Mike Brake | April 9, 2019
Officials warn legislation could roll back workers’ comp progress
The 2013 legislation that moved Oklahoma from a court-based workers’ compensation system to one administered by a commission has been widely hailed as a success. Prior to the 2013 reforms, more money was often spent on costs associated with the court than on medical benefits for injured workers.
Now some who were present at the new administrative system’s creation are concerned about proposed legislation they feel threatens to weaken the effectiveness of the 2013 reforms.
“Why tinker with a system that works and has worked well for the most parties for five years?” asked Troy Wilson Sr., who served as the first chairman of the Workers’ Compensation Commission created as part of the 2013 reforms.
Oklahoma’s new administrative system is more focused than the old, court-based system on compensating injured workers and getting them back to work. House Bill 2367 would make a number of changes in the new system first established by the 2013 legislation.
The bill passed the state House of Representatives by a 95-2 margin and has gone to the state Senate. The bill is still being negotiated between the two legislative bodies. But Wilson and other advocates of the 2013 reforms worry that lawmakers may not be aware of the potential consequences of some of the bill’s provisions.
The 2013 reforms have had significant impact. As noted in a previous study by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, parent organization of the Center for Independent Journalism, the reforms have led to a significant reduction in annual workers’ compensation premiums paid by Oklahoma employers of almost one-third, trimmed annual workers’ compensation case filings in the state by about half, and resulted in the most dramatic workers’ compensation cost reductions in the nation.
The reforms have also significantly reduced costly, drawn-out litigation in the system. Bob Gilliland, another former chairman of the commission, has warned that efforts to undo or weaken the reforms may go on for some time.
Some provisions in HB 2367 appear sensible, Wilson and Gilliland both said. One provision of the bill, for instance, would marginally increase weekly awards for temporary total disability recipients and for individuals awarded permanent partial disability. Both former chairmen said this is justified as an inflationary measure.
The most serious potential issue with the bill, according to Wilson and to Gilliland, is a provision to delay the sunsetting of the Court of Existing Claims. Under the 2013 reforms, the court was left in place until 2020 to complete cases filed under the old system, transferring administration, though not adjudication, of the remaining cases to the commission.
In the version of HB 2367 that passed the House in March, the sunsetting of the court would have been delayed to 2024. Subsequent proposed amendments to the bill would shorten that window to 2022.
“You don’t want to be perpetuating the old system,” Gilliland said, adding that extending the sunset of the court to 2024 would cost taxpayers at least an additional $12 million.
What’s more, Wilson added, efforts to learn how many cases are actually left on the old court’s docket have proved futile. “It makes no sense to increase costs, slow up the system, go backwards and poorly serve injured workers and their families,” he said.
Gilliland said the Court of Existing Claims issues “about a fifth as many orders as the Workers’ Compensation Commission. The commission only receives about 6,000 cases a year, so the remaining CEC caseload cannot be that large.”
The few cases that remain at the court after the 2020 sunset could be adjudicated by one workers’ compensation judge each in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Gilliland said, while the administration of those cases could be handled by the commission with little or no additional appropriation required.
Gilliland said he anticipates close scrutiny of the proposed bill in the Senate.
Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. A former reporter at The Oklahoman (his coverage of the moon landing earned a front-page byline on July 21, 1969), he served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin. He has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC, and currently serves as public information officer for Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan.