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
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
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
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
"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
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
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