A proposed change to how Oklahoma employees are compensated for on-the-job injuries now awaits only the governor's signature.
A reconciled version of Senate Bill 1062, which would transition the state's workers' compensation system from a court-based one to an administrative one, passed the Senate on Tuesday after about an hour of discussion and debate.
A spokesman for Gov. Mary Fallin said she likely will sign the bill later this week or next.
Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, who earlier championed the workers' comp change as the top legislative priority for the year, said Tuesday's vote was the “single most important achievement to come out of the state Capitol in years.”
“Replacing our broken workers' compensation court is historic, and the benefits of what we've done here today will be felt by Oklahomans for generations to come,” said Bingman, R-Sapulpa.
Starting Feb. 1, new workers' comp claims would be filed before an administrative body comprised of three commissioners instead of before the current court of 10 judges.
Employers would have the option to set up their own compensation plan, and payouts to injured workers would be altered significantly — and in some cases reduced.
Oklahoma employers currently pay out nearly $1 billion in annual premiums and premium equivalents under the workers' compensation system — the sixth-highest in the nation.
At least one analysis estimates cost savings under the new bill to be a minimum of $125 million.
“By finally putting the brakes on the runaway costs of Oklahoma's comp system, our state is sending a clear and unmistakable signal to job creators,” Bingman said. “Now they know we're serious about getting these costs under control.”
But the legislation has not been without critics, and with the exception of one Republican, the vote on Tuesday was squarely along party lines.
Sen. Harry Coates said he broke party ranks because he believes the proposed cuts will benefit the business interests in Oklahoma at a cost to workers' rights.
“What it says is we care about the employer more than we care about the employee,” said Coates, R-Seminole.
Democratic critics in the Senate and House said the proposed bill does not address medical costs, which comprise almost half of total system costs.
Almost 98 percent of surface cost savings associated with the proposed changes come in the form of reductions in either the amount paid to injured employees or the duration that such compensation can be collected, according to an analysis by National Council on Compensation Insurance.
“This bill literally adds insult to injury,” said Sen. John Sparks, D-Norman.
Others said they were concerned the proposal won't hold up in the courts.
Michael Carter, a 2011 Fallin appointee to the advisory board that oversees the workers' comp court system, said a number of concerns lodged by the board were ignored by lawmakers.
The board voted to oppose the bill in its initial Senate form not for its policy changes but because it does not address funding mechanisms for the court that will continue to hear existing claims, among other reasons, said Carter, board chairman.
The board did not vote on the amended version of the bill, as presented by the House, he said.
“But none of the amendments that were passed in the House really changed anything,” Carter said. “It's an incredibly badly drafted bill, and because of the poor draftsmanship, it scuttles the chance for the policy in it to ever be implemented.”
Becky Robinson, senior executive for risk management at Oklahoma City-based Hobby Lobby, said the comp changes ultimately will benefit workers by getting them healed and back to work without the slow nightmare of the current bureaucracy.
After withdrawing from the Texas workers' comp system in 2004, Hobby Lobby wiped out about $46,000 in annual litigation costs, reduced average claims costs to about a third of those in Oklahoma, and reduced disputes from six a year to only four in the past decade, Robinson said.
Hobby Lobby now negotiates directly with its injured workers' and the doctors who examine and treat them, she said.
The new law should mean the same types of improvements in Oklahoma, she said.
“As a result, Oklahoma workers will be protected, there will be fewer lawsuits and costs will go down,” she said.