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Changes in Oklahoma's workers' comp system to be key legislative issue

Republican legislative leaders tell business leaders they support efforts to change or replace the state's workers' compensation court system. Democratic legislative leaders question why legislation passed last year with the intent to drive down costs seemingly hasn't worked.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT mmcnutt@opubco.com Published: December 6, 2012
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Republican legislative leaders said Wednesday they support efforts to significantly change or replace Oklahoma's workers' compensation court system while Democratic leaders questioned what went wrong with legislation passed last year that was heralded to drive down costs.

“We're working with industry leaders that have been affected by the workers' comp and looking at language to adopt an administrative system and looking at the cost drivers and things that we can do to bring the costs down,” Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman said.

Bingman, R-Sapulpa, said Oklahoma and Tennessee are the only states with a judicial system handling cases of workers hurt on the job. Workers' compensation rates in Arkansas are about half the rates in Oklahoma, he said.

“We are not competitive,” Bingman said during a legislative panel discussion sponsored by The State Chamber. “This is more important than tax reform.”

House Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, said GOP legislative leaders and Republican Gov. Mary Fallin claimed workers' compensation legislation passed and signed into law last year was expected to generate about $30 million in savings.

“Yet it wasn't six months later that there was new legislation out that would allow employers to opt out of plans,” he said.

“The members in my caucus feel like the workers' compensation costs are too high … and we've got to find a way to rein in those costs,” he said.

Oklahoma has 10 workers' compensation judges. Each judge hears disputed workers' compensation issues, which may be resolved informally at a prehearing or settlement conference, or by a trial. Written orders of the trial judge are final unless appealed to a three-judge review panel of the workers' compensation court, or to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

House Speaker-elect T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, said one of his majority leaders, Rep. Fred Jordan, will continue working on legislation to change the workers' compensation system to be considered when lawmakers return Feb. 4. Jordan, R-Jenks, authored a measure that would have allowed mostly large employers to create their own workers' compensation plans and opt out of the state system. The measure failed to pass the House of Representatives.

Inman said House Democrats, who are outnumbered 72-29, are committed to improving the workers' compensation system and want to look at ways to control rising medical costs.

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We're working with industry leaders that have been affected by the workers' comp and looking at language to adopt an administrative system and looking at the cost drivers and things that we can do to bring the costs down.”

Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman,

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