The Woodward News

August 21, 2013

Workshop focuses on workers compensation reform

Rachael Van Horn
Woodward News

Woodward, Okla. — Recently passed, sweeping changes in Oklahoma's Worker's Compensation laws could reduce burdensome costs, lost employee productivity and return a more cooperative spirit between workers and injured employers.

That was the opinion of workers compensation reform experts from the State Chamber of Oklahoma, during a special workshop for local business leaders at the Woodward Conference Center Tuesday.

Chamber of Oklahoma Senior Vice President of Policy Analysis Mike Seney and Vice President of Policy Development Jonathan Buxton were on hand to speak to workshop attendees.

It was one of many statewide events aimed at shepherding Oklahoma business leaders through the changes contained within the new Administrative Compensation Act - Senate Bill 1062 - set to go into effect Feb. 1, 2014.

However, the law is not without its detractors, said Oklahoma Attorney General, Scott Pruitt, during a brief visit with the Woodward News Tuesday.

"There has not been a challenge to the law yet," Pruitt said. "But we have heard there might be a challenge to it."

Senate Bill 1062 passed in May this year.

The law reforms the current court based worker's compensation process and changes it into an administrative system that favors more communication between the employer and the employee, Seney said.

The bill also reduces, by about 30 percent the maximum amount of time that an employee can receive full benefits.

Among other things, the law requires a different level of communication and involvement between employer and employee immediately after an injury has been reported, Seney said.

"Too many times, we take the (injured) employee to the emergency room and drop them off, call the insurance and tell them there is an injury and we think our work is done," Seney said.  "Get involved with your employees."

One example of how the new law impacts both the employer and the employee can be seen in what is required when an employee reports an injury, Seney said.

"The employer can choose the physician his employee sees if he provides medical treatment within five days of notification of the injury," Seney said.

Otherwise, the employee can choose, if you (the employer) have not provided care within the five day window, he said.

Under the current law, an employee could have received an award for a non-limb loss injury and then returned to work. He could be earning his full-time pay while still receiving the payment award in addition, Seney said.

"So under the current law, they have to let him go back to work when he recovers, but they can also release him from employment a day later," he said.

Under the new law, whatever the amount of the settlement the employee is awarded - say $52,000 - the amount the employee makes per week as a full time employee, who has returned to work - say $1,000 - is subtracted weekly out of the award amount - effectively securing that employee's job for 52 weeks, Seney said.

"The whole law is 208 pages, but it boils down to this concept; Take care of your employee, get them well and get them back to work," Seney said.

The law also piggybacks on other labor laws that spell out, more clearly, the definition of "termination for cause", Seney said.

Under the new workers compensation law, a worker who has an award for an injury and goes back to work, but is terminated for cause could lose the balance left of that award benefit, Seney said.

According to Buxton, Senate Bill 1062 also effectively removes, in a large part, the extensive influence of attorneys on the settlement process of workers compensation cases.

Under the current law; say an employee injures his knee and informs the employer and the employer makes an offer -say $10,000. However, the employee thinks he can do better with an attorney. So he goes and gets an attorney, Seney said. He can conceivably "pile on" medical conditions to the original injured knee to get a higher award, Seney said. So, let's say he wins $15,000. Under the current law, the attorney can qualify for 20 percent of that entire settlement amount.

Under the new law, the amount the attorney earns is limited, Buxton said.

So, say an employee injures his knee and informs the employer and the employer makes an offer - say $10,000. Even if the employee goes to an attorney and gets a better settlement - say $15,000. The attorney only qualifies to get 20 percent of the settlement amount over what the employer originally offered.

In an address aimed at further bolstering the confidence of Oklahoma business owners, Pruitt made a special appearance at the workshop.

Pruitt emphasized his office's dedication to pursuing and prosecuting workers compensation fraud.

According to Pruitt, his office has had a 62 percent increase in the prosecution of workers compensation fraud cases since he took office in 2011, he said to the group.

He said this has not always been the case. When Pruitt arrived in the Oklahoma Attorney General's Office in 2011, he said he was somewhat dismayed by an attitude that he felt was less than assertive in investigating and prosecuting this type of fraud.

Pruitt encouraged business owners to contact his office for help in collecting evidence and assistance in filing suspected fraud cases properly, he said.

"No fraud is too small,"  for our office to work on, he said.

For information on how to file Workers Compensation fraud cases, call the Oklahoma Attorney General's Office at 1-877-800-8764.