State Chamber Refuses to Support Insurance Plan

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The Workers Compensation Task Force convened Friday in a final meeting, but the Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce & Industry's representative refused to support an eight-point recommendation for changes in the system that is going to be forwarded to Gov. David Walters.

"Our concern is very simple: it's not anything close to real reform," said Mike Seney, consultant to the chamber.

"NCCI (National Council on Compensation Insurance) has priced it out and said it might, in the best light, save 2 percent in cost." Mike Clingman, task force chairman and commissioner of the State Insurance Fund, said Seney's opinion was unfortunate.

"The task force was made up of a diverse group of individuals with a lot of knowledge of the system," said Clingman, a former Workers Compensation Court administrator.

"No one perhaps liked all eight, but the others saw the wisdom in passing those to improve the system," he said. "If Mr. Seney is waiting for a perfect workers compensation system, he's in for a long wait. The governor is committed to improving the system, and I feel this package does just that." Seney said the loss rate for the private insurance industry in workers compensation was 137.8 percent last year. That means for every dollar of premium taken in, insurance companies were paying out almost $1.38 in claims, expenses and dividends.

"So 2 percent (savings), if we got it, is a drop in the bucket and I firmly believe that reform package would wind up costing Oklahoma employers more than the current system does," Seney said.

Very briefly, these are the proposed recommendations:

Raise minimum temporary total disability benefits to 70 percent of the average weekly wage, capped at 75 percent of the state average weekly wage.

Calculate average weekly wage on 260 work days a year, instead of current 300-day benchmark.

Link vocational rehabilitation to permanent total disability by requiring an evaluation before permanent total disability is awarded, and by providing benefits at the temporary total disability rate during the vocational rehabilitation and job placement period.

Require that attorney fees in permanent total disability awards be paid weekly, rather than in an up-front lump sum.

Change the process for considering the appointment of incumbent workers compensation judges by allowing for a retention ballot, elections, or consideration by the governor.

Clarify and tighten compensability requirements for mental stress injuries and heart attacks.

Restructure the self-insured guaranty funds.

Restructure the Special Indemnity Fund.

Seney complained that some of the recommendations are very vague.

"Voc rehab is very vague, and I can't support even conceptually what they're talking about until I see what they're talking about," he said.

"But I think the majority problem I have is, this was presented as a package of reform which isn't really reform, and there's some out there that say, `Well, if we improve it a little bit at a time,' but we can't improve it a little bit at a time.

"This thing needs a major overhaul or it's going to break down entirely," Seney said.

Clingman said he didn't think the recommendations were vague at all.

Respecting the vocational rehabilitation proposal, he said employers have argued for years that if a worker can be retrained and be re-employed, then the worker is not totally disabled. Current law does not allow that testimony to be involved in a determination of benefits, he said.

"The change would allow employers to defend those cases based on the possibility of retraining," Clingman said. …