Debate Continues over Oklahoma Workers Comp Reform

While businesses and conservative legislators push for the reform of the Oklahoma workers' compensation system, opponents of Senate Bill 1062 say any savings associated with the bill will come at the expense of injured workers. Even advisors who support the policy changes and intent of the bill say that SB 1062 is "unworkable" as written; a current Oklahoma Workers Compensation Court (OWCC) administrator says that the costs of operating a dual system during the transition from a court-based system to an administrative system could exceed $20 million during the three-year span as the OWCC is phased out; and a workers compensation lawyer representing injured employees states that at least 17 provisions of the proposed law are unconstitutional. Last week, this blog discussed the findings of an advisory board, which determined that the proposed bill was "unworkable" in its current form, failing to address fraud rules and treatment guidelines, providing contradictory language both abolishing and continuing the current system, and leaving substantial gaps between the end of the court system and the establishment of the administrative system. Board chairman Michael Carter said of the bill that even if legislators were in favor of all of the policy changes, " the actual mechanics of the bill are not the way we would ever go about accomplishing this." He urged legislators to take a closer look at the bill and address any language concerns. Of additional concern is the initial cost of operating two workers compensations systems before the court-based system is phased out and the administrative system fully takes effect. Oklahoma workers have the right to pursue their claims based on the system that was in place at the time of their injuries, which would require the Oklahoma Workers Compensation Court to remain in place for several years, even if the system is eventually replaced by an administrative system. OWCC court administrator Michael Clingman addressed the potential costs in a letter to the Advisory Council on Workers' Compensation Reform. He cautioned that the cost of operating a dual system could run about $41 million over the next three years--a total of about $20 million more than operating the existing system. Proponents of the bill say that the cost of the dual system would quickly be recouped in savings from reduced workers' compensation costs for the state. Workers compensation lawyers representing employees disagree, saying that the costs of a dual system are a hard cost that must be paid, and the funds must be available to do so. They caution that any savings will be at the expense of injured workers who are unable to get the full benefits they need under an administrative system. One attorney says that projected savings are based on workers' compensation awards, and that "98.5% of the savings would come on the backs of injured workers." Revisions in the bill would restrict an injured worker's ability to recover lost wages, and without an adversarial, or court-based system, workers are left with little to no recourse. If you have suffered a workplace injury, it is important to act quickly to get the benefits you need and deserve.