Senators Mull Changing Mississippi Workers’ Comp Bill

By JEFF AMY | April 19, 2012

Mississippi senators are considering making more changes to a workers’ compensation bill that sparked controversy in the Legislature this year.

Supporters said the bill removes an existing bias toward workers, while opponents say changes would make it harder for workers to get paid for injuries. Workers’ compensation insurance is supposed to limit employers’ liability, in exchange for not making workers prove who’s at fault.

The House actually passed Senate Bill 2576 twice, pulling it back for more debate in between. Supporters are urging senators to agree to the House changes and send the bill to Gov. Phil Bryant, avoiding the chance of another reversal in the House.

The Senate approved the bill 39-13 on March 14, in part because Senate Insurance Committee Chairman Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian, had assured other senators that the bill would go to conference for negotiations with House members. Carmichael said Tuesday he hadn’t decided if senators should agree to the House version or seek further talks.

“There’s no decision now that’s been made,” he said. “We are going to listen.”

Most of the changes would apply to the small minority of claims that are disputed, supporters said.

Several senators who voted for the measure the first time expressed concerns, urging a conference.

“I want to make sure we’re not hurting good, hard-working Mississippians,” said Sen. Sean Tindell, R-Gulfport.

“This Legislature doesn’t do anything for the little man,” said Sen. Kenny Wayne Jones, D-Canton, who also voted for the bill in March.

Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, who has opposed the measure from the beginning, said the message that the bill will make it harder for injured workers to navigate the system is getting through.

“The problem is when the bill first came before the Senate, we didn’t realize the ramifications of the bill to the extent we do now,” Horhn said.

Among the items that opponents are most concerned about is a requirement that workers present proof at an early stage of a contested proceeding that work somehow caused an injury. They say that eats away at the idea that workers don’t have to prove employers are at fault.

But Sen. Will Longwitz, R-Madison, said opposition to the measure is overblown.

“Every party now is going to have to bring some proof,” he said. “Nothing about this bill is going to change the no-fault nature of workers’ compensation.”

Longwitz said that an analysis shows that employers’ insurance rates would go down under the bill.

Sen. Giles Ward, R-Louisville, said that 48 business associations have endorsed the proposal.

“They consider this legislation as the single most important piece of legislation that we’ve had before us since tort reform,” said Ward, citing bills to limit lawsuits that were a focus of business efforts for years.

Dan Gibson, executive director of the Mississippi Association of Self-Insurers, denied that the push is about saving money, though. The association’s members are employers who cover their own costs, instead of contracting with third-party insurers.

“This isn’t a matter of rates, it’s a matter of fairness,” Gibson said. “It’s gotten worse and worse. We’ve been trying to get this done for 20 years.”

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