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Overhauling Oklahoma’s Workers’ Comp System

Filed by Michael Cross in Feature, Local News, News, Politics, Public Insight Network.
March 4, 2013

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Oklahomans who get injured on the job could soon deal with a new worker’s compensation system and other changes dealing with injuries.

The leader of the State Senate presented a bill which makes sweeping changes to deal with workers comp.

So, what does that mean for employees and businesses?

Through our Public Insight Network we found Tim Burg at the Shawnee Chamber of Commerce

As the Economic Development Executive Director his job is to try to get businesses to move to his area.

And, he hears the same thing from business after business.

“You’ve got a great Oklahoma workforce that’s fantastic. And a low cost of land and you can get your construction done cheaper than most people. And your utility costs are fair and even your corporate tax rate’s pretty strong, we’re happy with that. But, you’ve got a real problem with workers compensation and it’s killing us.”

Burg’s been in economic development for many years, but he was once an injured worker.

He calls Oklahoma’s current system adversarial from the start.

“The company I worked for took very good care of me. They gave me the time off they let me heal. It was wonderful to me. But, I kept getting the phone calls of ‘let’s get ‘em, let’s get ‘em, those dirty guys’, but they weren’t dirty guys they were my employer.”

Supporters of Senate Bill 1062 say it will save money by going to an administrative system rather than a court system and many point to Arkansas’ program.

In Arkansas, a worker who is injured would go through the employer and insurance company, and if nothing is settled a dispute takes it to an Administrative Law Judge.

Arkansas Workers Compensation Commission Chief Executive Officer Alan McClain says, “They set it for a hearing, usually both sides have attorneys. They’re not required to but typically an injured workers going to have an attorney representing them even in an administrative proceeding.”

After that the worker can appeal to the three member commission and then to District Court.

So the first two levels avoid the court system.

McClain says Arkansas has never had a court system and has always been handled by commissioners.

Oklahoma changed from an administrative system in the 60s and is currently one of only two under the court system.

In Oklahoma, the injured worker would go to the workers compensation court and then anything not settled there would go to district court.

But, Michael Clingman, the administrator of Oklahoma’s Workers Compensation Court, says that’s not much different than the way it’s done in Arkansas.

“There’s been discussion of Oklahoma being high, but it’s high because we basically give more money for some injuries than other states. You really have to change the eligibility of benefits or the situations that get workers comp to really make a change in costs.”

And that is where Oklahoma is trying to be more like Arkansas and other states.

Under the 260-page Workers Comp overhaul bill benefits are greatly reduced.

For example, an injured worker would get 70% of weekly pay compared to the current 100%.

For something like an amputated arm a worker would get 23% less money.

There are also substantial cuts to benefits paid to spouses of employees’ killed on the job and requirements that the injury be reported in three days.

Repetitive work injuries like carpal tunnel are excluded from injury classifications and couldn’t be claimed.

Another big change would be an insurance opt-out for companies who will provide their own coverage.

Currently only Texas does this.

Love’s Travel Shops headquarters in Oklahoma City, but has businesses in 41 other states including Texas.

Love’s VP of Risk Management Carl Martincich says large businesses like his would save money by opting out of the workers compensation insurance which every company in Oklahoma is required to get.

“All the claims are really loss sensitive, so employers like us might not pay a high premium because we self insure, but we’ll pay a higher cost typically in Oklahoma then in other states.”

It’s that opt-out provision that has Workers’ Comp Attorney Brandon Burton truly worried.

“The employer under the opt out would determine what if any benefits they provide that worker or that workers’ family, and then they would avoid any suit in district court for negligence, so theoretically they could avoid liability altogether for the injury and/or their wrong doing.”

Opponents like House Democratic Minority Leader Scott Inman say the cost to the state would also double while old claims would be handled under the court system and new claims under the administrative system.

“How can we afford as a state to set up an entirely new workers compensation system when for at least a decade or more we’re going to have to run a parallel judicial system. So, we’re going to be paying double the cost of workers’ comp just out of the state’s tax dollars.”

Inman and other Democrats contend workers’ comp legislation passed over the last few years have yet to truly take effect and lower costs.

He says we should wait to see how previous changes work before passing something new.

But, Tim Burg in Shawnee wants to know how long the businesses he talks to will have to wait.

“When I was injured it was back in the early 80s and it hasn’t changed that much since then, so do wait another 50 years to change it and lose business opportunities? And when I say business opportunities that’s jobs for individuals in Oklahoma.”

Senate Bill 1062 passed the Senate and is moving on to the House.

If it passes and gets signed into law by Governor Fallin who says she supports the bill it would take effect January First of next year.

One Response to “Overhauling Oklahoma’s Workers’ Comp System”

  1. diana says:

    Texas leads in #1 in workers deaths . When a employer opts out of workers comp insurance then the worker gets hurt on the job , that worker is screwed because they cant even sue for damages … I was injured in Oct 2011 my case is still active , my employer would not send me to a doctor then threaten me if I did , I have 3 doctors that say I need surgery but my boss and his attorneys just keep fighting . The Judge sent me to a IME and that doctor says I was to remain on TTD and was in need of surgery . We go to court the Judge didn't even rule on the IME just deny . Because he was buddies with the insurance agent ya he was there with my employers attorney …. No money no surgery all this time . How is one suppose to survive but the worst part no medical attention ….

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