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Oklahoma Legislature flooded with workers' compensation bills

Oklahoma business owners' cries for workers' compensation reform are reverberating through the Oklahoma Legislature, with more than 30 bills filed that could radically change the way injured workers are treated.
by Randy Ellis Published: February 3, 2013

Curry said he doesn't see how going to an administrative system where administrative law judges rather than workers' compensation judges hear disputed cases will result in savings.

Process takes time

One problem with switching is that workers are entitled to have their cases decided based on the laws in effect at the times of their injuries, so the state would have to operate a dual system for several years, Curry said. Simultaneously operating two systems would seem to be more costly than operating one, he said.

Curry said visits to the workers' compensation court have been eye opening for him.

“There was a lot of just dragging the feet — going for two or three different MRI's (magnetic resonance imaging tests),” he said.

The focus needs to change to getting workers treated quickly so that can heal and get back to work, Curry said.

“Most of the employers in Oklahoma are good and they try to do the right thing, but there's always going to be the one that's unscrupulous,” he said.

“We want to make sure there are provisions for an injured worker if he runs up against a bad employer.”

Source of controversy

Much of the controversy in Oklahoma has focused on permanent partial disability awards handed down by workers' compensation court judges.

Permanent partial disability payments are designed to compensate workers for damage to body parts that prevent workers from being able to do things they could before.

Employers point to a report released last year by the National Council on Compensation Insurance that showed Oklahoma's claim frequency for permanent partial disability was the highest in an eight-state region and more than double the regional average.

The report showed Oklahoma's $47,000 average cost per permanent partial disability case also was nearly double the regional average of $25,000.

Tim Lyon, assistant city manager for administration in Midwest City, said rising workers' compensation costs over the past eight years have siphoned away money that could be used to fund city services.

Lyon said judges often award large permanent partial disability awards to workers, even though they are able to return to work and appear to be able to do all the same things they've done in the past.

In some cases, workers who have been injured multiple times over the years have received permanent partial disability awards totaling more than 100 percent, even though they are able to return to work and perform normal duties, he said.

Becky Robinson, assistant vice president in charge of risk management for Hobby Lobby, said the company's workers' compensation claims in Oklahoma are two to three times higher than in Texas or Arkansas. She said the company operates in 42 states and claims costs in Oklahoma are among the five most expensive.

“We see the Oklahoma system as being extremely adversarial,” she said, adding she's heard it described as being like “Alice in Wonderland — you never know what you're going to get.”

Robinson said Hobby Lobby would like to see laws passed that would create an administrative system and give employers the option of opting out of the system so “they could design something that they may think is better.”

Effects of 2011 reform

Bob Burke, a workers' compensation attorney who represents injured workers, was one of the primary individuals involved in a 220-page rewrite of state workers' compensation laws in 2011.

Burke said many of the problems employers are complaining about were addressed in that bill, and he believes businesses will realize significant savings if they just give the new laws time to work.

Because cases are decided based on the laws in place when injuries occur, it traditionally takes about two years for changes in the law to be reflected in workers' compensation statistics.

Burke said he expects employers will realize about $100 million a year in cost savings from the 2011 law changes once they are fully implemented.

by Randy Ellis
Investigative Reporter
For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two...
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