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February 25, 2013

Workers’ comp overhaul hailed by Okla. GOP leaders

OKLAHOMA CITY — 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.”

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