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Workers' comp overhaul hailed by Okla. GOP leaders

Sean Murphy, Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- A plan to phase out Oklahoma's Workers' Compensation Court and switch to an administrative system has been endorsed by all of the state's major political players and is being hailed by state business leaders as a way to drive down insurance costs.

But attorneys who represent injured workers say those hurt on the job are the ones who will suffer under the major changes being considered by the Oklahoma Legislature.

Oklahoma's workers' compensation system has been a priority for Republicans at the Legislature as many contend businesses in the state are being forced to pay higher workers' compensation insurance premiums than nearly every other state. Oklahoma and Tennessee are the only states with a separate court system for handling workers' compensation cases.

The 260-page bill, forwarded last week by a Senate committee, would replace the court system with a structure overseen by three commissioners appointed by the governor. Administrative law judges would hear cases, and claimants would not need to be represented by attorneys.

Although Gov. Mary Fallin has not yet endorsed the bill, she said publicly for the first time last week she supports the move to an administrative system.

"Governor Fallin believes that out-of-control workers' compensation costs are hindering economic growth," said Fallin spokesman Alex Weintz. "She is excited to work with the House and Senate on reforms that will reduce costs while treating injured workers fairly. The governor believes the best way forward is to move toward an administrative system."

But workers' compensation attorneys say they have been left out of negotiations on the bill and are concerned that any savings realized in the bill will come at the expense of those hurt on the job.

"The only people who get cut in this bill are the injured workers," said Bob Burke, an attorney who for 32 years has represented employees hurt on the job. "There's no cut in medical reimbursement rates. There's no cuts anywhere, except for the benefits received by workers."

Burke said the bill specifically cuts both permanent partial disability benefits and temporary total disability payments, as well as awards for amputations and death benefits for surviving spouses.

Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, the Senate sponsor of the bill, didn't deny thatbenefits to injured workers will be cut, but said the move to an administrative system will help streamline the process and make sure workers get the medical treatment they need.

"We want to make sure they get immediate medical attention and get them back to work as soon as possible, whereas the current system drags things out so workers actually get paid more money for not working, and it's stretched out for a long period of time," said Bingman, R-Sapulpa, "That makes the whole system very expensive for the people who pay the bills — the employers — and the cost for their insurance goes up."

Burke said the bill seeks to cut attorneys out of the system, something he calls "un-American."

"I believe that's their goal here," Burke said. "If you appear on either side, you ought to have the right to have a lawyer."

Mike Seney, senior vice president at The State Chamber, an association of Oklahoma businesses and industries that has helped draft the plan, acknowledges that limiting the role attorneys play in the workers' compensation system will be a good move that could actually increase the amount of money injured workers receive.

"I don't have any problem at all with taking the lawyers out of the equation totally," Seney said.

Supporters of the overhaul point to a 2011 study by the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services that ranked Oklahoma as having the fourth highest workers' compensation insurance rates in the country.

But Burke claims the study, which uses 2010 data, was completed before several major changes to the medical reimbursement rates in Oklahoma were made in 2011 that drove down costs. He also said state-by-state comparisons are flawed because of different industries that operate in various states.

"We have much more hazardous employment (than many other states)," Burke said, citing Oklahoma's oil-and-gas industry as a key example.

The bill still must be approved by the full Senate before heading to the House for consideration, and Bingman acknowledged the measure likely will undergo significant changes.

"We've got an amendment cycle to go through," he said. "We think it's a good piece of legislation, but we're always open to any suggestions members have going through the process."

Burke said he's hopeful the bill gets sidetracked in the House.

"I'm hopeful that once it passes the Senate— and I'm sure it will — that the House will take a close look at it, read it and find out what's in it," Burke said. "I don't think this bill can be fixed."


Sean Murphy can be reached at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy