems than it solved, the General Assembly put a cap on the amount of revenue that employers had to put into the Second Injury Fund. In effect, the Legislature starved the fund, and failed to keep its promises to workers.

Republican lawmakers broke the fund, but they don't want to fix it. For years they blamed former Attorney General Jay Nixon, a Democrat who is now the governor, for cutting deals with trial attorneys who represent injured workers, paying the workers lump sum settlements from which the attorneys take a cut.

Math says that's not true. The lump sum settlements saved the fund from even larger payments over time. They saved the state money, even while increasing short-term payouts.

But forget all that. It doesn't matter if Democrats are to blame or Republicans are to blame. What matters is that the fund is broke. What matters is that $28 million is owed to real workers with real injuries who have real legal judgments awarding them money owed by the state of Missouri.

Many of those workers, but not all, are veterans. The state is letting them down.

What's particularly vexing about the failure of the Legislature to fix this problem is that there are numerous, reasonable solutions to it. One of them is to dissolve the fund and fold it into the regular workers' compensation system, as happens in many states.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, often bitter combatants in legislative matters, agreed nearly two years ago on such a plan. But another business group, Associated Industries of Missouri, said no and is standing in the way of a solution. Lawmakers, who often don't know what to do when their lobbyist-masters disagree, punted.

So now we have the Republican auditor saying what the Democratic auditor said. The fund is broke. The workers are owed the money. They will get it eventually. The only question is how and when Missouri pays.

Every year that goes by, the bill gets higher, while real, disabled workers sit at home clutching a contract with a judge's signature that says they are owed money for the injuries they got on the job.

Those people have names. Here's just a few of them: William Michael Schoonover, 59, Gladstone; David Bosworth, 66, St. Charles; Thomas Dorsey, 63, St. Clair; James Otten, 49, St. Louis; Ellia Eaton, 52, Altamont; Jerry Johnson, 59, Orrick; John Heck, 59, Mound City; Chaz Jacobs, 31, Gladstone; Donna Anderson, 57, Grubville; Andrew Cross, 58, St. Louis; John Detter, 57, Cedar Hill; Eddie Finley, 55, St. Charles; Jacqueline Ford, 60, St. Louis; Michael Heisler, 61, Florissant; Kathleen Peters, 51, Wright City; and Robert White, 45, Cuba.

They are among 713 Missourians who are owed money by the Second Injury Fund but are not being paid.

These are the people the Missouri Legislature is stiffing. Read their names, ladies and gentlemen. They're your constituents. Pay them what is owed.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.


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