A bill that would overhaul Oklahoma's workers' compensation court and replace it with an administrative system passed its first legislative hurdle on Tuesday.
The “Administrative Workers' Compensation Act” was approved 8-2 by the Senate Judiciary Committee and will now head to the full Senate for a vote as early as next week.
Supporters lauded the 260-page bill as an important reform that will reduce premium costs for Oklahoma employers and reduce waste and fraud. But critics said they haven't had a chance to even read it.
“If you want a bill that's actually going to work instead of something shoved down your throat then, yeah, you need to release it and have discussions on it,” said Sen. Tom Ivester. “There's no reason to do workers' comp reform unless it's going to lower premiums and there's nothing in this bill about lowering premiums.”
Sen. Anthony Sykes, chairman of the judiciary committee and a co-author of the bill, said workers' compensation reform was “the subject of many studies” during the legislative interim and that the new proposition would model Oklahoma's workers' compensation system after the one in Arkansas.
Beginning Jan. 1, 2014, workers' compensation claims would be heard and decided by administrative law judges who are appointed by a group of three commissioners. Those commissioners would in turn be appointed by the Governor, subject to Senate approval.
An amendment approved during Tuesday's committee meeting would take the system's fraud investigative unit out of the Oklahoma Insurance Department and place it within the Attorney General's office instead.
Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman said the bill was sent to Ivester and other lawmakers Monday morning.
He said workers' compensation reforms passed by the Legislature two years ago were “nibbling around the edges.”
“We have a lot of options for businesses; this is wholesale reform,” said Bingman, R-Sapulpa. “The cost savings that we expect from this bill will be tremendous. We have to put the brakes on our runaway workers' compensation system if we are serious about growing our state's economy.”
Ivester, D-Sayre, said he was concerned with a portion of the bill that allows employers to opt out of the system and that there is no appeals process to federal court for employees who are unhappy with how their claim was handled.
He said he and other Democratic lawmakers will likely spend the weekend reading the bill and that he expects more debate once it goes before the full Senate.