The House on Sunday accepted a compromise bill to change the state’s workers’ compensation laws.
House members passed the new bill 25-13, with most saying it wasn’t the perfect fix to lowering workers’ comp insurance rates and employers’ costs, but it was a start.
“From what I know and from what I’ve read, it looks better,” said Republican Rep. Jay Ramras, a business owner in Fairbanks. “We’ve got to start down this road.”
Opponents of the bill, however, said the measure will only go against the interests of injured workers and do nothing to lower the cost to small businesses.
Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage, said key elements of the bill – freezing doctors’ rates, creating an appeals board of gubernatorial appointees and deciding how re-injuries would be covered – made for “a ham-handed way to approach a difficult problem.”
The Senate, which did not meet Sunday, was expected to take the bill up on Monday.
Rep. Tom Anderson, R-Anchorage, who sat on the conference committee, said the bill makes the process more efficient and gives employers more certainty in their costs. Most of the debate until now had focused on workers, he said.
“What about the employers? What about the insurance companies? What about the doctors?” Anderson said.
Employees won’t be denied care under the bill if they need it to return to the job, he said.
“Will this help you get back to work? We’ll give it to you,” Anderson said.
The bill would freeze the fees doctors charge injured workers, which Croft called “as arbitrary a decision as I’ve seen in my time here.” It also would create an appeals commission that would be expensive, unnecessary and politically charged, he said.
Finally, a provision to determine whether a work-related accident was “the substantial cause” of a re-injury is vague and is sure to be contested in court, he said.
The effect, said Rep. Harry Crawford, D-Anchorage, is a bill that “focuses on setting up a system so that some injured workers can fall through the cracks.”
The House on May 17 rejected 20-20 an earlier conference committee version of the workers’ comp bill.
An earlier opponent of the bill, Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Kodiak, voted for the measure Sunday, saying significant strides had been made in the newest version.
Workers’ comp has been one of Gov. Frank Murkowski’s priority bills this session. Last year, he made workers’ compensation part of a special session, but the Legislature did not act on it.
After Sunday’s vote, Murkowski’s office released a statement calling the measure “the most comprehensive workers’ compensation reform bill passed since statehood.”
While the workers’ comp bill is one of three key pieces of legislation this special session, no visible progress was made Sunday on the other two: the capital budget and overhauling the state’s retirement systems.
A House vote on changes to the retirement systems is on hold until the capital budget passes, said Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez.
Republican budget writers from the House, Senate and governor’s office gathered for a second day of closed-door negotiations on next year’s capital projects list.
After the House floor session, House Finance Co-Chairman Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, said talks were progressing and an amendment could be ready to present on the House floor on Monday.
“Right now I think we’re at a real delicate point with the capital budget, but I think it’s going to mesh together,” Meyer said.
The bills are Senate Bills 130, 141 and 46.
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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