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.
“That needs to be our primary focus,” he said. “Allowing someone to opt out only allows about 5 percent of the companies in the state to opt out. We think that leaves the other 95 percent in a lurch to see increased costs to workers' compensation and that's not the solution.
“What gets forgotten here is that the primary purpose of the workers' compensation system is to care for the injured worker,” Inman said. “They did nothing wrong. They were hurt on the job. We want to make sure that whatever system is created protects them. We don't want it to be too onerous on businesses by any means.”
Sen. Tom Ivester, D-Elk City, said Republicans, who outnumber Democrats 36-12 in the Senate, have had the majority in both chambers the past four years but have yet to pass legislation that has reduced workers' compensation rates.
“They can pass anything they want,” said Ivester, chairman of the Senate Democratic caucus. “Why isn't it lowering premiums?”
About 550 attended the discussion at the Cox Convention Center sponsored by The State Chamber, which has about 1,200 members, many of whom complain high workers' compensation rates are the biggest impediment to their growth.
Also during the event, lawmakers split along party lines on Fallin's decision last month to reject the federal government's proposals to expand the Medicaid health care program in Oklahoma and to establish an online marketplace for the uninsured to shop for health insurance. Republicans supported the move; Democrats were opposed.
Inman said one out of five Oklahomans don't have health insurance, which translates to about $600 million annually in uncompensated care costs borne by hospitals in the state. He questioned how Republican leaders in the state who don't want to accept the expansion of the Medicaid program can accept federal money for roads and bridges.
“It's hypocritical,” Inman said.
Bingman said the federal government has a spending problem and creating a new health care program is something the country can't afford.
Shannon said state officials are better suited to develop health care plans for Oklahoma.
“I applaud the governor, Governor Fallin, who is the quarterback of our state, quarterback of our party,” he said.
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,