Sunday, May 22, 2011
THE last significant changes to Oklahoma's workers' compensation system, in 2005, followed noisy legislative debate that included the lieutenant governor at one point taking control of the Senate in an effort to get a bill passed. A bill wound up being produced at the eleventh hour and lawmakers had to extend the session before approving it.
There were no such histrionics this session. Instead, after much behind-the-scenes work, state Rep. Dan Sullivan and state Sen. Anthony Sykes presented Senate Bill 878 last week and the 220-page bill quickly gained easy passage in the House and Senate.
“The reason you don't see that outcry is we did make an attempt to bring representatives of all the groups together,” said Sullivan, R-Tulsa. “It lengthens the process, but that's not all bad. If there's one thing I've learned in my time here, it's be careful of making decisions in a vacuum.”
That's particularly prudent with an issue as complex as one like workers' comp, which has seen dozens of tweaks through the years. This latest iteration surely won't be the last, but it will do some significant good.
Among other things, SB 878 develops a new medical care fee schedule, which stands to reduce the system's medical costs by about 5 percent. Doing so would put Oklahoma in line with the regional average for those expenditures. The challenge for Sullivan and Sykes, R-Moore, was finding balance that would allow doctors to do “the right thing for their patients” and not drive good doctors away from the system.
Another provision requires that treatment plans for injured workers follow nationally recognized standards. This should expedite the process and thus reduce costs to the system, which have continued to grow even as the number of claims has fallen. Another potential cost-saver requires that doctors making recommendations on a worker's disability be specialists on the injuries they're diagnosing. That doesn't always happen now.
Sullivan says costs associated with workers' compensation in Oklahoma are job-killers. He's right. This bill will benefit businesses without shortchanging workers who get injured on the job. Sullivan was quick to commend claimants' attorneys who helped in the process for “not wanting to be rock-throwers” as has too often been the case.
Mike Seney, who as senior vice president at The State Chamber has worked for years to improve the workers' comp system, said SB 878 is “a positive step” but more work remains: “We must go beyond rewriting our existing laws and work toward developing a 21st-century approach to protecting our workers at the lowest possible cost.”
It's not a perfect bill — what legislation ever is? — but it's progress and is sure to win final approval. After all Mary Fallin, who as lieutenant governor six years ago commandeered the Senate gavel on behalf of workers' comp reform, now occupies the governor's chair.
The Oklahoman Editorial