MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

January 19, 2013

Workers’ comp topic of bill flurry

Hulbert’s proposal among nearly 40 filed for session

By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer

— State lawmakers filed nearly 40 bills this week dealing with workers’ compensation. Some propose various changes to Oklahoma’s court-based system, and others would result in sweeping overhauls.

District 14 Rep. Arthur Hulbert, a Fort Gibson Republican, filed a bill that would create an administrative system within the Oklahoma Insurance Department. Another bill, by Rep. Mark McCullough, R-Sapulpa, would create an administrative system overseen by a commission of political appointees.

Some bills propose changes to the benefit structure under the present adversarial system. Others would allow employers to opt out of the state system by providing a qualified private insurance plan.

The wave of bills didn’t come as a surprise. Labor Commissioner Mark Costello launched a campaign in 2011 aimed at abolishing the state’s court-based system in favor of an administrative system. Costello’s plan mirrors one advocated by an Oklahoma City University law professor who penned a position paper for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.

The Oklahoma Injury Benefit Coalition has been pushing for reforms that would allow employers the opportunity to establish and manage a plan that meets statutory minimums for coverage. Plans set up by employers who opted out would be subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, which is enforced by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Sponsors of several workers’ compensation bills filed in advance of the legislative session, which begins Feb. 4, cited the need to reduce employer costs and spur economic development as the motivating factor. Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb, in his second policy report, cited workers’ compensation as one of three major areas where change is needed to make the state more competitive.

Hulbert, who defeated Jerry Rains, a Muskogee Democrat, to fill the post formerly held by George Faught, a Muskogee Republican, said his bill addresses employer costs to some extent. But he said the main goal is to provide the appropriate care to injured workers, get them the benefits they deserve, and return them to the workplace “as fast as possible.”

“Everybody looks at life through a different set of lenses. As a physical therapist I treated these employees who were injured on the job,” Hulbert said. “The bottom line is we want the employees to get the care and benefits they need and get back to work while reducing the costs to employers.”

The basic goals set out by Hulbert in House Bill 1362 are intended to “promote safe and healthy workplaces” while providing “appropriate ... benefits” and “high-quality medical care.” Hulbert said this would be accomplished while minimizing “the likelihood of disputes” and resolving “them promptly and fairly when identified.”

Although Hulbert’s bill lacks provisions that would expand locations where workers’ compensation cases could be presented, he said he would like to see more than the two  in Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

Hulbert said that with the high number of bills addressing workers’ compensation, it is hard to predict the success of his. He predicted reforms would be made but that they likely will include “a blend” of provisions in the bills that were filed.

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.