Laying the groundwork for the coming legislative session, Oklahoma state Rep. Mark McCullough recently presented a workers’ comp reform proposal to business leaders that he believes will drive down costs while improving worker benefits.
“My plan would dismantle our lawsuit-based Workers’ Compensation Court and replace it with an administrative system modeled after the successful Arkansas system,” McCullough, R-Sapulpa, said in a statement released by the Oklahoma House of Representatives. “Oklahoma’s current workers’ comp system fails both injured workers and employers. My plan would reduce costs to the employer while creating an easier path back to work for injured employees. While there are obvious reasons for business leaders to support this plan, injured workers would get the most benefit thanks to streamlining access to medical care and focusing on vocational rehabilitation.”
House Bill 2605, by McCullough, would have created a three-member Workers’ Compensation Commission to replace the current Workers’ Compensation Court.
McCullough plans to file the legislation again in the 2009 session, which begins in February.
The legislation is the result of months of work, including an in-depth legislative study that identified the major failings of Oklahoma’s workers’ compensation system.
That study demonstrated the rate of permanent partial disability payments (PPDs) in Oklahoma is almost twice the regional average and the average lost-time claim frequency is much higher – 60 percent higher than the national average.
According to figures in the 2006 Workers’ Compensation Court report and the 2006 National Council on Compensation Insurance report, there were 14,919 total claims that year, including 10,700 joint petitions with an average payout of $17,692 per claim and another 3,413 Court ordered PPDs with an average payout of $22,299 per claim.
That same year, Oklahoma’s workers’ compensation system ordered vocational rehabilitation for only 4 percent of all cases.
That’s why House Bill 2605 will reform the system to emphasize treatment and rehabilitation for injured workers, McCullough said.
“Our lawsuit-driven system provides little benefit to injured workers and devours financial resources that would otherwise be used to grow our economy and create new jobs,” McCullough said. “Since most attorneys are paid by getting a cut of a worker’s monetary award, they don’t have any incentive to pursue rehabilitation programs for clients. I believe it’s better to help an injured worker regain his or her health instead of giving them a one-time minor payment that ultimately goes to their lawyer.”
McCullough noted that attorney involvement is 50 percent higher in Oklahoma’s workers’ comp system than the national average, which helps explain why Oklahoma experience the highest payout for claims in 18 years in 2006 – $270 million, a 69 percent increase since 2000.
To reverse those trends while helping injured employees return to health and work, House Bill 2605 would move all workers’ compensation claims, issues, and hearings to an administrative process.
The new Workers’ Compensation Commission would have authority to hold hearings to settle proceedings related to all compensation claims made by employees. The responsibilities and authority of the commission members, who would all be gubernatorial appointees, would include appointing administrative law judges to preside over claims hearings.
The bill also establishes a Vocational Rehabilitation program to help return employees to their prior working capabilities.
McCullough said he was “pleasantly surprised” by business leader’s enthusiastic response when presented with his plan at a recent forum.
“It’s obvious to all that our system is broken,” McCullough said. “We can’t solve this problem by tinkering with the system. We need to reform it to include every best practice and efficiency. I hope 2009 is the year we finally fix the system.”
Source: Oklahoma House of Representatives, www.lsb.state.ok.us/
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