What does the flu pandemic of 1918 have to do with the current Ebola crisis and the U.S. worker’s compensation system? A lot, unfortunately. When a pandemic of influenza swept across the world in 1918, just as World War I was coming to a close, more deaths occurred than in any single event in world history – estimated to be 50 million world wide, with more than 800,000 in the U.S. in a single year.
The flu pandemic hit Americans and people across the world in two separate waves that were six months apart. The first was less serious but the second was devastating. During that interim, the virus had mutated.
At that time (1918) the workers’ compensation system in New York was just four years old, and yet the influenza event didn’t receive a single mention in those NY workers comp cases. This may be due to the fact that communicable diseases had not yet been covered under a new law that was intended for dangerous industrial work and covered only workplace accidents, not illness.
Would an Ebola Pandemic Affect Workers Compensation?
How would an Ebola pandemic impact the U.S. workers’ compensation system? Clearly this would not be identical to the flu epidemic of 1918. If we look to the September 11 response as a guide, that would suggest that Ebola incidents would also be covered under workers comp codes. The fatalities on 9/11 totaled nearly 3000. The final tally of occupational illness claims for first responders will likely be many multiples of the first day deaths.
It is extremely challenging to imagine that workers compensation could oppose expansion to cover Ebola when the largest available insurance program in the United States, in terms of percentage of workers covered, is workers comp itself.
The scope and consequences of a pandemic are especially hard to imagine in a country that has not experienced such an event in more than three generations. Yet history itself might offer some clues. One statistic in particular suggests what a pandemic might do: in 1919, the average American life expectancy was lowered by 12 YEARS, primarily due to infants being hardest hit by the influenza pandemic.
The effects of the flu pandemic reached across the globe to the remote populations, even affecting people in the high arctic. Fatality rates were the lowest in countries that had imposed stringent barriers to entry for potentially infected travellers (Japan, for example, imposed a near-total ban on incoming ships).
In terms of the current Ebola crisis, a pandemic would certainly be unlike any even ever experienced by a health insurance system, despite the fact that it doesn’t have much at all to do with health risks created by workplace hazards. The impact will be expanded by a broad interpretation of causal relationship given to compensation claims, a practice that began in the earliest years when only workplace trauma was covered.
With any big crisis, hindsight clearly reveals the shortcomings in our response to it. Unfortunately, for a system as litigation-driven as workers compensation, this likely means less efficiency in the system overall.