Al Tompkins at poynter.org tells us about the background story to Michael Grabell's "Insult to Injury" series which looks into how certain self-interests have stealthily been eroding state workers comp programs. Always seeming to put the workers interests last and executive incentives first. It's a frightening trend that will continue without an engaged public that stands up and says enough is enough. We deserve fair and available health care! Vote Yes on Amendment 69.
How NPR and ProPublica exposed America’s unequal workers’ compensation system
By Al Tompkins • April 12, 2016 Last updated by Kristen Hare April 12, 2016
Grabell and National Public Radio reporter Howard Berkes discovered that, since 2003, 33 states have cut benefits to injured workers or made it more difficult for workers with certain injuries and illnesses to qualify for workers’ comp.
Last week, I was happy to be among the judges for the annual IRE Awards, held by Investigative Reporters and Editors, which gave this project its highest honor. In its citation, IRE detailed the work required to complete the project:
But that's only part of the story. Here's how the project came together, from beginning to end.
How it started
… but investigation revealed that some states are opting out of the workers' comp system and allowing employers to come up with their own plans. Grabell began assembling a massive database of actuarial changes that states were making to worker's comp laws.
Armed with that data, ProPublica news applications developer Lena Groeger built an interactive chart that shows what happens when Congress allows each state to determine its own benefits with no federal minimums.
And ProPublica and NPR found that, despite employers complaints about "rising costs" of workers' comp, they are paying the lowest rates for workers’ comp insurance since the 1970s. "In 2013, insurance companies had their most profitable year in over a decade, bringing in an 18-percent return," ProPublica reported.
Partnering With NPR
ProPublica looks for reporting partners on big projects like this, so Grabell teamed up with Howard Berkes, an investigative correspondent with NPR. Berkes recently finished a string of award-winning workplace safety and health investigations examining dangerous coal mines and another that revealed nearly 180 workers died in grain bins since 1984.
"The industry around worker's comp depends on data," Berkes said. "But the data they have doesn’t assess what happens to workers, it assesses the costs to the employers. To me that is what we brought to it as journalists. We told the story of who is not being helped."
Putting a face on the story
ProPublica brought a never-before-assembled data collection to the investigation. But the raw numbers were impersonal.
The team didn't want to merely string together sad stories, but use case studies of injured workers to demonstrate what the data clearly proved to be true.
They called lawyers who represented injured workers and spoke with former judges who heard worker's comp cases.
"We contacted over 200 people," Berkes said. "Every case involved having to verify the medical circumstances. We had to get permission from each worker to get their medical circumstances, their medical records, tax returns and their legal documents. We searched through dozens — maybe hundreds — of cases to find out information that was not otherwise public."
Responding to complaints
The Insurance Information Institute complained about the stories, contending that today's workplaces are safer because the insurance industry has rewarded compliance with lower insurance rates.
The complaint also said insurance companies were nowhere near as profitable as the stories reported, and that some state restrictions on workers' comp payments make perfect sense.
Rather than shying away from the critique, NPR and ProPublica published both the complaint and a detailed response. Their answer points to sources the journalists relied on in every case the insurance industry complained about.
Helping other journalists
ProPublica and NPR also produced a guide to help other journalists pick up where they left off. They offered this advice:
To give the public a better sense of the national scope of the changes, ProPublica scoured state laws and built a database highlighting the most significant provisions. You can find it here. How have policies changed in your state? What groups or companies influenced those changes? How do they compare to those in neighboring states?
For more context on policies by state, here are a few other resources that might be helpful:
Finally, many state workers' comp systems produce their own annual reports with specific statistics. Be sure to check their websites.