AFTER decades of tinkering around the edges with Oklahoma's workers' compensation system, lawmakers this year retooled it entirely. It's a move that will benefit the state in the long term, and Gov. Mary Fallin should sign the bill without delay.
Our court-based system has been broken for too long, driving up the cost of doing business in Oklahoma. That can't be understated — small businesses in particular, the backbone of the state's economy, are hurt by seeing their workers' comp rates increase every year even when they have no claims filed against them.
Indeed Oklahoma's rates are sixth-highest in the country according to a biennial study by the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services. Employers in this state pay out close to $1 billion per year in premiums and premium equivalents in the current system. And although the number of claims filed has decreased in the past several years, the average awards have nearly tripled.
The stories are legion of workers being granted large judgments for dubious injuries, all the while enriching the attorneys who practice before the court. Those attorneys will continue to make a good living. However instead of a workers' compensation courtroom, claims will be filed before a three-member administrative body, similar to what is done by all but a few states.
Employers will have the ability to opt out of the new system, which had opponents of the bill concerned. However companies that do opt out must provide the same forms of benefits mandated by the administrative system. So employees in those companies will be covered.
Opponents also said injured workers would be the biggest losers in this change, but the same argument has been made every time workers' compensation reform has been brought to the table. This bill does change the way workers will be compensated, and for how long, while off the job.
One major change to employee benefits simply allows permanent partial disability (PPD) payments to be deferred when an employee can return to the same basic job at the same pay. The longer the employee works, the more the PPD award is reduced until it's eliminated. Under current law, individuals can receive multiple PPD awards indicating disability exceeding 100 percent — yet the worker returns to the same job at the same pay.
That doesn't make sense to most Oklahomans, and the new law addresses that problem while still ensuring workers can get a PPD payment should an employer arbitrarily fire them. This is a reasonable trade-off that lowers employer costs while protecting workers' job security and income.
The accomplishment of this longtime goal owes much to Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa. While the new law required buy-in from many actors, more than any other legislative leader Bingman made workers' comp reform a primary goal of this session. At different times, Fallin and House leadership appeared less than enthusiastic about the effort, but Bingman and Senate Republicans persevered. Now major reform is a pen stroke away from becoming law.
As we've said before, Republican legislative supermajorities should be used to pursue big goals. Bingman has done just that.
Major workers' compensation reform has been decades in the making, and legal challenges will doubtless be pursued by those vested in the current system. Nonetheless, this is a good day for Oklahoma.