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LONDON-Insurers and risk managers have welcomed a proposal from Britain's trade unions for insurers to provide U.S.-style rehabilitation programs to help victims of workplace accidents return to their jobs more quickly.

John Monks, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said last week in a speech to the Assn. of Insurance & Risk Managers that the proposals would end the need for accident victims to wait months for treatment from the National Health Service.

Mr. Monks said he hoped to have a system in place by the end of the millennium "whereby anyone who is injured at work can obtain a swift, just and effective solution which returns them to work as fast as possible with a fair level of compensation."

He provided no further details of how it would be implemented. Mr. Monks said that the proposal, combined with a proposal for the TUC to take over the Legal Aid Board's responsibility for helping workplace accident victims fight their claims with employers, would save the government up to 5 billion pounds ($8.42 billion) a year in legal fees, benefits and medical care for injury victims. The private return-to-work programs would also substantially reduce the annual 12 billion pounds ($20.22 billion) cost of health-related workplace absence to British business, while insurers would benefit from lower compensation costs as victims returned to work faster, he said.

Mr. Monks added that "insurers and unions have indicated a substantial level of agreement on the principle of the proposal." He acknowledged, however, that there is still a lot of work to be done before the plan can be put into operation and "that the devil will be in the details."

This year the TUC has been collaborating with the Assn. of British Insurers on a study of how private insurers and trade unions in other countries, principally the United States and Australia, cooperate in speeding up rehabilitation of workplace accident victims.

An ABI spokeswoman said the groups are examining areas where insurers, unions and lawyers could work together, as is done in some other countries.

AIRMIC Chairman Richard Reddaway welcomed the TUC's proposals and said the association "has a great deal to offer to help this innovative vision become a reality." He said this assistance could come from AIRMIC's multinational members, who have worldwide experience in employee health and rehabilitation issues.

However, Mr. Reddaway, also group insurance manager for Glaxo Wellcome P.L.C., of Greenford, England, said employers are not proactive enough in advising employees how to safeguard their health. "Too many companies abdicate responsibility to their insurers for getting injured employees back to work under some form of managed health care arrangement, whether under employers' liability or workers compensation," he said.

One of the TUC's concerns is that government proposals to reform the legal aid system would leave many workplace accident victims unable to fund legal claims for compensation against their employers. That is because the reforms would involve a switch to U.S.-style contingency fee arrangements, where lawyers' fees are derived from the settlements they obtain for their clients, making some cases less appealing to lawyers.

To counter this, the TUC proposes that the government support it in providing not just union members but also non-members with access to TUC-employed law firms. The TUC is not seeking government financial support.

Mr. Monks said that as a result of these measures, sufferers of minor injury and illness are likely to spend less time off work, and in serious cases they would be more likely to return to work than spend a long time on benefits and in and out of the hospital.

He said over the next few weeks the TUC will discuss the proposals with government ministers and officials at the Departments of Health and Social Security and the Lord Chancellor's Department, which oversees legal aid. Then over the next 18 months they will be discussed in detail with insurers, businesses, lawyers and unions, with AIRMIC invited to participate.