Saying House Bill 2619 would further disadvantage workers injured on the job and end up costing employers and taxpayers millions of dollars more each year, Senate President Pro Tempore Cal Hobson announced Monday that the bill will not be granted a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday.
The announcement effectively kills the measure, which is authored in the Senate by Senator Scott Pruitt, R-Broken Arrow.
Hobson said, however, that he still believes it’s possible for the Legislature to address workers compensation reform before the end of the Second Session of the 49th Oklahoma Legislature in May, “but we’re not going to do it with this bill.”
“The proponents of House Bill 2619 have tried to extort support for the bill out of members of the State Senate. But the bill is so bad that their efforts have backfired. Their campaign materials ask Oklahomans to tell Senators to ‘start listening to Oklahoma workers.’
“Our members have been listening and workers are telling us they don’t favor House Bill 2619 because it doesn’t do anything to benefit injured workers and includes a number of provisions that would make it harder for workers to be justly compensated when they are injured on the job,” Hobson said.
The section of law that House Bill 2619 amends contains dozens of pages that spells out the benefits to injured workers for a long list of enumerated injuries.
“This legislation does not increase even one of those benefits. It doesn’t enact any new job safety initiatives. Senator Pruitt’s suggestion that this bill benefits injured workers is ludicrous. Quite the opposite is true. It takes rights away from injured workers,” Hobson said.
Pruitt claims that House Bill 2619 eliminates dueling doctors. It does so, Hobson said, by making sure the only doctors involved in the claims process are working for the injured worker’s employer or the employer’s insurance provider.
House Bill 2619 requires an injured worker to be seen by a doctor within a certified workplace medical plan – a doctor basically chosen by the employer’s insurance company.
Currently there are four CWMPs in Oklahoma and state law allows insurance companies to pick the doctors who treat injured workers.
What HB 2619 changes is that only the employer can seek a second opinion for purposes of the settlement of the worker’s comp claim. If the employer’s first doctor is too generous, the employer can get a second doctor to offer a lower cost treatment recommendation.
“The bill eliminates dueling doctors by removing the right of the employee to seek a second opinion for purposes of the worker’s comp claim. How does that benefit workers?” Hobson asked.
Senator Pruitt also touts the use of “value added fees” in House Bill 2619.
The bill says that an attorney’s fees in workers’ compensation claims can be based only on the amount in dispute. That means that if the company offers $1,000 and the injured employee believes he or she should be entitled to $2,000 and hires an attorney then that attorney’s fees, should the injured worker prevail in the case, will be based only on the amount eventually awarded to the injured employee that is above $1,000 – the employer’s original offer.
“It is intended to limit access by the injured employee to any legal remedy other than to take what his or her employer is offering. Without access to a legal advocate, injured employees are faced with a take-it-or-leave-it proposition,” the Senate leader said.
“How does that benefit workers?” Hobson asked again.
“We looked very closely and couldn’t find one thing in this legislation that really helps workers. The campaign waged by some of the biggest, most profitable companies in Oklahoma has suggested that legislators who wouldn’t sign a pledge and give away their right to think and consider this bill on its merits weren’t listening to Oklahoma workers.
“The truth is we’ve been listening to Oklahoma workers and they’re telling us that they hate this legislation. We agree with them,” Hobson said
Hobson said it doesn’t surprise him that those business people pushing House Bill 2619 want to take away workers’ rights in an attempt to increase profits because that’s the way they operate.
“What is surprising is that they support this bill that two studies say will actually cost employers and taxpayers millions of dollars more each year,” Hobson said.
A study conducted by two members of the Fallin Commission on Worker’s Compensation Reform – one plaintiff’s attorney and one attorney who represents employers and insurance companies – concluded that the teleconferencing provisions in the legislation would create a bureaucratic nightmare that could annually cost state government and employers $65 million more.
Another study completed by the state’s largest provider of workers’ compensation insurance suggests that the use of CWMPs will not create a savings for employers. The study conducted by CompSource Oklahoma says using CWMPs will increase medical costs, indemnity costs, fees and expenses.
“This is bad legislation, but so was the last cure-all that Senator Pruitt offered to reform workers compensation,” Hobson said.
"Pruitt previously championed an administrative courts system for workers compensation like the ones used in Florida and Texas. Legislative leaders killed those measures too and for good reason," Hobson said.
“Texas and Florida rank in the top six states in workers’ comp rates in the country. Texas is literally in crisis in its workers’ compensation system,” Hobson said.
Instead of instituting Pruitt’s previous proposal, lawmakers “cautiously” reformed the state system and those reforms have made a positive difference.
“Oklahoma has made more progress in addressing the costs associated with our system than almost any state in the nation in the last decade. Claims are at a 30-year low and, despite inflation, overall costs of the system have fallen 24 percent since 1994. In January 2002, a Michigan State University survey showed Oklahoma among the top five states in the nation in enacting money-saving reforms in recent years,” Hobson said.
The Senate leader pointed out that Senator Pruitt’s most recent press release says Oklahoma’s workers’ compensation rates are among the highest in the nation and benefits paid to workers in our state are among the lowest.
“My goal is to seek reforms that will lower rates and increase benefits. House Bill 2619 fails on both accounts and we’re not going to hear it. Speaker Adair and I have a bill that can carry workers’ compensation reforms and, later in the session, if we can find ways to meet both of those goals then we’ll consider moving forward with that bill,” Hobson said.
Governor Henry said recently that he is planning a working group to seek workers’ compensation reforms and wants to make sure all interested parties are included.
Hobson said Henry, during his 10 years as a member of the State Senate, was a leader in workers’ compensation reform efforts.
“We would be foolish not to look to the governor, the architect of so many of our successful reforms over the last decade, for guidance on this issue,” Hobson said.