‘Workers Comp, not lawyers’ comp’ — administrative reform nears passage as business advocates cheer, legislative Democrats holler

OKLAHOMA CITY — Legislation soon headed to Gov. Fallin would make dramatic changes to the Sooner State’s workers’ compensation insurance system. Legislators have pretty much had their say on it, save for what is expected to be brief final deliberations in the state Senate in the next week or two.

Given Republican unity and their overwhelming majority at the state Capitol, legislative Democrats and their allies are going to lose this battle, but in the walk-up to the final vote, perhaps as soon as next week, foes of the bill continue to make their case passionately. 

Key regulators in statewide elective offices praise the bill’s shift from a litigious system to an administration structure.

Commissioner of Labor Mark Costello deemed the legislation, Senate Bill 1062, “historic. Oklahoma’s new administrative system means that worker comp lawyers will no longer trump the well-being of the injured and job creators. The adversarial system in Oklahoma has until now been an injustice to the injured worker and a hindrance to job creation.”

He praised the legislation’s framework for “adopting best practices from neighboring states, placing Oklahoma in competition for new and better paying jobs while retaining existing jobs.”

Commissioner of Insurance John D. Doak recalled, “Workers’ Compensation reform is a subject that I identified as critical and important to our state from the moment I was elected. Oklahoma has one of the highest average costs of Workers Compensation benefits in the nation at a rate of $830 per employee. Because Arkansas and Texas are under $300 per employee, this has not only had an impact on our state economy, but also limits the growth of local businesses.”

Senate President Pro Temp Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, hinted the upper chamber will accept House revisions to his original bill, saying, “Putting the brakes on the runaway cost of workers’ compensation is the single most important thing we can do to encourage job growth and economic development.” 

House Democrats were furious over late changes that came early this week, making the bill even friendlier to business interests. The “floor substitute” for earlier language came on Monday evening. The revisions led state Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, to assert, “The winners were the biggest, wealthiest corporations of this state. The losers were Oklahoma families and small businesses.”

James Lockhart, a Heavener Democrat, observed on Wednesday, “A 200-page document was filed at 7 p.m. Monday evening and we’re voting on it less than 48 hours later. How can we make an educated vote on something that will affect every working Oklahoman? No Democrat was part of this working group that wrote this bill. I voted for a lot of worker’s comp reform in the past, but I will not vote for a bill if I can’t make an educated decision.”

When the substitute language was considered, state Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, moved to “advance the question.” That ended debate and precluded a cluster of 14 amendments Democrats had prepared which focused on medical costs and reimbursement rates. 

State Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, maintains the language will reduce benefits by 30 percent, asserting, “most of the cost savings in this bill come from cuts to the benefits to injured workers.”

Rep. Ben Sherrer, D-Pryor, reflected, “It’s a hazard of the majority to do something just because you can, not because you should.”

Now that the bill is expected to make its way through final Senate consideration, arguments are turning to what the financial effect of the reform will be. 

Andrew Spiropoulos, an Oklahoma City University law professor, noted in a March commentary that the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) had “scored” annual business savings of $138 million, lowering workers’ comp costs an impressive 14.2 percent if the measure passes. 

However, the State Chamber says savings will be almost twice as high – perhaps $260 million – because of savings anticipated from the new  administrative system. 

Rep. Morrissette was frustrated in this week’s three-hour floor debate because the majority prevented consideration of the bevy of Democratic amendments. He asked, “Why not let the legislative process work?” At one point Morrissette credited the Insurance Department for hearings and information forums held to detail the emerging changes. 

Democrats had to make their case without Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, who left the Capitol after his mother was injured in an accident.

Commissioner Costello summarized what might, politically, be the most significant thing about anticipated passage of the administration system, telling CapitolBeatOK, “The days where trial lawyers dominated Oklahoma politics for their own economic interests are at an end. After all, it is workers’ comp, not lawyers’ comp. 

You may contact Patrick B. McGuigan at Patrick@capitolbeatok.com and follow us on Twitter: @capitolbeatok.