A bill that would reduce compensation benefits available to injured workers in Oklahoma is one step closer to becoming law.
Senate Bill 1062, which would overhaul the state's workers' compensation court and replace it with an administrative system, passed the Senate 34-12 on Wednesday after more than an hour of debate. It now goes to the House.
Proponents say the 260-page bill will bring system costs and compensation benefits in line with neighboring states; opponents say it reduces employer liability and makes significant cuts to a program intended to protect workers.
At nearly a billion dollars a year, Oklahoma currently ranks sixth in the nation in terms of workers' compensation costs, said Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, the bill's primary author.
“We're all about jobs out here; we're trying to provide the environment where businesses can go out and hire people,” Bingman said. “It's a culture change for Oklahoma.”
How it works
If the bill becomes law, workers' comp claims would be heard and decided by a panel of administrative law judges who are appointed by a trio of commissioners. The commissioners would be appointed by the governor, subject to Senate approval.
The bill, as approved by the Senate, would make Oklahoma only the second state to allow qualified employers to opt-out of the workers' compensation system entirely — so long as they can develop their own replacement program — and would establish a method for employee-employer disputes to be mediated outside of a courtroom.
Supporters said those changes, along with adjustments to compensation amounts, would reduce costs for employees, get injured employees back to work more quickly and make Oklahoma more competitive in attracting and maintaining businesses.
“I'd talk to people and they'd say, ‘I've got half the employees in Oklahoma that I do in Texas' — or pick any state — ‘ ... and yet my workers' comp costs are two to four times higher in Oklahoma than they are anywhere else,'” said Sen. Anthony Sykes, R-Moore, who co-authored the legislation. “The bill that stands before you right now is a result of a long, long study. It has been an issue in Oklahoma far too long.”
But critics said the proposed changes benefit employers while chipping away at workers' rights.
About 14,000 Oklahoma workers file claims at workers' compensation court each year. An analysis released Tuesday by the National Council on Compensation Insurance indicated almost 99 percent of about $145 million in explicit cost savings anticipated under the proposed changes would come by shortening deadlines for those employees to file for benefits or reductions in both benefit amounts and duration of eligibility.
Proposed benefit changes include reducing to 70 percent the amount of weekly pay injured employees can collect while away from their jobs; a reduction by 23 percent in the amount an injured worker could collect if an arm is amputated; substantial cuts to benefits paid to the spouse of an employee killed on the job; and a requirement that injured employees report their injury within three days or miss out on benefits altogether.
The bill would remove some injury classifications, including injuries sustained by repetitive work, like carpal tunnel syndrome, and would exclude anyone from claiming benefits if they return to work after an injury.
Senate Minority Leader Sean Burrage, D-Claremore, said the bill does not promise limits on workers' comp premiums nor does it address medical costs, which comprise 46 percent of workers' comp costs.
“You're saying if you're an amputee you're going to get less money, if you're off work through no fault of your own you're going to get less money; but if you're a doctor who sends these folks to court and says they've got an injury, you get to keep the same money,” Burrage said. “We've got doctors that are making 2-, 3-, 400 percent what they would make if it were a Medicare complaint. And what are we doing about that today? Nothing.”
Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid, was one of two Republicans to vote against the bill Wednesday.
An administrative system and an opt-out option is “the right direction to go,” Anderson said. “But what gravely concerns me is how we're finding the savings, and Sen. Burrage is right — we are not addressing the reimbursement rates, which are a huge driver of the workers' compensation costs, and we're putting the savings on the back of the injured employees.”
Bingman said less than half of compensation benefits currently awarded to injured workers go toward actual medical costs. And treatment guidelines included in the legislation will assist administrators in setting the fees that doctors can charge for some treatments, he said.