Recently, the Democrat leaders of the House and Senate asked Governor Keating to expand the call for special session to include funding proposals for injured workers. Why? Because the Multiple Injury Trust Fund (MITF) will once again go bankrupt, potentially leaving some injured workers without their awarded benefits.
Many of these workers waited more than five years from the time they were promised their payments until they received their first check. And now after waiting five years to get their payments started, these injured workers are once again left to wonder if they will receive their next check, if they will be able to make that trip to the grocery store.
How has the legislature responded to this problem? Several times in the last few years legislative leaders have stood around a table getting their pictures taken and patting themselves on the back for the latest workers' compensation fix. In May 1999 one Democrat leader proclaimed the approval of SB 680 "a long-term fix" and a "win-win proposition" to this problem that plagues injured workers and Oklahoma business. The fix was so long-term that the legislature had to pass another fix, SB 1414, in May 2000 to correct the problems with SB 680. After the passage of SB 1414 that same Democrat leader proclaimed that "it may seem too good to be true? but this time, the checks are really going to be in the mail."
What he didn't tell the workers was that by the next year they would once again be asked to trust that same Democrat leader to devise another fix. So today we stand looking to the Democrat leadership for the fix to the fix to the fix of a problem that has plagued Oklahoma workers for a generation all under their watch.
The fundamental reason that the Democrat leadership has failed to effectively address this issue is their absolute refusal to tackle the core problems facing the workers' compensation system. To date, the Democrat leadership's solutions to the MITF crisis have been to take money from the pockets of injured workers and businesses. The problem is that we already have a system that costs Oklahoma business more than systems in nearly every other state while providing injured workers some of the lowest benefits in the country. Contrary to what the Democrat workers' compensation leader seems to think, asking those who already pay more and get less to give up even more will always be a lose-lose situation.
It is time to take a new look at how we address the MITF and its annual bankruptcy. By addressing the fundamental costs that drive workers' compensation rates through the roof, we can find the available resources to stabilize the MITF and put more money in the pockets of injured workers. Moving from our costly court-based, lawsuit driven system to an administrative system that places the needs workers and business ahead of those of lawyers and politicians will be the first step to meeting our obligations to the injured workers of our state.
One is right to ask why the Democrat leadership has completely ignored the needs of Oklahoma workers and fought meaningful reform that would enhance worker benefits. To find the answer you only need to look at the political contributions made by workers' compensation lawyers and their trial bar allies to the leaders of the fight against reform. The more the Democrat leaders can force workers' compensation claims into the courtroom the more fees can be generated for their trial lawyer allies. The trial lawyers then return a portion of those fees to the Democrat leaders in the legislature through campaign contributions.
The time for old solutions to a recurring problem has passed. A move to an administrative workers' compensation system will lower the costs to business, provide better benefits to injured workers and produce the capital to stabilize the MITF. Imagine a system that raises the benefits to workers, places their needs in front of trial lawyers and politicians, and helps stabilize the MITF. That's what I call a win-win situation.
Senator Dunlap is the Republican Floor Leader in the Oklahoma State Senate