Alaska Gov. Unveils Legislation for Special Session

June 24, 2004

On the first day of the special session of the Legislature this week, Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski introduced eight bills and resolutions for the consideration of legislators.

The bills and resolutions the Governor was introducing include:

· A bill reforming the workers’ compensation system (HB1002/SB1002). This bill is based on the many discussions and hearings conducted last session on Senate Bill 311. The bill preserves lay participation in the workers’ comp system, while increasing consistency in decision making and strengthening enforcement. It seeks to improve the market for existing workers’ comp insurers and attract new insurers, without immediate reductions in benefits to injured Alaskan workers.

“Despite the Legislature’s best efforts over the years, our current workers’ compensation system has not proven responsive to the pressures caused by a growing, changing workforce and increasing costs,” Murkowski said. “In order to respond to complaints about the delay in hearings, the Legislature has steadily increased the number of members of the current Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board (board) to make up more hearing panels, and removed the requirement that a fully balanced panel be available for hearings. What was originally a three-member board has grown to include 14 volunteer members residing around the state. The original three-member board heard all claims; now panels, whose composition can vary in as many as 300 combinations, hear claims. As a result, the consistency of a single three-member board has been lost.”

Under the bill, an administrative law judge in the office of administrative hearings in the Department of Administration would conduct initial hearings on disputes. The bill requires that the administrative law judges who are appointed to conduct workers’ comp hearings have specific expertise in the area of workers’ comp.

A five-member commission would replace the Superior Court at the appeals level. The commission is composed of: one attorney experienced in the practice of workers’ comp law (who will be an employee of the Department of Labor and Workforce Development) and four lay volunteer members. The lay volunteer members would be appointed from both labor and industry and for any given matter, one from each side would sit on the appeal together with the attorney member of the commission.

The commission’s decisions would be binding legal precedent unless and until overturned on appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court.

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