The Oklahoma House of Representatives, concluding what has reportedly been a grueling three weeks of public policy debate, passed a workers’ compensation reform bill designed to keep a lid on costs.
According to the House media services division, looming term limits prompted legislators to tackle a number of controversial high profile issues during the six-week old session. Because of a constitutional amendment adopted in 1990 by Oklahoma voters, 28 Representatives and 13 Senators must retire from the Oklahoma Legislature after the general election in November.
In addition to workers’ comp, the House took on such issues as a proposed pay raise for state employees, state tax increases for cigarettes and other tobacco products, same-sex marriage versus traditional marriage, additional funding for Medicaid and for the state’s level one trauma care center in Oklahoma City, capital gains taxes and ad valorem tax relief.
The workers’ comp bill, House Bill 2619, intends to eliminate fraud in workers’ compensation claims, discourage “dueling doctors” and encourage resolution of disputes over worker injury claims through negotiation rather than litigation. It passed the House by a vote of 96 – 1.
The bill’s provisions would trim workers’ compensation expenses in Oklahoma by a projected 7 percent to 12 percent, according to its author, and would save Oklahoma employers an estimated $80 million annually.
The Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Court reportedly received 17,390 claimant filings last year and 18,474 in 2002.
Provisions of HB 2619 include:
■ A worker could be required to submit to drug testing after any on-the-job injury or any mishap that damages the employer’s property. The bill would eliminate the requirement that before testing can be compelled, there must be reasonable suspicion or a causal link between the accident and the alleged drug/alcohol use.
■ An employer would be allowed to file a civil suit in district court against an employee who is suspected of having committed workers’ compensation fraud. Currently the only option is for the Attorney General to bring a criminal case against a fraudulent claimant.
■ The legislation defines “amount in dispute” for the purpose of limiting claimants’ attorney fee awards. The phrase would mean a percentage of the amount awarded to an injured employee in excess of what the employer offered prior to trial.
■ Attorney fees on awards for disability would be limited to 20 percent of the “amount in dispute.”
■ Hearings of the state’s Workers’ Compensation Court would have to be held in the county where the injury occurred, or by video conference conducted at the nearest regional technology center school. Currently those hearings are held only in Oklahoma City or Tulsa.
■ Mediation would be mandatory before a Form 3, which is an “Employee’s First Notice of Accidental Injury and Claim for Compensation”, could be filed with the Workers’ Compensation Court. Under existing law, mediation is voluntary, not compulsory.
■ Whenever an injured worker is treated with prescription drugs, generic medications must be used “when available.”
■ When the Workers’ Compensation Court is assembling evidence in a case, testimony from the physician who is treating the injured worker would be given deference “for rating purposes only.” An employer who disagreed with the worker’s doctor could seek a second medical opinion. The court could then choose either opinion or “split the difference” between the two.
■ Except in cases involving corrective surgery, permanent partial disability could not be awarded unless there is “objective evidence” of an anatomical abnormality and proof that the employee’s wage-earning ability has been “adversely impaired.” The requirement for objective medical findings is directed primarily at claims seeking benefits for sprains and strains, which account for many workers’ comp cases, as well as claims alleging psychological impairment.
■ The court could order an independent medical examiner to determine whether surgery should be performed on an injured worker, if the claimant and the treating physician disagreed.
■ A settlement agreement providing for a lump-sum payment, if signed by both the employer and the injured worker, would have to be approved by the Workers’ Compensation Court so long as the terms of the agreement “conform to the Workers’ Compensation Act.”
The bill now goes to the Senate, where it is expected to be refined further.
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