Legislation that would change how Oklahoma's injured employees are compensated for their medical costs and missed time at work is necessary, but not in the way it is currently proposed.
That was the overwhelming opinion Thursday of members of the advisory board that oversees the state's current workers' compensation court.
With an 8-1 vote, the board criticized Senate Bill 1062 as it is currently written and asked state legislators to take another look.
“It seems to me that if you were in favor of all of the policy provisions in the bill that the actual mechanics of the bill are not the way we would ever go about accomplishing this,” said Michael Carter, board chairman, who called the bill “unworkable” in its current form.
The thrust of the bill is that the current court-based system would be replaced with an administrative one and that systemwide costs would be reined in by reducing benefits available to injured workers.
The bill, which was approved last week by the full Senate and is now headed to the House, also allows for employers to opt out of the workers' compensation system altogether and provide their own form of coverage instead.
The policy tenets of the proposed bill were not in the spotlight at Thursday's advisory board meeting; instead the focus was on language.
Among the board's complaints:
• There is no language that outlines fraud rules and penalties for compensation payers, employers and carriers.
• Contradictory language both repeals the current law, Title 85, but also provides for the court-based system to continue for three years until claims filed before the new law are complete.
• There would be significant gaps between the abolishment of the court system and the establishment of the administrative one, meaning claims could sit idle for weeks or months.
• The proposed legislation does not provide for the intensive treatment guidelines for physicians that is included in the current law.
The advisory board is comprised of nine people, appointed equally by the governor's office, the Senate president pro tem and the speaker of the House.
Carter, an attorney in Oklahoma City, said because Title 85 is repealed in its entirety under the proposed legislation, mere establishment of a dual system is not enough. The proposed law would need to include some actual language that would give the temporary court system its basis for functioning, including rules, funding, fees and administration.
Current rules in which self-insured employers are required to pay to insure against cases where one employer does not meet its compensation obligations would no longer exist beginning Jan. 1, 2014, Carter said.
“And all of the other statutes are completely repealed,” he said. “Administrative operations, administrative funding mechanisms, authorities for fines and fees, authorizes existence of a multiple-injury trust fund — that is now gone.”
And unknown is the amount of time it would take after Jan. 1, 2014 — when the current system would close and Gov. Mary Fallin could begin appointing commissioners to the administrative system — for those commissioners to be approved by the Senate, hire staff and get started.
“It seems like that when you want to do such a total change like this that you would need to phase it in to cost the least amount of money to the state and not leave any gaps — and there's no phasing in. It's just one day it's gone, and the next day we start over again,” Carter said.
A spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, who authored Senate Bill 1062, declined to comment specifically on the board's complaints other than to say Bingman, R-Sapulpa, supports the policies of the bill.
“The pro tem is focused on solutions,” said Nathan Atkins. “He believes the Administrative Workers' Compensation Act will lower costs, provide certainty to Oklahoma businesses, and help injured workers get quality care in a timely manner.”
House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, said last week that the bill will be slowed down in the House for a closer look.
The bill would ultimately need approval from Fallin to become law.