By Steve Metzer
The Journal Record
OKLAHOMA CITY – The State Chamber of Oklahoma and the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber are urging caution regarding legislation pending at the Capitol that may revisit workers’ compensation reforms adopted in 2013.
State Chamber President and Chief Executive Officer Fred Morgan said the state’s business community and its economy have made great gains in the wake of passage of Senate Bill 1062 six years ago. The measure set the stage for shifting the workers’ compensation system from a judicial one to an administrative one. It also made allowances for businesses to opt out of the compensation system and instead opt in to a qualified plan that would address the potential of workers being injured on the job.
Prior to the reform, the Sooner State had one of the highest average costs of workers’ compensation benefits in the nation, at a rate of $830 per employee, according to the Oklahoma Insurance Department. Proponents said the 2013 measure would drastically reduce costs to businesses and at the same time free up millions of dollars for private sector investment in Oklahoma.
Morgan said that’s turned out to be true on both counts.
“From our perspective, we want to make sure business rates don’t go through the roof like they were in the old days,” he said.
According to the State Chamber, workers’ compensation insurance premiums paid by Oklahoma businesses used to be the nation’s sixth highest; now they rank more toward the middle of the pack, and an estimated $300 million in savings has allowed businesses to invest more in new jobs and growth. The system also encourages new business investment in Oklahoma.
Morgan said some workers’ compensation attorneys have filed legal challenges to the reforms. Some 25 bills were filed at the Capitol this year addressing workers’ compensation. Some, like Senate Bill 701 by state Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville, were authored more to provide clarity than anything else. Daniels said her bill, which advanced on Monday by a vote of 38-9 on the Senate floor, aligns language in the state’s law with language in Supreme Court rulings addressing workers’ compensation. It also clarifies some budget issues and jurisdictional issues related to tribal lands in the state, allows for the Workers’ Compensation Commission to deliberate on appellate matters and allows for the exchange of information through an Electronic Data Exchange system rather than through registered mail, among other things.
“As we move to commission administration, it’s important to clarify language (in the previous reform),” Daniels said.
Mark D. VanLandingham, a senior vice president responsible for government relations policy at the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, said the system reboot undertaken in 2013 has proven to be one of the “most pro-business reforms adopted over the past several years.
“We’re hopeful that if HB 2367 moves forward, it can be amended to protect the 2013 reforms,” he said.
VanLandingham was referring to a bill filed by state Rep. Chris Kannady, R-Oklahoma City, that advanced without title on Tuesday for discussion on the House floor. If a bill advances without title it remains eligible for amendment but can’t be adopted into law without title being restored.
Morgan said the state was encouraged that the bill remains amendable.
“We have some serious concerns about it, but we’ve been working with the author and he has been amenable to working with us on some amendments,” he said.
Kannady was on the House floor much of Tuesday and was unavailable for comment on the bill.
The bill would modify definitions for terms like “compensable injury” and “continuing medical maintenance.” Among other things, it also would modify guidelines for disability compensation for temporary and total disability, and it would raise the maximum rate of permanent partial disability compensation from $323 to $391 per week.
Morgan said the State Chamber isn’t opposed to discussion of raising benefit ceilings for injured workers, but would hope that those involved would bear in mind the gains made by businesses – and by extension workers and Oklahoma’s economy as a whole – since workers’ compensation system reform was adopted.
The State Chamber president said there are concerns, too, about language in the bill that would seem to weaken guidelines that were put into place with help from the medical community for medical treatment of certain injuries. Care also needs to be shown in addressing continuation of the court of existing claims, which is still handling cases that may not reach resolution for years, he said.
“I think everybody agrees we should extend it; the question is how long,” he said.
Likewise, Morgan said solvency of a multiple injury trust fund needs to be maintained for some time to come.
“We’ve got a lot of barriers we have to make it through, but we’re continuing to make progress,” he said. “As it stands, the system is working.”
Added VanLandingham, “Workers’ comp costs are a critical component companies consider in determining where to invest their resources. We hope the Legislature will continue to focus on making Oklahoma a pro-business state and not go backwards.”