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Oklahoma Senate Passes Workers’ Comp Bill

Recently the full Oklahoma Senate approved a series of bills ostensibly designed to reduce the cost of doing business in Oklahoma.  As states compete to bring in companies amidst a slowly recovering economy, the usual suspects have emerged as siren songs of the “pro-business” community: lower corporate taxes, heavy deregulation, and limitations on workers’ compensation claims.  These proposals often have ramifications beyond their stated goals.  Lowering corporate taxes creates gaps in state budgets already suffering from lack of revenue leading to cuts in social and public services.  Deregulation can lead to abuses of corporate power, as exemplified by the mortgage crisis that kicked off the current recession.  And heavy-handed reforms to workers’ compensation can limit the ways workers can lawfully pursue and receive legitimate injury claims.

Oklahoma Senate Bill 878 purports to be a comprehensive approach to workers’ compensation reform.  Brian Bingman, R-Salupa said, “We are committed to reducing Oklahoma’s workers’ compensation rates and making our state more competitive for job creation in every way.  This bill is progress towards a goal of making Oklahoma more competitive economically with surrounding states.”

The provisions of the Bill include mandating a judge to render a decision within 60 days, mandatory annual reviews of disability recipients, placing more authority in the hands of medical experts when reviewing claims, and encouraging early return to work as a form of rehabilitation.

Critics are skeptical of bill’s true intent.  Barbara Hoberock reports that the bill could limit injured workers’ access to medical treatment. It ties rates of compensation for doctors treating injured workers to 120 percent of Medicare. She quotes Dr. William Gillock, who practices occupational medicine in Tulsa. “We are concerned it would eliminate access to care and affect the quality of care we can provide,” he said.  The primary concern is that the reduction of compensation would make it difficult for doctors to refer their patients to specialists who charge higher raters.

Another measure passed by the Oklahoma Senate is aimed at limiting the amount workers’ compensation lawyers can be paid to represent injured workers.  Critics like Senate Minority Leader Charles Laster argue that the resolution would force injured worker’s to stand alone against the well-funded legal teams representing insurance companies.  Although supporters argue the measure would motivate workers’ compensation lawyers to work harder on behalf of their clients to obtain larger compensation, another possible outcome is reluctance to take cases in the first place.

The Washington State legislature is also pushing major changes in workers’ compensation benefits under the banner of reducing costs to the State.  While Governor Chris Gregoire’s proposal to push workers back into “light duty” while still recovering from injuries and to offer buy-outs to injured workers does not go as far the Oklahoma measures, it does reflect the national trend to push injured workers back into the workplace perhaps before they are ready.  The Seattle Times reports the “idea is to reconnect the worker with his boss, co-workers and paycheck, instead of having him sit at home on state benefit.”  One should note that the Times’ description of a worker sitting “at home” reflects an ugly prejudice in the mass media and by politicians against the plight of the injured worker.  As anyone who has suffered a workplace injury will tell you, recovery is a physically and emotionally exhausting process.

Labor and Industries laws continue to change across the nation.  Injured workers should consult with a Washington Workers Compensation Lawyer to ensure they receive the full protection of the law.

Emery Reddy