House to take close look at workers' compensation bill

The bill to overhaul Oklahoma's workers' compensation system is among measures being passed to meet last week's deadline for measures to pass out of their originating chambers.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT mmcnutt@opubco.com Modified: March 2, 2013 at 12:51 am •  Published: March 3, 2013
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A bill that would overhaul Oklahoma's workers' compensation court and replace it with an administrative system that sped through the Senate will be slowed down in the House of Representatives for a closer look, House Speaker T.W. Shannon said.

Shannon, R-Lawton, said he generally supports the measure, but the House will take its time with Senate Bill 1062 to look at how the bill would reduce compensation benefits available to injured workers.

“Our main concern is that injured workers are not penalized and that the company that provides the benefits is able to do so in an affordable manner and that it doesn't become a hindrance to doing business in Oklahoma,” Shannon said. “I haven't seen the Senate bill to know exactly, but I think I like a lot of what I've heard about it. What I like about it the most is that it goes to an administrative system.”

SB 1062, a 260-page bill, was unveiled nearly two weeks ago by Senate leaders. A Senate committee passed it 8-2 and last week the Senate passed it 34-12.

“We'll have a lot more time to vet the bill than happened in the Senate,” Shannon said. “That will give us a lot more opportunities to make it even stronger.

“We'll get it over to the House,” he said. “We'll make some modifications to it and hopefully make it an even stronger workers' compensation bill.”

If changes are made to the bill in the House, it would have to return to the Senate for consideration.

Thursday was the deadline for House and Senate bills to be heard and passed out of each chamber's committees. For the next two weeks, lawmakers will spend time in session to meet a March 14 deadline of getting House-originated bills out of the House and Senate-originated bills out of the Senate.

Backers say SB 1062 would bring system costs and compensation benefits in line with neighboring states. The State Chamber said Oklahoma ranks as the sixth-highest in workers' compensation benefits awarded to injured workers. Opponents say it would reduce employer liability and make significant cuts to a program intended to protect workers.

If the bill becomes law, workers' comp claims would be heard and decided by a panel of administrative law judges who are appointed by a trio of commissioners. The commissioners would be appointed by the governor, subject to Senate approval. It would make Oklahoma only the second state to allow qualified employers to opt out of the workers' compensation system entirely as long as they can develop their own replacement program. It also would establish a method for employee-employer disputes to be mediated outside of a courtroom.

Oklahoma, one of two states with a judicial system handling cases of workers hurt on the job, 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, but it's too early to make a major overhaul. Changes passed by legislation two years ago that were intended to reduce costs are just now taking effect, he said. Costs also could be reduced by working to control the rising costs of medical procedures and care within the system, he said.

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