Workers Compensation Reforms Proposed

Article excerpt

By Lou Anne Wolfe

Journal Record Staff Reporter

An army of ombudsmen, and probably a few ombudswomen, could cut into the private workers compensation law market if legislation backed by the Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce Industry makes it into law this year.

Same as last year, state Rep. Jim Maddox, D-Lawton, is carrying a hefty workers compensation reform package, which he styled with the chamber's input, for the Oklahoma legislative session that begins Feb. 1.

Mike Seney, director of the chamber's manufacturing department, said the organization's human resources and workers compensation committees worked with Maddox during the interim period, and "he graciously has accepted to sponsor those" reforms they came up with. All three bills would be effective Sept. 1.

Here's a summary of what Maddox's legislation would do: Under House Bill 1604, the Workers Compensation Court would hire "sufficient" numbers of lawyers to work as ombudsmen to represent before the court any injured workers requesting their services.

The program would be funded by a fee, paid by the claimant, of 5 percent of any award issued by the court. Funding would be supplemented from a percentage of all workers compensation premiums paid by employers. The percentage amount would depend on what was needed to fund the program adequately, after considering the 5 percent monies.

No ombudsman could serve as a Workers Compensation Court judge until the individual had been employed outside the court for at least five consecutive years.

The salary of any ombudsman would be limited to 90 percent of the authorized salary of the Workers Compensation Court administrator.

Also under House Bill 1604, private attorneys who advertised their workers compensation law practices in newspapers, on television or the radio would be required to include a statement that the court provided representation through the ombudsman program for 5 percent of the claimant's award.

The statement would have to include the address and telephone number of the ombudsman program at the court, and that information would have to be just as large or long as the language of the message that gave the lawyer's address and telephone number.

Seney said the workers compensation system was "supposedly a system designed to handle claims expeditiously and get the employee back to work. It's not designed to make private lawyers rich."

With such an ombudsman program in place, he said, "a claimant could go to the court, get his case heard, and go back to work, and he wouldn't have to give up 25 percent of the award to do it.

"We don't have anything against outside legal representation," Seney said. "It's just that the claimant will have a choice." The same ombudsman proposal is incorporated into Maddox's House Bill 1601, but this measure is more of an omnibus bill that addresses several issues.

No injury or disease would be compensable unless the employee's workplace was the major contributing cause of the injury.

Before an award of permanent total disability benefits was made, the court would be required to consider the employee's capacity for employment or potential for re-training.

No vocational rehabilitation program could be provided without prior agreement of the employer.

If an employee had multiple workers compensation claims pending, they would be consolidated and assigned to the same judge.

Current state law forbids a business from firing an employee who is off work due to temporary total disability, solely because the employee is off work, for a period up to 300 weeks. House Bill 1601 would shorten that period to 90 days.

If an employer offered a managed-care health insurance program, and paid at least 50 percent of the employees' premiums, then the physician chosen by an employee under the managed care program would be required by law to also be the treating physician for workers compensation problems, including evaluating impairment. …