Republican legislative leaders assured Oklahoma City business leaders Thursday that lawmakers, who return to the state Capitol next week, will significantly change or replace the workers' compensation system.
Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman said the state workers' compensation system is the main deterrent to Oklahoma businesses.
“We want to change that this year and I think we can do it,” Bingman, R-Sapulpa, said to more than 500 who attended the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce's legislative breakfast.
The chamber, which represents 5,300 member companies and a workforce of about 250,000, has made changing the state workers' compensation system a high priority. The chamber is seeking significant changes to the system, including switching the system from a judicial system to an administrative one.
“Oklahoma's is a very adversarial system,” Bingman said.
He said he hopes lawmakers “make the leap” and pass legislation that would change the workers' compensation system to an administrative system. Republicans have a commanding advantage in both the House of Representatives and Senate; Republicans outnumber Democrats 72-29 in the House and 36-12 in the Senate.
An Oklahoma City chamber official said Oklahoma companies pay the sixth-highest workers' compensation rates in the country.
“The system that we have today, the incentive is to delay, delay, delay, and so we have cases that just keep going on and on and on,” Bingman said. “That just adds to the medical cost, legal fees.”
Oklahoma is one of two 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, Bingman said.
“We want to make sure that we are doing everything on the state level to make sure Oklahoma is competitive,” 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 Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, said he agrees changes are needed in the system.
“We see the numbers,” he said. “We know workers' compensation rates are too expensive for our employers.”
House Democrats are befuddled because Republican Gov. Mary Fallin and GOP legislative leaders claimed measures passed and signed into law two years ago would reduce rates. Some of those changes are just now taking effect.
“If you're going to pass any reforms, you've got to give it a number of years before those reforms materialize into lower rates,” he said. “Our position is we want to invest and wait and see what happens with those reforms. … We also want to work on controlling the out-of-control medical care costs.”
A workers' compensation claim takes about three years to complete and some can be reopened 10 years later, he said. If an administrative system is enacted, the current judicial system would have to remain in place to take care of those claims, Inman said.
House Speaker-elect T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, said all options should be considered, including an idea to allow mostly large employers to create their own workers' compensation plans and opt out of the state system. A bill proposing that change last year failed to pass the House.
“We have had workers' compensation reform in the past; we have not lowered rates,” he said. “We have to have quantifiable evidence that the reforms that we're making are going to lower rates.
“We have an opportunity in Oklahoma to lower those rates by moving either to an administrative system or looking at an opt-out system,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Sean Burrage, D-Claremore, said Democrats want to lower workers' compensation rates, but lawmakers should look first at controlling rising medical costs.
“Lots of people are making lots of money,” he said. “Historically we thought it was claimants and attorneys … but we've learned in the last three or four years is that doctors and hospitals are making money, too. … And that has been the real stumbling block in bringing the costs down in my opinion.”
Burrage said he hasn't been shown any of the Republican proposals to change the workers' compensation system.
“For me to comment on any of the proposals would be tough because I haven't been included,” he said. “But I look forward to seeing what comes forward.”