About a year before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a major reform of California’s disastrous workers’ comp system, the same basic reforms were fought and eventually killed by elected Democrats trying to protect lawyers who gamed our broken system but gave heavily to Democratic campaign coffers.
You never read that story, I will bet, because most California media have tacitly agreed on a shallow storyline that does not include detailing how the forces against reform have proved so effective.
The media have failed in a core duty: to explain the roots of bad public policy, thus promoting intelligent civic discourse and enabling the corrective tendencies of democracy. Now, most media continue to engage in context-free coverage of a 75-page thicket of compromises that may or may not bring billions of dollars in savings.
Before, few journalists did the legwork to regularly compare foolish California practices to several forward-thinking states, where costs are far lower and the truly injured get better coverage. With reform, the media laziness continues. For example, news reports offer so little context you wouldn’t know that some reforms are unlikely to survive legal challenges mounted by workers’ comp attorneys who enjoy sympathetic California courts that have regularly watered down reform.
Such details distract from the storyline: The governor won; we’ll save billions.
Lack of context can be seen in how the media went gaga over the new "health network" rule. The rule requires an allegedly injured worker to use a doctor from a network selected by the company. California workers currently engage in the worst "doctor shopping" in the nation, often seeking physicians who over-treat injuries and let them stay off the job for months. Had excitable journalists picked up a phone, they might have learned that studies of states using such networks show fairly modest savings.
California may indeed save billions from the entire reform package, but only if Schwarzenegger puts his formidable chess skills to work by thinking three steps ahead of the anti-reformers already preparing to file lawsuits against reform, and only if the governor cleans up huge new loopholes and complexities that threaten serious savings.
The media has largely ignored the fact that smaller businesses — the economic engine in the Golden State — under reform must become experts wise to loopholes. Unless Schwarzenegger corrects this bias, smaller firms could suffer tremendously.
With California losing companies to Texas and other inexpensive states, that’s news.
Take the new $10,000 medical care "limit" for workers, who under reform are now free to immediately seek care before their claim is approved by the employer.
"Whenever you put a dollar limit, it’s a message that this is how much the bill can be run up to," says North Carolina’s James Moore, a nationwide workers’ comp consultant. "That’s why most states limit it to $2,000 or $2,500."
But California’s Legislature, in a compromise with union and Democrats’ demands, chose $10,000. Says Moore: "You can even get a surgery before you get a ruling on whether you qualify."
For years, too many California workers gamed the system. Unions, which saw phony paid disabilities as akin to free vacation, vociferously fought to protect such perks.
Now, workers can burn through $10,000. Trial lawyers are drooling. A lucrative new courtroom front opens for them once companies get a peek at huge medical bills and refuse to pay.
"This $10,000 provision needs to be re-legislated, it’s that bad," Moore says. "The smaller companies are going to be lost. They won’t know what hit them."
To get blindsided by these new complexities, a company needn’t be tiny — just too small to employ a fancy risk management division that tracks all this confusion.
Howard Barmazel is president of Northridge Mills, a garment factory in San Fernando. He’s respected in the Jewish community from which he hails, as well as in the Latino community from which he draws many workers, because he offers good compensation and makes it his mission to promote home ownership among his workers.
His philosophy produces high-quality products from a highly motivated workforce. Barmazel survived when other garment manufacturers proved unable to compete against foreign competitors.
Yet despite having few injuries, Barmazel more than $25,000 per week in premiums for his 400 workers. This year he slashed overtime because the fewer hours his workers put in, the cheaper the premiums. He prays for major workers’ comp reform. He doesn’t want to close. It’s a perverse and maddening situation. Barmazel could easily keep his crews working overtime to meet orders, and the crews would love the work.
"My insurance agent is a really savvy guy and we can’t figure out the reforms — and boy we’ve tried," Barmazel says. "I still think Schwarzenegger is a knight on a white horse, but he’s going to have to fight every angle to make this work. All businesses in California are struggling with this thing, and I have no idea what the future holds. That’s just really bad for me and my employees."
And Barmazel is a pro-active employer with brains. Thousands aren’t.
Schwarzenegger needs to fix the loopholes and vagueness that could turn reform into a courtroom bonanza. Much can be repaired via tight regulations that simplify unnecessary complexities and precisely spell out rules.
The governor just fired the bureaucrat who wrote ineffective regulations under Gray Davis and Pete Wilson. Little surprise when few California media failed to report the firing. The story was too subtle for many media, even though it spoke volumes. By replacing a deadwood bureaucrat with a leading attorney in civil and governmental law, Schwarzenegger is acknowledging he ended up with a compromise he must fight to clean up via regulation.
If the governor can do that, California may yet see the billions of dollars in savings that many journalists, addicted to shallow reporting, imply is a sure thing.
Jill Stewart is a syndicated political columnist and can be reached at
JDL’s Questionable Future
Kelly Rubin will turn 13 on Nov. 20. His bar mitzvah, already postponed to December, is now on hold as his father, Irv Rubin, lies in critical condition at L.A. County-USC Medical Center.
