Alaska Workers’ Compensation Bill Goes into Overtime

May 12, 2005

An Alaska committee of House and Senate members was unable to hammer out a compromise plan to revise workers’ compensation laws, leaving work on the bill to be completed during a special session scheduled to take place May 11.

Senators assigned to the committee waited much of the afternoon for House members who were believed to be negotiating on the bill with administration officials. Rumors were flying in the halls of the Capitol that a deal had been reached between members of the House and Senate.

But that did not play out when House members arrived several hours late for the meeting.

Lawmakers grappled with the differences between the two versions of the bill for a little over an hour before Senate President Ben Stevens, R-Anchorage, abruptly ended the meeting and scheduled another one for Wednesday.

Whether to establish an appeals commission made up of members appointed by the governor was a sticking point for those in the conference committee.

The Senate’s version of the bill would send appeals of claims to a five-member commission instead of the Superior Court.

Labor Commissioner Greg O’Claray has said a commission would speed up the appeals process and result in more consistent rulings.

“We’ve never been shown where political appointees are going to be more consistent,” said Sen. Gretchen Guess, D-Anchorage, who opposes establishing the commission this year.

Guess said there was little testimony in committee on the effectiveness of such a commission and that the issue should be studied during the interim.

Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, said the commission would be able to set precedent when deciding appeals, a power not held by the Superior Court. He said the court’s inability to set precedent when considering workers’ compensation appeals has led to inconsistent rulings on similar cases.

Some have said the appeals commission would be biased against injured workers.

“I don’t see how you could end up with a stacked appeals board,” Seekins said.

He said if the governor stacked the deck against workers, the public could vote him out of office.

Gov. Frank Murkowski, who has declared the workers’ compensation bill must-pass legislation, has threatened not to sign a capital budget this year if the bill fails. Last year the Legislature was unable to resolve the issue during a special session.

Murkowski called a special session for lawmakers to deal with workers’ compensation, overhaul of the state’s retirement systems and a few other issues.

A spreadsheet distributed at the committee identified 70 differences between the two versions of the workers’ compensation bill. Lawmakers had worked through less than half before the committee adjourned.

Another difference between the two proposals would freeze medical fees charged to injured workers. The Senate version would freeze the rates starting this year and the House would freeze them at last year’s rates. The administration has said this would save the state money, but physicians have lobbied against that part of the proposal, calling it a tax on doctors.

Seekins said the Legislature could decide to give the committee authority to rewrite the bill, a power not automatically granted to conference committees.

Stevens said he is not sure if it will happen.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” he said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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