Waiting to See How It Works Out

Article excerpt

Business officials want to gauge how well a special-session workers compensation reform bill works before they try any more substantial tweaking of the overall system, but there are a few issues that should be addressed, a State Chamber official says.

"I think that we recognize that we just had a pretty good-sized workers compensation bill passed in the special session," says Mike Seney, chamber vice president. "Some people want to see how it will work."

Oklahoma has adopted workers compensation legislation just about every session in recent years, including a relatively major overhaul in 1997.

And this year, the State Board for Property and Casualty Rates reduced workers compensation insurance loss cost rates by 12.7 percent in August, then 5.1 percent based upon the special-session bill.

Seney said that the National Council of Compensation Insurance has cited these two reductions as the largest-ever workers compensation cost cut in a single year.

Although this close-to-18-percent rate cut should save businesses more than $100 million, the total may not reach that level due to the recent ballooning of insurance rates in general, Seney adds. He said it may result in what he has referred to as "lower increases."

Workers compensation reform remains a plank in the chamber's legislative platform, however.

Seney said that the organization will seek legislation encouraging and streamlining the use of certified workplace medical plans, a form of managed care for workers compensation cases.

Where certified workplace medical plans are in place, Seney said, employees like them and tend to utilize them.

He said the chamber will also push for some way for tax-exempt employers, such as some community hospitals and municipal governments, to receive a refundable credit from the increased assessments enacted during the special session to help shore up the Multiple Injury Trust Fund.

The fund pays benefits to workers who have suffered more than one on-the-job injury and have been awarded benefits by the Workers Compensation Court. The fund was years behind in paying some of these orders, and failed to pay weekly benefits in a timely manner a couple of times due to its ongoing financial troubles.

The problem was that the Multiple Injury Trust Fund's then- existing funding mechanism -- 2 percent of premiums and 4 percent of awards paid by self-insured firms -- did not bring in enough revenue to cover its costs.

During the October special session, lawmakers increased the assessments to up to 6 percent of premiums for insured businesses or claimants' awards against self-insured employers, 5 percent for uninsured firms. The actual assessment will float, depending upon what level is necessary to keep the MITF solvent.

The bill provides for a tax credit or refund of the entire amount of the increased assessment. However, the way the legislation is structured, Seney said, it will not help tax-exempt employers.

"There should be some way to get that money back to the nonprofits," he said.

Seney said the chamber also wants to try to re-insert language, removed from the special-session measure, that would allow post- accident drug or alcohol testing of employees without having the meet the "reasonable suspicion" test. Employers often have difficulty determining how to comply with this requirement, he added.

It should be sufficient, Seney said, if a worker injures himself or herself or a coworker. …

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