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A story published on NPR says that ten ranking Democrats on key Senate and House committees are urging the Labor Department to respond to a “pattern of detrimental changes in state workers’ compensation laws” that have reduced protections and benefits for injured workers over the past decade.

In a letter to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, the lawmakers cited an investigation by NPR and ProPublica, which found that 33 states have cut workers’ comp benefits, made it more difficult to qualify or given employers more control over medical care decisions. The letter also referred to NPR/ProPublica stories last week that detailed an emerging trend that permits employers to dump out of state-regulated workers’ comp programs, write their own injury plans and limit benefits on their own. “State workers’ compensation laws are no longer providing adequate levels of support and compensation for workers injured on the job,” the lawmakers wrote. “The race to the bottom now appears to be nearly bottomless…”

The letter is signed by Bernie Sanders, the Democratic presidential hopeful and ranking minority member of the Senate Budget Committee, Patty Murray, D-Washington, the ranking member of the Senate Labor Committee, Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, the ranking member of the House Workforce Committee, and seven other senior Democrats on House and Senate Budget, Finance, Employment, Workforce, Ways and Means, and Social Security Committees.

The agency said it would review the letter and work “with stakeholders to find real solutions” but did not commit to any specific action. An NPR/ProPublica request to speak with Secretary Perez was declined.

Until budget cuts in 2004, the Labor Department tracked changes in state workers’ comp laws and failures to meet 19 minimum and essential standards for benefits established by a 1972 Commission convened by President Richard Nixon.

Rep. Scott says the benefits cutbacks make federal action necessary, even though workers’ comp is legislated and managed by states. “If these workers aren’t getting benefits under workers’ comp a lot of them end up getting benefits under Social Security Disability or Medicaid [and] food stamps because they’re not working,” said Rep Scott. “And so there is a strong federal interest in making sure that the workers’ comp programs pay appropriate benefits.”

A 2007 study by J. Paul Leigh, a health economist at the University of California, Davis, estimated that workplace injuries not covered by workers’ comp cost government programs about $30 billion a year.

Federal intervention may also come as the result of the “opt out” movement in Texas and Oklahoma, in which employers shun heavily-regulated workers’ comp and are permitted to write and administer their own largely-unregulated workplace injury plans. South Carolina and Tennessee are considering opt-out laws now and proponents are aiming for a dozen states by the end of the decade.