Walters Offers Compensation Reform Plan

Article excerpt

A workers compensation reform package aimed at saving up to $67.5 million in Oklahoma's system was announced Friday by Gov. David Walters.

"This is not a `kill-the-lawyers' deal," he said, noting that the package was structured to cut costs while preserving benefits to injured workers.

"I hope reason carries the day," Walters said.

"If Oklahoma is to continue to be in the position of competing for new industry and jobs, we must continue to try and hold the line in all associated business costs, especially workers compensation insurance costs."

The legislation, to be carried by Sen. Don Williams, D-Balko, and House Speaker Pro Tempore Jim Glover, D-Elgin, was crafted with input from three study groups appointed by the governor. They dealt with medical cost containment, job safety and training and vocational rehabilitation.

Walters has proposed a 10-point plan, as follows: Establish a state-run occupational safety and health consultation and enforcement program, fund it by reducing the legal liability of the Special Indemnity Fund and dedicate 30 percent of the revenue to support the new program.

Walters said this amounts to state takeover of responsibilities now performed by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. So, the state would lose some federal matching money it now receives. This proposal is estimated to cost $3.5 million.

The Special Indemnity Fund, an arm of the State Insurance Fund, covers employers who hire previously injured employees. If the employee is injured again, it protects the employer from paying for both the former and current injuries.

The Special Indemnity Fund's purpose was to give an incentive for employers to hire people with pre-existing disabilities. The Walters plan claims that the newly enacted Americans with Disabilities Act should meet those needs.

Under the Walters plan, permanent partial disability benefits would no longer be covered by the indemnity fund. "By limiting eligibility for Special Indemnity Fund benefits to only those seriously injured persons who are permanently and totally disabled, portions of revenue from the tax will be free to divert" to pay for a state OSHA program, according to a background paper on the governor's legislation. Establish a physician advisory committee under the Workers Compensation Court, to scrutinize medical treatment and the evaluation of workers compensation injuries. Before permanent disability awards were made, the court would be required to consider the potential for vocational rehabilitation of the injured worker. Workers would get paid during the training period. Establish a Workers Compensation Court of Appeals. …