CapitolBeatOK Staff Report
State Senate leadership is contending that after months of negotiations with business, medical and legal communities, passage of four workers’ compensation system reform measures will make Oklahoma more attractive for business and workers.
The four bills, SB 1973, and House Bills 1611, 2650 and 2652 are the results of hours of discussions that began last summer and continued through to the passage of the legislation. The result of these bills will be reduced costs for employers and an improved and more effective worker’s compensation system for injured workers in Oklahoma. It is estimated the bills will save Oklahoma business at least $60.5 million.
“This is a great day for Oklahoma business and workers,” said Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee. Coffee contends reforms passed in these bills will make the system more fair for workers and lower costs for business.
“If ever there was an example of win-win legislation, this exercise exemplifies it. I thank Senator Harry Coates who joined me in developing this solution to a major problem, and I also thank the business, medical and legal community leaders who joined us at the negotiating table to craft this reform.”
“As a businessman in Oklahoma who does business in all 50 states, I’ve seen the disparity in our worker’s comp system as compared to other states, and the advantages business has in those states,” said Senator Coates, a Seminole Republican. “I’m proud of the work we’ve done on this legislation, and I look forward to a more prosperous business climate in our home state as a result of the work that so many people put in to make this happen.”
The reforms included in the bills will:
• Restrict judges to one eight-year term
• Allow a former judge to reapply after three years off the Court
• Require current judges to go back through the Judicial Nominating Commission if they want to reapply
• Require Senate confirmation on any Worker’s Compensation judge
• Requires that any Worker’s Compensation judge to have not less than five years of workers’ compensation experience
• Reduce the number of Worker’s Compensation Court judges from ten to eight
• Require five judges to be permanently assigned to Oklahoma City and three to Tulsa
• State that the next two positions to become vacant after July 1, 2010, shall not be refilled
• Tighten up definitions of “major cause” and “objective medical evidence”
• Cap the Partial Payment Disability (PPD) rate at $323/week for five years
• Limit Permanent Total Disability to 100 percent Social Security retirement age or 15 years, whichever is longer
• Increase the power of the Physician Advisory Council and require the court to follow its recommendations unless there is clear and convincing evidence to the contrary
• Allow the Supreme Court review work comp claims just like any other civil case
• Require that the claimant shall be in attendance unless all parties agree, and all parties shall be represented during the entire mediation by a person with full settlement authority to settle any issue of the claim
• Require all claims adjusters to have six hours of continuing education on Oklahoma’s workers’ compensation act as part of the required twenty-four hours of continuing education
• Further define what is a work-related activity for purposes of being covered under the worker’s comp act
• Clarify light-duty work and the employee’s refusal to participate
• Set up a task force to look at vocational rehabilitation for injured workers
• Unless recommended by the treating doctor at the time claimant reaches maximum medical improvement, Continuing Maintenance Medical shall not be awarded by the Worker’s Compensation Court unless there is clear and convincing evidence to the contrary
• Tighten up benefits for soft tissue injuries
• Provide for early mailing of a notice that will notify workers of free counseling services offered by the workers’ comp court
• Define an intentional tort that will allow a lawsuit to be filed in district court rather than in work comp court
HB 2650 passed the Senate with a vote of 33-11; HB 2652 passed 29-16; HB 1611 passed 45-0 and will go to the governor today. Senate Bill 1973 previously passed the Senate 46-0 and was ratified in the House today, and is in the governor’s office.
In a separate release sent to CapitolBeatOK, state Rep. Mark McCullough said passage of the workers’ comp measures this week is the product of consensus and group effort.
“Over the last three years, I have been active in the research efforts that ultimately underwrote many of the proposed reforms we have passed this week,” said McCullough, a Sapulpa Republican. “Today’s action is the culmination of that work. In particular, I applaud the efforts of Representative Dan Sullivan, the Senate and the large number of industry professionals, employers and employees that contributed to the process and made this legislation possible.”
McCullough, an attorney, has been active in workers’ comp reform discussions since he was first elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
“We simply cannot afford to continue with the status quo,” McCullough said. “Our workers comp rates are among the highest in the nation, yet workers seldom receive the benefits and the system’s cost is a huge job killer. While there is still much to be done that would improve our workers’ compensation system, these reforms are a serious, thoughtful effort at improving a troubled system in a way that benefits both injured workers and employers.”