Civil Beat’s special project on Hawaii’s workers’ compensation system, Waiting In Pain, revealed that a process to help people who are hurt on the job is actually weighted in favor of insurance companies and the doctors hired by them to examine injured workers.

With deep pockets and no reason to rush, insurance companies and their doctors can wage lengthy legal and bureaucratic battles until the workers give up on disability payments or accept a lump sum less than what they might deserve.

The workers’ comp system is so torturous that some injured employees appear to have taken their own lives.

Hawaii’s system is broken and lives are being ruined. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

One step that could go a long way to fixing things would be to allow employers and employees to agree upon a doctor.

Civil Beat Investigations Editor John Hill found that a good deal of the agony that patients go through could be alleviated by such a requirement. There used to be such a provision for an independent doctor.

Change starts with the Hawaii Legislature, but it chose not to consider a bill in the 2017 session that called for the following:

Provides that an independent medical examination and permanent impairment rating examination shall be conducted by a qualified chiropractor or physician selected by the mutual agreement of the parties. Provides a process for appointment in the event that there is no mutual agreement.

State Sen. Karl Rhoads, a co-author of Senate Bill 1116, told Civil Beat that the insurance industry — which has opposed workers’ comp reform — “must be really afraid of what a truly independent medical examiner is going to find.”

Rhoads, who formerly chaired the House Judiciary Committee before moving to the Senate, says in the current system the doctor’s loyalties lie with the insurer rather than the injured worker.

“I don’t see how that makes any legal, moral or ethical sense at all,” said Rhoads.

Neither do we.

A Legislative Solution

The House companion measure, HB 980, also did not get heard. Then-Speaker Joe Souki introduced it at the request of another party, but the bill was referred to four separate committees for consideration — the Legislature’s way of making sure a measure goes nowhere.

Unfortunately, the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee did not even hear SB 1116, even though Rhoads is the committee’s vice chair and the measure’s co-author, Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran, is the chair. SB 1116 was referred to a joint hearing with Judiciary and Labor and Sen. Roz Baker’s Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health Committee.

Sens. Karl Rhoads, left, and Gil Keith-Agaran authored a workers’ comp reform bill, but it wasn’t heard by their own Judiciary and Labor Committee earlier this year.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

We urge the Legislature to act on SB 1116 and HB 980 beginning next month. Lawmakers should hear (or read) for themselves the stories of the workers suffering because of Hawaii’s bad law.

Both bills would require the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations to pay for the exam if the parties don’t reach agreement, something the department would likely resist. An improved bill would require the insurer to pay, as is the case in other states.

Reforming the workers’ comp system will not be easy. Health care and insurance companies give tons of money to legislators and spend heavily as well on lobbying.

But not fixing the problem would be a shame, and a betrayal. The Legislature is comprised almost entirely of Democrats, who historically have championed not only the rights of laborers but the right to employer-provided health care.

It’s time to stop the senseless and cruel waiting game for Hawaii’s injured workers.

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