OKLAHOMA'S workers' compensation system has been in need of repairs for decades. The Legislature is close to making them with a bill that would scrap the judicial model and replace it with an administrative system.
To hear House Democrats tell it, though, little if anything needs fixing. The current system, which has Oklahoma employers paying the sixth-highest work comp rates in the country, is just dandy. And of course, any effort to change it is nothing more than an assault on Oklahoma workers.
“The winners were the biggest, wealthiest corporations in this state,” proclaimed Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, after the House approved Senate Bill 1062. Class warfare is a tried and true rhetorical tool for Democrats, and Morrissette is one of its most ardent users.
Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, has only been at the Capitol a few years but is learning quickly: “All of the savings of this bill,” she said, “are coming out of the pockets of injured workers, those ordinary, everyday, hardworking people who don't have a lobbyist up here.” These remarks came in a press release funded by taxpayers who don't have a lobbyist “up here” to stop such shenanigans.
Among other things, the bill will allow permanent partial disability payments to be deferred if a worker can return to work at the same (or equivalent) job at the same pay. Currently, workers can return to the same job at the same pay after also being awarded large workers' comp payments.
Those judgments stem from a highly litigious system in which cases can be drawn out for months and sometimes years, involving doctors, attorneys, insurance companies and judges. All too often, the size of the awards relates to whether the judge was appointed by a Republican or Democratic governor. And awards overall have increased significantly during the past many years, even as the number of claims filed has gone down.
But the system isn't the problem; low education levels are, according to Rep. Jeannie McDaniel, D-Tulsa. “We may be sixth in workers' comp costs because we don't value education and health care in our state,” she said. “We're ranked 49th in education, and one out of five of us don't have access to health care. Maybe that may have something to do with why we have so many people using workers' compensation.”
Of course the only folks more upset about the pending change is Democrats' chief backers — the lawyers who do have lobbyists “up here.” One work comp attorney called the bill “blatantly unconstitutional.” Approval will almost certainly draw a legal challenge, but that's no reason for lawmakers to back away from it.
Through the years, most major reforms in Oklahoma have drawn legal challenges. After voters approved a right-to-work law in 2001, which prohibited workers from being forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment, unions sued. In 2003, the state Supreme Court upheld the law in a unanimous decision.
When legislators debated lawsuit reforms in 2011, the trial bar swiftly threatened legal challenges. Legislation that year capped most awards for noneconomic damages at $350,000. Another bill barred recovery of noneconomic damages by drivers who are in an accident but don't have mandatory motor vehicle liability insurance. A Tulsa attorney insisted both laws were unconstitutional. Lawmakers passed them anyway.
Lawmakers shouldn't arbitrarily dismiss serious critiques of workers' comp reform, but they should recognize legal threats for what they are — the sadly standard operating procedure employed by many on the losing side of public policy debates in the democratic process.