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Battle is joined: Senate Majority Coalition passes three controversial bills to reform the workers comp system (again)

Post by Brad Shannon / The Olympian on Feb. 4, 2013 at 6:26 pm | No Comments »
February 5, 2013 9:59 am

A Republican-dominated coalition in the Senate approved the Legislature’s first substantial bills of the year Monday, sending three measures to the House that would once again change the system that protects injured workers. A near-party line vote approved two measures, but a third bill drew five members of the minority Democratic Caucus to its side.

Labor groups are keenly opposed to all three bills –Senate Bill 5128, which opens cash settlements of disability claims for workers of any age; 5127, which expands structured settlements of claims to workers as young as 40, down from the age 55 limit set in a 2011 law; and SB 5112, which allows an employer enrolled in the state’s “Retro” safety-incentive program to request an independent medical examination.

The measures are emerging as a battleground issue this session between labor and business groups, which are backing efforts to cut costs by allowing early settlement of permanent disability income claims Republican lawmakers have dropped the names of Boeing and other major regional employers in their support of the voluntary settlements.

Republican Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry of Moses Lake sponsored the three bills and said the state is in “dire” need of more cost cutting in workers comp. She contends that workers compensation insurance rates are destined to go up without rule changes, which Democrats are disputing.

“We’re one step closer to providing additional options and choices to more of our injured workers and hopefully being able to capture enough cost savings to prevent those future rate increases that would fall in the laps of not only the workers but the employers that pay into the system,’’ Holmquist Newbry told reporters after the votes.

Holmquist said SB 5128 is the same bill that actually passed off the Senate floor with 34 votes two years ago when the House, Senate and former governor Chris Gregoire were negotiating a package of major changes in the workers comp system.

So far, the Department of Labor and Industries says just 28 structured settlements for workers older than 55 have been approved out of 60 proposals that went to review by a board under terms of past reforms.

Freshman Sen. John Braun, R-Chehalis, said in a floor speech that earlier reforms were beneficial to workers and helped workers pay for long-neglected dental work or start a business. But Holmquist Newbry says more settlements are needed to save hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Washington State Labor Council held a news conference to criticize all three bills. Rebecca Johnson, a lobbyist for the council, said all three weaken worker protections and would begin transforming the state’s safety net for injured worker into a sort of lottery system where some might get a big payout.

The council disputes Holmquist’s claim that no worker’s benefit is actually cut, and Johnson said that workers who accept settlements could be left short in future years. Johnson also said major elements of the 2011 reforms are only just taking effect.

Specifically, Johnson said a medical provider network that taps experienced doctors and others that have a good track record on occupational health cases has been in effect only since January; and a program using Centers for Occupational Health Education to identify best practices for getting workers care is not fully functioning until 2015.

SB 5127, which passed after an amendment from Democratic Sen. Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens, is considered the most watered down of the bills. But it is not clear that the Democratic majority in the House will treat it kindly, and Johnson said the labor lobby is going to “watch it very carefully.”

The Hobbs approach expands legislation passed in 2011 letting permanently injured or disabled workers accept cash buyouts of the non-medical portion of their claims in what are called structured settlements of several payments over time. The harder-edged approach in Senate Bill 5128 lets any disabled worker accept a lump sum buyout at any age and makes other changes to law.

Minority Democrats rejected any notion the package of bills was bipartisan, and many argued that the reforms of 2011 are still too fresh to show evidence whether they are working yet.

“They can talk all they want about collaboration, but the math speaks louder,” Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, said in a news release. “Last week these bills passed out of committee on straight caucus-line votes, and today they moved off the Senate floor the same way. This isn’t bipartisanship; this is just one side wielding its one-vote majority to pass partisan legislation that hurts the middle class.”

Despite Conway’s comments, five members of his caucus crossed sides to support Hobbs’ amendment on SB 5127. Roll call results show they were Sen. Tracey Eide of Federal Way, Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam, Brian Hatfield of Raymond, Hobbs and Mark Mullet of Issaquah.

Two injured workers at the labor council’s news conference said workers compensation has been instrumental in helping them heal from injuries and get back to work – or get into retraining for a new job. Neither saw a big upside to the structured settlements.

Jason Speicher, an Arlington laborer with a back injury, said a structured settlement could leave a worker short of cash in the future.

Lynn Schlotterbeck, an electrical worker from Tacoma, said the state Labor and Industries agency is preparing him for retraining for another job after surgeries for wrist injuries.

Although Holmquist Newbry said the bills give options to workers, Schlotterbeck said: “I guess it’s always a good thing to have an option. But I think it’s lowering our standards though by doing that. I don’t think it’s a good thing to open that ballgame up because there is going to be a lot of people that get hurt in the long run by it.’’

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