Wyoming Lawmakers Say Workers’ Comp Benefits Need Increase

September 22, 2008

Some Wyoming lawmakers say it’s time to increase many of the benefits given to injured workers under the state’s workers’ compensation program.

The Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee recently discussed revamping the system and tried calculating how much that would cost. Higher premiums for employers aren’t on the table right now but the committee discussed that possibility.

The Wyoming Workers’ Compensation Division has a reserve of nearly $1 billion. Committee members wanted to know how much of that amount is needed to cover future expenses under the program and how much might be available for additional benefits or premium discounts.

The committee is considering a handful of bills that would expand compensation for mental health issues and create a worker advocate position to guide workers through the program, among other changes to the system.

“We know we have to raise some benefits. If we have to raise premiums, then that’s what we have to do,” said Rep. Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette.

According to actuary Glenn Wise, the workers’ compensation reserve was $992 million as of June 30. Whether that includes a surplus of $60 million or more than $300 million, however, is a matter of how the Legislature wants to hedge its bets on the future.

Medical costs are rising 7 percent annually. Wages, which many indemnity benefits are calculated on, are rising 3 percent annually.

Rather than increasing employer premiums, draft legislation includes language to rebate investment earnings to premium payers provided that the reserve is solvent.

That didn’t assuage business owners, though. Casper businessman Rob Monroe told the committee that small businesses in Wyoming are struggling to survive without having to pay higher premiums.

“It’s getting to the point where it’s becoming more difficult to stay in business,” he said.

Lobbyists also surmised that increased benefits would require higher premiums.

“You can’t raise all the benefits without raising the rates,” said Marion Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association.

Loomis suggested that some injured workers would be less motivated to return to work if benefits are raised. Worker advocates disputed that.

“Wyoming workers have a strong work ethic,” Cheyenne attorney George Santini said. “Part of the problem is that injured workers aren’t allowed to get well to go back to work. People want to work. No one wants to be hurt.”

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