The Oklahoma House of Representatives passed a bipartisan plan to begin to repair and reform Oklahoma’s broken and expensive workers’ compensation system. The bill is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Brad Henry.
According to an announcement released by the governor’s office, a preliminary estimate from the National Council on Compensation Insurance indicates the compromise agreement would achieve cost savings of as much as $108 million each year. The Oklahoma State Chamber reportedly gave the measure an “A” rating, saying in a report that it is “probably the best workers’ compensation bill ever seen in the state of Oklahoma.”
“This legislation marks a significant boost for Oklahoma’s economy. This workers compensation reform measure will save Oklahoma businesses millions of dollars and guard the rights of injured workers,” Henry said. “This comprehensive bill is also a testament to the effectiveness of working together in a bipartisan manner. I want to thank Speaker Hiett and Pro Tem Morgan for their diligence and hard work. They helped do the heavy lifting necessary to make this historic legislation possible. Workers’ comp is a challenging issue, but, as we prove today, it is not an insurmountable one. This is a banner day for businesses and employees alike, as we move ahead with legislation that will greatly reduce costs and ensure solid protection of workers’ rights.”
“I’m proud of this historic accomplishment,” said Speaker Todd Hiett (R-Kellyville) who made workers’ comp reform his number one priority this year and pushed for the measure throughout the four-month legislative session. “Working together in a bipartisan agreement, we’ll reduce litigation and medical costs, increase worker benefits and boost Oklahoma’s economy. Our hardworking citizens will see improved job opportunities and higher wages. Our broken workers’ comp system has been a crippling burden to small businesses. And today we’re bringing bold reform to the people.”
The workers’ compensation reform package includes four major areas:
Increased benefits for workers
– Help injured workers get the money and fast medical treatment they deserve.
– Increases benefits for disfigurement from $20,000 to $50,000.
– Death benefits increased from $20,000 for a spouse to $100,000, and from $5,000 for a surviving child to $25,000 for a surviving child.
– Increases continuing disability benefits for surviving spouses.
– Increases “take home” benefits for hurt workers by avoiding attorneys’ fees through early resolution.
Reduced legal costs
– Value-added fees – If lawyers strike settlement deals, they will only make money on the amount they obtain for a client above the settlement offered by the employer – Encourages settlements on fair cases, and discourages attorneys from taking bad cases.
– No more “dueling doctors” that fuel lawsuits and increase costs – Workers’ comp judges will appoint independent doctor to provide evaluations of injured workers. This provision will speed up benefits for workers, as well as preventing litigation from tying up cases.
Reduced medical costs for workers and increase workplace safety
– Employer choice of physicians – employers will choose doctors for workers as part of their terms of employment.
– Employees will have the right to request an independent doctor. This provision will cut down on fraud.
– Encourage enrollment in certified workplace medical plans (CWMP’s) to allow more efficient and effective use of medical services by employees.
Ensure that heart-related, aging-related, and cumulative injuries are clearly proven workplace injuries. Provisions on aging and heart conditions – so that the workers’ comp courts won’t be clogged with cases not related to on-the-job injuries.
– Contains a $1,000 tax exemption for any company in the state that uses the Safety Pays program.
– Provides tax incentives for employers who make it possible for employees to return to work quickly and safely.
Increased marketplace competition
– Use-and-file system – A true market for workers’ compensation insurance by moving to a use-and-file system that will allow the market to set workers’ compensation rates, encouraging more competition. Insurance companies will be able to enter the Oklahoma market without receiving prior approval from the state, a boost to competition that will lower insurance rates.
Not everyone is happy about the bill. According to The Oklahoman, some union leaders and a lawyers group think the legislation does not do enough for injured workers, particularly in the area of temporary disability payments to workers with soft tissue injuries that do not require surgery.
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