Prison and hospital officials say that Rubin, the leader of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), attempted to commit suicide early Monday morning, Nov. 4, using a razor blade to cut his throat before jumping or falling over a railing, landing on his head 18 feet below. But Rubin’s family and friends question whether the injuries were self-inflicted or if there were others involved.
U.S. Marshals spokesman William Woolsey reported Rubin in "serious to grave condition" following surgery at L.A. County-USC Medical Center. Rubin’s lawyers, Peter Morris and Bryan Altman, were initially told that he had died in the attempt, and later reported their client was "brain-dead." Family members told The Journal late Tuesday that tests showed some brain activity, and that Rubin was breathing with the aid of a respirator. As of Wednesday afternoon he is in critical condition.
Rubin’s organization, the JDL, also now lies in limbo. On the morning of the injury, Rubin was scheduled appear in court to hear evidence on his alleged attempt to blow up King Fahd mosque in Culver City and an office of Rep. Darrell E. Issa (R-Dist. 48), the grandson of Lebanese immigrants, for which he was incarcerated since his arrest on Dec. 11, 2001. The court was also going to hear whether Rubin could split from co-defendant Earl Krugel.
Now, as Krugel’s defense attorney Mark Werksman put it, "If Irv is dead, it’s a one-defendant trial." Yet in some ways, the trial may be the most secure thing in the JDL’s future. (Monday’s hearing has been postponed until Dec. 2, and the trial is tentatively scheduled to begin Jan. 21, according to prosecutors.)
Rubin joined the JDL in the 1970s after the group’s founder, the late Meir Kahane had moved to Israel in 1971 and founded the now-banned political party Kach. Rubin took over leadership of the far-right organization in 1985. Since that time, the JDL has made headlines, linked to activities ranging from the disruption of diplomatic parties to protest the treatment of Soviet Jewry, to the murder of Alex Odeh, director of the American-Arab Anti-Defamation Committee. Rubin was never convicted of any of the violence to which he is often linked.
Krugel, the man often identified as Rubin’s "lieutenant," remains in jail, awaiting a once-more postponed trial. His possible leadership of the organization was not a topic of conversation among JDL supporters, and may be tainted by the legal motions brought by Rubin’s lawyers to separate the defendants’ trial, owing in part to Krugel’s use of "racial epithets" in government-taped conversations. Rubin’s attorneys also believed that the two had separate defensive strategies. Rubin, who appeared on only three of 11 tape-recorded conversations with an FBI informant, claimed he was never a part of the bombing conspiracy, while Krugel’s lawyer is likely to argue entrapment.
Supporters of the JDL immediately began questioning the cause of Rubin’s injuries. The U.S. Marshals, who have physical custody of Rubin, describe his injuries as self-inflicted. However, with attorneys preparing to argue that the government held a long-standing bias against Rubin, and with Rubin’s controversial and antagonistic history, it was not long before his supporters began claiming that someone had tried to kill the JDL leader. Callers to the JDL office on Monday afternoon heard the recorded voice of spokesman Brett Stone saying, "It is difficult to believe that Irv Rubin would commit suicide."
Rubin’s son, Ari, who was initially told that his father had died, told The Journal "This would never have happened if my dad had been given his constitutional rights to bail. The whole thing is fishy. He would never do what they said he did….. I blame the authorities." By Monday evening, followers of the Meir Kahane movement, from which JDL was born, began disseminating, via e-mail, a "Statement Regarding Irv Rubin" which read, in part, "We reject the reports that Rubin took his own life … it is outrageous to assume Irv would have committed suicide before the long-awaited court appearance."
Morris claimed that his client was in good spirits on the day of his apparent suicide attempt. "Irv was looking forward to the trial because he and we anticipate[d] his acquittal," Morris said, although he, Altman and Rubin’s wife, Shelley, had all previously described Rubin’s extreme weight loss and difficult conditions while in prison.
Mainstream Jewish organizations expressed sympathy for the family but declined to defend Rubin or the JDL.
"As human beings we extend our condolences to his family and the people who love him. As an organization, we continue to denounce the ideology and the actions of the JDL," said Amanda Susskind, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). One point of agreement between the ADL and JDL: "We would like to see the matter come to trial."
Fern Sidman was a JDL leader in New York in the 1980s before leaving the group to work with Kahane as a researcher. Now managing editor of the Kahane-affiliated Judean Voice News, Sidman remains in close contact with the Rubin family. Though Sidman said, "Many, many people are praying for him" in New York, few were actually members of the JDL, and she knew of no one in the organization who might take on Rubin’s leadership role should he die or remain hospitalized. "Irv is not an easy person to replace."
With Rubin attached to a respirator, the fate of the JDL now depends as much on doctors as on lawyers. Because when asked who besides his client’s family might even comment about Rubin, Morris said simply, "There’s no one else."
Anti-Semitism, Israel and the Candidates