Oklahoma Lawmakers Challenge New Workers’ Comp Law

By | September 20, 2013

Two Oklahoma lawmakers and a firefighters’ organization are challenging the constitutionality of Oklahoma’s new workers’ compensation law.

A lawsuit challenging the new statute was filed with the Oklahoma Supreme Court by Sen. Harry Coates, R-Seminole, Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, and the Professional Firefighters of Oklahoma and its president, Rick Beams.

Legislation to overhaul the state’s workers’ compensation system was signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin in May. It was a top priority for Republican leaders who say the state’s previous system was a detriment to business and industry in the state.

Among other things, the law changes Oklahoma’s court-based system to an administrative one. Supporters say the change will dramatically reduce workers’ compensation costs to businesses. Opponents say cost savings will come at the expense of injured workers.

In a statement, Fallin said she was disappointed by the constitutional challenge, especially in light of an evaluation earlier this month by the National Council on Compensation Insurance, which studies workplace injuries, that concluded the measure will result in a 12.7 percent reduction in overall workers’ compensation premium levels next year.

“For decades, Oklahoma has had one of the most expensive and inefficient workers’ compensation systems in the country, a constant obstacle for business owners looking to expand operations or create more jobs,” Fallin said. She said the new workers’ compensation law will create savings that can be invested in jobs rather than lawsuits by injured workers.

“Our reforms ensure injured workers are treated fairly and given the medical care needed to return to work,” the governor said. “This is an important pro-growth policy that will help us attract jobs and build a stronger and more prosperous Oklahoma.”

Coates said he agrees that the state’s workers’ compensation system needed to be overhauled but believes the law passed by the 2013 Legislature is an “unconstitutional and unworkable system.” Coates cited one provision that authorizes employers to charge injured employees for compensation they received by recouping it from their wages.

“It’s wrong that a firefighter or any other injured worker should have to pay back benefits after returning to work,” Coates said. “This is just one of many problems with this new law.”

Coates urged his legislative colleagues to embrace an administrative workers’ compensation system like the one adopted in Missouri in 2005. He said it has survived constitutional challenges and reduced costs to below the national average.

The lawsuit attacks several provisions of the law, including those it says would deny treatment and compensation to injured workers under certain circumstances and allow the use of American Medical Association guides and Work Loss Data Institute Official Disability Guidelines in workers’ compensation cases, which it alleges is an unconstitutional delegation of legislative powers.

The lawsuit also attacks a provision of the law that would allow employers to “opt-out” of the administrative system and create their own benefit plan for injured workers.

Oklahoma City attorney John McMurry, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the lawmakers and the firefighters group, said injured workers would be treated differently under that scheme and some would be deprived of their due process rights.

“Everybody’s got to be treated the same,” McMurry said.

The lawsuit alleges other parts of the law are vague, overly broad and amount to unconstitutional logrolling, or combining multiple subjects into one bill.

A hearing is scheduled on Oct. 16 before a Supreme Court referee who will recommend whether the state’s highest court should take the case or refer it to a lower court.

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