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Oklahoma panel advances workers' comp overhaul

Dan Holtmeyer, Associated Press

Oklahoma state Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, listens to discussion during a committee meeting at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, April 9, 2013. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- By a party-line vote, an Oklahoma House committee on Tuesday approved the latest version of a plan to overhaul the state's workers' compensation system after more than an hour of questioning and sometimes angry debate.

The House Judiciary Committee cleared the bill 11-4 Tuesday afternoon after two weeks of delay as Republicans hashed out the plan's details. All four Democrat members present voted against it. It now heads to the House after already passing the Senate.

The lengthy proposal would transition the state's system from a court to an administrative system overseen by three commissioners appointed by the governor. It sets rules for disability payments and other compensation and allows companies to opt out of its system if they follow certain rules.

Supporters say the change would save money for the state and businesses by cutting down the process times for claims, and Republicans have made the overhaul one of their top priorities this year.

Republican members of the committee said Tuesday that Oklahoma is among only two states using a judicial system and delivers some of the worst health outcomes in the country.

"This bill and this system change will be the best thing to happen to Oklahoma in years," committee chairwoman Rep. Leslie Osborn said.

The panel's Democrats bitterly opposed the bill, however, calling it an unconstitutional attack on injured workers. Rep. Richard Morrissette criticized Republicans for the bill's expansion from 260 pages two weeks ago to more than 300 pages Tuesday, saying the committee probably didn't know most of what was in it.

"I have gone through it page after page after page, and I could ask questions until the day turns into Wednesday," he said. "Every time I think I see a bill that's hideous, another one comes up."

House Democrat Leader and committee member Rep. Scott Inman accused Republicans of achieving most of the bill's savings by cutting worker benefits.

"The administrative system is nothing but a Trojan horse," Inman said. "A Trojan horse to do one thing, and that is to reduce benefits for people who've been injured on the job."

Rep. John Echols, who carried the bill in the committee on behalf of Speaker T. W. Shannon, refuted all of the Democrats' claims. He said the House's version substantially raised the benefits provided by the Senate version.

Because the bill has been so dramatically altered since passing the Senate, the two chambers will have to reach a compromise if it passes the House.