During the past two weeks two bills have passed the House that dealt with critical ingredients in reforming Oklahoma's business practices. One dealt with workers' compensation insurance reform and the other with lawsuit reform. Both bills are critical components of a successful session this year. Both issues have also been touted as a high priority of both the Governor and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. Each bill is authored by the Speaker of the House, Todd Hiett and represents the bedrock of his agenda for this session.
The worker's compensation reform package passed the House on a 59-37 vote after about 5 hours of debate and questions on the bill. House Bill 2046 addresses four major areas of reform that will make Oklahoma a more business friendly state. “The workers' compensation system in the state is consistently cited by potential new employers as a stumbling block,” said Rep. Fred Morgan the bills co-author.
The first area it addresses is increasing benefits for workers. It increases the payment for death, burial, disfigurement, and “take home” benefits for hurt workers.
The second area it deals with is legal costs. It attempts to reduce the amount of money paid to attorneys by establishing an ombudsman process and encourages mediation. The bill also only pays attorneys for the amount they obtain for a client above the settlement offered by the employer. It also eliminates the “dueling doctors” practice now which fuels lawsuits and increases costs.
The bill reduces the medical costs for workers and increases workplace safety. It allows the employee to choose a physician from the employer's plan of insurance. The court also has to defer to the treating physician. This encourages enrollment in a certified workplace medical plan. It also helps small businesses by insuring that they won't be crippled by high insurance costs. It transforms the state fund, Compsource, into a private agency to allow use of the marketplace to lower costs and encourage competition.
Commissioner of Labor Brenda Reneau commented, “Broad workers' compensation system reforms are needed to position Oklahoma for further economic development. The House has approved the Speaker's comprehensive reform objectives, which embrace a workplace safety component, a crucial part of the big picture. Injury prevention is key to eliminating the personal and financial toll associated with workplace accidents.”
The House also passed the tort reform bill by about the same margin and with about the same time spent in debate and questions. This bill, like the workers' compensation bill will be amended in the Senate and sent back to the House for acceptance. At that time the House will most likely not accept the amendments and send both bills to conference committee to negotiate a final bill. Although the House bill contained some good elements, it also contained language that will hurt royalty owners. I am confident that the bill in its final form will have these elements removed. That will leave the bill addressing the real issue that needs reform, medical lawsuit reform.
Last year both of these issues were addressed in final bills that were very weak, watered down, and extremely ineffective. Hopefully, this year, there will be real reform that will address only the issues involved and bring real help and hope to Oklahoma.
Boise City News