SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois House voted Friday to abolish the state's worker compensation system.
The repeal, approved on a 65-48 vote, was considered a nuclear option if months of tough negotiations didn't produce a compromise among business, labor unions, doctors and trial lawyers.
With time running down on the General Assembly's spring legislative session, the move was seen as a way to prod negotiators to get back to the table and hammer out an agreement before time expires.
"The more I'm around the system the more it stinks. It is not protecting workers in an effective manner," said state Rep. John Bradley, a Marion Democrat who sponsored the repeal.
Under the state's workers compensation law, employees agree not to sue employers over workplace injuries. In return, employers pay into an insurance fund that distributes financial awards if an arbitrator rules in the employee's favor.
Business groups have pushed for the changes saying the cost of workers compensation, combined with the state's recent income tax increase, was hurting their bottom line. The move gained steam after Peoria-based Caterpillar Inc., one of the state's largest private employers, said other states were trying to lure them out of state.
Under Bradley's measure, employees would be required to sue for damages in circuit court if they believe a workplace injury has caused pain and suffering or loss of income.
Opponents of abolishing the system worried that the flood of some 50,000 worker compensation cases into the court system would overrun county courthouses and judges across the state.
Bradley said money that funds the worker compensation system could be transferred to the circuit courts to accommodate the additional cases
A number of opponents said Bradley's move was too drastic.
"The amount of lives that this affects is tremendous," said state Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro. "We need to fix the system that's in place, not destroy it."
A Senate panel, meanwhile, was scheduled to debate a compromise Friday evening, but that meeting was cancelled.
The compromise that had been expected to be discussed would have replace existing arbitrators with new judges who would be licensed attorneys who have undergone more extensive training. It would change how injuries are rated and would establish a list of medical providers overseen by state insurance regulators.
Workers injured while under the influence of drugs or alcohol would not be able to receive benefits.
But, the so-called compromise was not supported by all parties involved in the lengthy talks.
The Illinois Chamber of Commerce, for example, said the proposal falls short in a number of areas, including over how employees or businesses choose doctors.
Gov. Pat Quinn said reform is needed. He said some small businesses pay more in workers compensation insurance premiums than they pay in taxes.
"If we can cut what they have to pay in those premiums, we're saving them a lot of money," Quinn said.