Further proof of the dysfunction of Oklahoma's workers' compensation system is found in the wide disparity in judgments approved by the court's judges.
The Oklahoman's Randy Ellis reported Sunday that awards granted by the four judges appointed to the workers' comp court by Republican Gov. Mary Fallin have been considerably smaller than those awarded by their predecessors, who were appointed by a Democratic governor. Such trends aren't unusual.
Bob Burke, a longtime workers' comp attorney, pointed out that injury awards fell during the time when Republican Gov. Frank Keating was making appointments to the court, then increased when Democrat Brad Henry got to choose. “It's not a secret. That's just the way it has always been,” Burke said.
It's time for a change. A bill co-authored by Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman would do away with the court-based system and replace it with an administrative system similar to that used in Arkansas, which provides benefits to injured workers but isn't so burdensome to employers.
Workers' compensation costs are regularly cited by Oklahoma companies large and small as their No. 1 concern. Our workers' comp rates are sixth-highest in the country according to one recent study. Despite a significant drop during the past 15 years in the number of claims filed per 100 workers, the average award has nearly tripled during that time — due largely to the litigious nature of the current system.
Burke was among those critical of the bill unveiled this week by Bingman, R-Sapulpa, and Sen. Anthony Sykes, R-Moore. You can expect much more howling from attorneys as the bill makes its way through the process, because the system works just fine for them. But it doesn't work nearly as well for employers. Balance is needed.
Transitioning away from a system driven by lawyers and judges will help. Oklahoma has tried many times to reform the current system, with little success. It's time to try something new.