Calif. State Sen. Poochigian Notes Passage of Workers’ Comp Overhaul a ‘Monumental Undertaking’

April 19, 2004

California State Senator Chuck Poochigian (R-Fresno) issued the following statement regarding the passage of Poochigian-authored SB 899 in the Senate:

“Reaching a compromise agreement on an issue as complex and far-reaching as workers’ compensation has been a monumental undertaking. We were up against a myriad of special interests jockeying to protect their turf and maintain the status quo, but produced a bill that should bring change for the better.

“Last month California added only 5,200 jobs vs. 308,000 nationwide, though we are home to 12 percent of the national population. California is a drag on the country’s economy, and one of the primary factors impeding economic vitality and job growth is our dysfunctional workers’ compensation system. The compromise package that passed today with broad bi-partisan support will help to remove a severe disincentive to doing business in California.

“There are things in this bill for both sides of the spectrum to dislike, but at the end of the day the workers’ compensation overhaul of 2004 will produce significant results. Immediate legislative action was vital. Staking all hopes for reform on a costly ballot initiative that could delay savings until 2005 would not be prudent, except as a last resort, at a time when many employers cannot wait another day.

“The bumpy road on the decades-long drive toward repairing the workers’ compensation system is paved with good intentions that didn’t yield the desired result. The Legislature must be vigilant in monitoring the impact of this overhaul, and spring into action to deal with any unintended consequences.

“Policymakers in Sacramento can study and analyze the results of this legislation until the point of exhaustion, but at the end of the day we will know when our job is done when the employers paying the bills tell us so, and when truly injured workers are all getting the treatment they deserve.

“Today the drive for workers’ compensation reform has turned a corner. I believe that what we have accomplished will streamline the system, bring cost relief to employers, and stimulate job creation in California.”

Some Key Provisions of SB 899:

* Continuity of Care: The proposal provides employees doctor choice from a qualified pool of doctors after the first visit. These doctors will treat according to nationally recognized medical standards. Establishing a qualified pool of doctors eliminates the “dueling doctor” system that has driven California medical costs sky-high.

* Neutral Medical Dispute System: If employees are unhappy with the quality of their medical care, they can request up to two additional opinions from qualified doctors from within the medical group. If they remain unsatisfied, they will be able to get an Independent Medical Review (IMR) from a qualified state-certified doctor who will determine whether the employee is receiving the appropriate care. If the IMR determines they are not receiving appropriate care, the employee may seek the disputed medical treatment outside of the doctor group.

* Immediate Medical Care: Employees will be eligible for immediate medical care for any work related injury. This will ensure that injuries are treated quickly and will eliminate the delays which often lead to more severe injuries and litigation. This change will eliminate the need for the employee to seek independent medical care at a more costly rate and reduce litigation in the process.

* Standardizes Impairment Ratings to Bring Common Sense to Permanent Disability (PD) Rating System:

* Uses nationally recognized American Medical Association (AMA) guidelines to assure reasonableness and improve consistency of awards: Medical reports will have to use AMA guidelines to be considered in the process. A workers’ impairment rating would then be modified by a new formula with the aim that the system will promote uniformity, consistency and objectivity.

* Provides for Additional Funding for the Most Severely Injured: This proposal will adjust the PD schedule to increase benefits to the most severely injured workers by reducing the PD benefits to the least injured.

* Ensures That Employers Only Pay For Work-Related Permanent Disability: Limits employer Permanent Disability (PD) liability to that portion of the injury that is work related. All prior injuries and illnesses or conditions would have to be apportioned.

Return-to-Work Incentives:

California has the worst return-to-work rate in the nation. This simple fact results in greater costs for employers and increases the adverse impacts on employees. The proposal creates a two-tier permanent disability schedule and stipulates that awards will be adjusted to reflect the ability of an employee to return to work and return-to-work offers by their employers. Employees who are not able or offered employment will have their payment increased by 15%. Employees with return-to-work offers will have their payment reduced by 15%. Small employers are exempt from this provision in recognition of their limited flexibility.

The bill was scheduled to be signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at 2 p.m. today.

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