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Workers' comp choice due for West Virginia lawmakers

June 05, 2003

West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise's office has released a proposal to deal with the state's ailing workers' comp system, but without any agreement on how it will be paid for. As one state senator said, it's time to make some tough decisions.

The workers' comp system has a variety of woes, including businesses that don't pay their premiums and recipients who've faked their claims. But its biggest problem is that it's not taking in enough money to finance the claims it owes, resulting in a mounting deficit.

In 2002, the deficit rose from $572 million to $2.4 billion. Analysts quoted by the Associated Press say that without some changes, the system will be bankrupt by 2006, with a $4 billion deficit.

To fix some of what ails the system, the governor has proposed a new court to hear workers' comp claims and a "fraud czar" to root out those who collect even though they were never really injured.

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But the bulk of the repair must be accomplished by putting new dollars into the system. There are many ways to do that, but few of them are likely to be popular.

The least controversial will shift $150 million from the fund for black-lung sufferers, which is said to be overfunded. Another $30 million will come from federal tobacco settlement and the state's general fund budget.

Some lawmakers hope they can do it without pain, by accessing the one-time-only $60 million payment being sent to the state by the Bush administration to make up for the loss of revenue due to federal tax changes.

But that's not going to cover enough of the bill. And worse, some lawmakers are trying to rescind the 15 percent premium increase businesses face as of July 1. That would cost the system $250 million and leave it in worse shape than it was before.

There is no magic bullet that will save this system. Either some tax will have to be raised or money will have to be taken from other areas - areas like education, senior citizen programs and economic development.

We hope that when they make their choice, lawmakers are considering what's best for the state instead of for their own political careers.

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