A revised bill that would significantly change how Oklahoma handles workers hurt on the job won easy passage Tuesday by a House committee despite an hourlong attack by Democrats on the panel.
Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma, called Senate Bill 1062 morally reprehensible and disgusting. But Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said if it would become law, the bill would “be the best thing to happen to Oklahoma in years.”
The committee voted 11-4 along party lines to pass SB 1062. It now goes to the House Calendar Committee, which will decide whether it gets a hearing in the House.
GOP leaders in the Republican-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Mary Fallin have said changing the workers' compensation system is a key priority for them to accomplish before the session ends late next month.
“It's time Oklahoma solves an old problem with a modern solution,” said House Speaker T.W. Shannon, the author of SB 1062. “We need a strong system that protects workers and drives down costs, and I applaud my fellow legislators for taking on this massive effort.”
SB 1062 would replace the court-based system with an administrative one and would allow employers to opt out of the system and provide their own form of coverage.
Changes were made by several House members last week to the measure. It now has restored some of the cuts in compensation for injured workers that were proposed in the original measure, which passed the Senate 34-12 in February.
House Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, argued that any cost savings in the bill would be brought about by reducing medical benefits to injured workers.
“This system dramatically reduces benefits for people who got hurt by simply doing their job,” he said. “Make no mistake about it.”
Inman said some injured workers will get 30 percent less benefits.
Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, who presented the bill for Shannon, said temporary total disability payments now are based on 100 percent of the state's average weekly wage. SB 1062 will reduce that benefit to 70 percent of the average weekly wage to take into account that the compensation is not taxed.
“That brings us more in line with every other state,” he said.
Permanent partial disability payments will not change, Echols said.
The original version cut the duration a worker could collect permanent partial disability payments from 500 to 450 weeks. The new version reduces it to 375 weeks.
The bill, among other things, restores benefits for widows and amputees to current levels, extends the amount of time an injured worker can file a claim from three days back to 30, and reinstates compensation rights for volunteer firefighters and members of the Oklahoma National Guard.
The measure also calls for injured workers to get their payment within three days, compared with seven days under current law, Echols said.
“I know that seems like a small number unless you're the one that needs the money,” he said.
Morrissette scolded lawmakers who didn't read the 316-page bill, saying workers' compensation benefits affect thousands of Oklahomans every year. He said workers' compensation benefits are vital for family members of the injured worker.
“That compensation is used to pay for the family, to pay the rent, mortgage, food, clothing,” he said. “There's been some concept that somehow workers' compensation recovery for injured workers is some sort of a boon to people that are fraudulently collecting money and scamming the system.”
Osborn said Oklahoma companies pay the sixth- highest workers' compensation rates in the country. Oklahoma is just one of two states, she said, with a judicial compensation system, which tends to drag out cases, which drives up costs for employers and often delays employees in returning to work.
“The current system is antiquated,” she said. “Overall it encourages litigation.”
SB 1062 will encourage mediation, worker rehabilitation and quick results for injured workers, Osborn said.
Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, argued against the opt-out provision in the bill, saying workers who dispute compensation awards could end up going to federal court to appeal.
Morrissette tried to lure Republicans to vote against the measure by saying that provision could be called “Obamacomp,” a play on the word Obamacare that is used by critics of the national health care law. He said it is an appropriate term because removing some employers from a state workers' compensation system to one that falls under federal rules could be compared with the national health care law supported by Democratic President Barack Obama.