A state Senate leadership bill to abolish the Oklahoma Workers' Compensation Court and replace it with an administrative system for compensating injured workers was unveiled Monday to a chorus of cheers and jeers.
The bill is 260 pages long.
“It's an incredible bill,” said Becky Robinson, assistant vice president of risk management for Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma City-based retail store chain. “I think it's really unique and certainly does a lot for those that are supporting reform. It's bringing creativity to the pot.”
Workers' compensation attorney Bob Burke strongly disagreed.
“Senate Bill 1062 is a direct assault on the rights and benefits of Oklahoma workers who are injured on the job,” Burke said.
“The cuts in benefits are deep and unfair.”
Burke complained about a lengthy list of benefit cuts contained in the bill. For example, he said a worker making $500 a week would receive $20,000 less for an amputated arm, $16,000 less for an amputated hand and $24,000 less for a loss of hearing in both ears.
Senate leaders said the bill is modeled after the workers' compensation system in Arkansas.
The bill is designed to reduce the cost of workers' compensation premiums, while ensuring injured workers receive quality care in a timely manner, they said.
“The biggest roadblock to a stronger economy in Oklahoma is our adversarial workers' compensation system,” said Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, who is co-authoring the bill, along with state Sen. Anthony Sykes, R-Moore.
“Worse yet, our adversarial system doesn't do a very good job of helping injured workers get the care they need to get healed and back to work,” said Bingman, R-Sapulpa. “The system is designed to reward trial lawyers for dragging cases out and delaying outcomes as long as possible.”
The bill is scheduled to be heard at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Senate leaders said Oklahoma's current judicial workers' compensation system is one of the most expensive in the nation.
They said a recent national study shows Oklahoma employers pay an average of $2.77 for every $100 in payroll, which is 147 percent of the national median and more than double the $1.19 per $100 of payroll that Arkansas employers pay.
“The Arkansas system is a model for states that want a system designed to help injured workers get the care they need without delay,” said Sykes, chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
“Oklahoma's small-business owners care about their employees, and they know they wouldn't be successful without them. I believe this system is the right solution for employees, and it's good for business.”
Fred Morgan, president of the State Chamber of Oklahoma, praised the legislation, saying it would “help reduce costs, get workers timely, quality medical care and make Oklahoma more competitive economically with our surrounding states.”
Robinson said there are many provisions in the bill she likes, including language that creates an administrative system, wording that allows qualified employers to opt out and offer alternative systems, and language that creates an arbitration system that would allow many disputes to be resolved without even going before an administrative law judge.
Jimmy Curry, president of the Oklahoma State AFL-CIO labor union, said he has studied the Arkansas administrative system and doesn't see much savings in it other than cuts in benefits to injured workers.
Burke agreed. He said the proposed bill contains substantial benefit cuts for workers who are partially or totally disabled, as well as cuts in benefits to widows of workers who are killed.
He also objected to a provision in the bill that he said would eliminate workers' compensation for “cumulative trauma injuries, including carpal tunnel, from the use of keyboards or video terminals.”
“I do not believe that good Oklahoma employers want to cut benefits this much for their injured workers who suffer legitimate injuries and widows who must pick up the pieces after their husband's death,” he said.
The bill would create an administrative system that would be governed by three commissioners. Commissioners would be appointed by the governor, subject to Senate approval, to staggered six-year terms. Commissioners would appoint administrative law judges to hear and decide claims.
A Workers' Compensation Fraud Investigation Unit within the Oklahoma Insurance Department would be formed, with the director to be appointed by the state attorney general.
The bill calls for compensation for workers injured on or after Jan. 1, 2014, to be decided under the new administrative system.
The Workers' Compensation Court would be abolished on that date, and a four-judge Court of Existing Claims would be appointed by the governor to hear and decide then-pending claims.
The Court of Existing Claims would hear cases until Nov. 1, 2017, when any older claims still open would be “sent to the district courts of Oklahoma or Tulsa County for hearing without a jury.”
The district court judges would be required to make rulings based on workers' compensation laws in effect at the times of the injuries.