“He essentially suffocated to death,” said Stephanie Bernstein, his sister.
At his parents’ house in Lancaster, a photo collage his family made for his funeral shows him as a baby, a child, an adult, always with the same sunny smile.
“It was the worst shock when that coroner called,” his mother, Marie Moeller, 77, said in October.
A few months earlier, just up the street, former workers and spouses filled up the seats in Sandra Cooper’s living room. They talked about conditions in the 106-year-old plant, particularly in the ’80s and ’90s. The stench of chemicals, they said, was ever-present.
Marilyn Roberts turned to her husband and asked, “Don, did you ever have any protection at all?”
“We had gloves on,” he said, pressing one of his hands to the other to try to control the tremors. “That’s all we basically had.”
What’s the fix?
In 1972, President Richard Nixon’s National Commission on State Workmen’s Compensation Laws declared that the states’ programs were, “in general, inadequate and inequitable.” Burton, who chaired that commission, said the states did better for a while — trying to stave off the possibility of federal intervention — but have backslid since.
He doesn’t hold out much hope of reforms to help ill workers in the current environment.
“Politics in many states are pretty conservative,” he said. “I think the problem you’ve got right now is the problem the national commission wrestled with, which is, left to their own devices the states are in a race to the bottom.”
The Insurance Information Institute defends the current workers’ compensation setup. The rules in place, the group says, are necessary.
“Unfortunately, there’s a long history of fraudulent behavior and efforts to shift costs into the workers’ compensation system,” said Hartwig, the group’s president. “In order to keep workers’ comp costs manageable for everyone, it’s important that the system have a very prescribed manner in which eligibility is determined and compensation is made.”
The institute pointed to statistics from the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a nonprofit that helps fight insurance fraud. Insurers referred about 3,500 questionable claims involving workers’ compensation to the NICB in 2011 and about 4,500 in 2012, according to the group’s most recently released figures.
But both figures amounted to about 0.1 percent of total workers’ compensation claims and include potential fraud by companies — such as undercounting employees to reduce premiums — as well as workers or doctors.
Texas Mutual Insurance Co., which has 40 percent of the workers’ compensation market in that state and aggressively investigates fraud, found $5.3 million in employer fraud last year, six times the amount of claimant fraud it discovered.
Some health advocates see a nationally run system — or at least active oversight from the federal government — as part of the solution to workers’ compensation woes. Indeed, after taking responsibility for administering benefits to coal miners for black lung, the federal government did once contemplate handling other occupational disease claims.
In 1980, the Department of Labor issued an interim report suggesting such a move as one of several options to improve a situation in which, the agency noted, people with job-related illnesses rarely received help from workers’ compensation. Social Security and welfare programs were left to pick up costs amounting to $2.2 billion annually, the agency said.
Glenn Shor was one of the analysts working on that report in the agency’s Office of Health and Disability. Nothing ever came of it, he said. After Ronald Reagan was elected, Shor said, the study group was disbanded.
But the interim report outlined ways to make the challenge represented by occupational disease somewhat less daunting, whether in a state or federal system, including better data collection and presumption standards to reduce the difficulty workers have proving the cause of their disease. The report also discussed how to ensure that companies rather than taxpayers footed the bill — for instance, by levying a tax on disease-prone industries.
That’s important not only to make sure ill workers get treatment, said Shor, a member of the occupational health and safety section of the American Public Health Association. It’s about incentivizing companies to reduce health hazards so the illnesses don’t happen in the first place.
“If you don’t have to pay for it,” Shor said, “you’re not going to do much to prevent it.”