Woodward, Okla. —
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Overrunning passionate opposition from legislative Democrats, House Republicans cleared the way toward remaking Oklahoma's workers' compensation system by passing an overhaul bill Wednesday.
The House approved the bill 74-24; most of the Democrats present voted against it. It now gets kicked back to the Senate, as the House made extensive changes to the Senate's version.
The 284-page measure turns Oklahoma's court-run compensation system into an administrative system run by three governor-appointed commissioners. Republican proponents have repeatedly said the present judicial system pits workers against employers and leads to drawn-out and expensive claims.
The change would bring Oklahoma's system in line with those in all but one other state. Several Republican leaders have been hashing out the bill's details for more than a month and said it would save Oklahoma businesses millions of dollars. They fended off several Democratic attempts to amend the plan Wednesday.
"There is no perfect," said Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, who carried the bill for Speaker T. W. Shannon. "But I believe, with the working group we've brought together, this will be beneficial to the workers and employers of this state."
Democrats blasted the bill, often accusing Republicans of achieving purported savings by slashing employee benefits. Permanent partial disability payments, for example, would be provided for less than seven years compared to the current system's nine years.
Many Democrats found particular fault with the bill's opt-out provisions, which would allow employers to provide their own workers' compensation as long as they meet the state system's minimum benefits.
"The bottom line is this: The savings come from the pockets of the injured workers and their families — those people who don't have a lobbyist up here," said Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman.
Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, said the bill would benefit employers and cost the state more. A legislative analysis shows it would increase Oklahoma's cost by $1.5 million annually.
"This bill is a joke. A joke on injured workers," Morrissette said.
Republicans countered that the current system is broken and delivers poor health outcomes and higher costs for businesses and workers.
Rep. Jeannie McDaniel, D-Tulsa, suggested those costs came from Oklahoma's other problems, pointing to the state's low education rankings and the Oklahoma Health Care Authority's figure that one-fifth of Oklahoman adults lack health insurance.
"We should be thinking about how we help people in our state get healthy and go to work every day," she said.
The bill appears likely to pass in its current form after Gov. Mary Fallin and House and Senate leaders announced Tuesday that they agreed on the bill's outlines.