Montana Workers’ Comp Bill Changes Course

By | December 17, 2010

Members of a Montana state panel were told that their bill for workers’ compensation reform was “dead on arrival” in the House and would therefore introduce the package in the Senate in the hopes approval there would give it the momentum it needs to pass the entire Legislature.

Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, who chairs the Labor-Management Advisory Council (LMAC), told members that Republican House leaders have said the bill does not go far enough and want to craft their own bill.

“It’s unfortunate that people with limited background have made that declaration,” Bohlinger, a Republican who serves with a Democratic governor, said.

Instead, Sen. Ryan Zinke, R-Whitefish, has agreed to carry the bill, he said.

Mike Milburn, House speaker-elect, could not be reached for comment by press time.

Bohlinger’s comments come as the panel hammers out finishing touches on reforms to the workers’ compensation system that officials hope will save the state $131 million in rates. Montana has the highest workers’ compensation rates in the nation (even though its costs are decreasing), according to a study produced in October by the state of Oregon. Bohlinger said that during his travels throughout the state he is often told by the business community that the worker’s compensation rates are too high and preventing them from higher more people and expanding business.

The new proposal, drafted by a board consisting of labor and management representatives, has hit a few snags as it nears the legislative session which starts Jan. 3. Members of the Montana Medical Association (MMA) and Montana Hospital Association (MHA) have said it will shortchange their members on paying for services provided and would likely drive some from participating in treating workers’ compensation patients. The formula used to figure out payment distribution has also been questioned. LMAC members plan to work on the kinks well into the legislative session.

In September, the state Legislature’s bipartisan Economic Affairs Interim Committee approved the bill for the legislative session, but asked Rep. Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, to meet with the LMAC and with the parties who complained and see if a compromise could be reached.

Suggestions include new fee schedules for doctors, a statutory closure of claims after three years and the implementation of treatment guidelines. Officials representing caregivers disputed the state’s claims that 72 cents of every workers’ compensation dollar goes for medical costs.

This week the LMAC committee was told that five of the 17 provisions requiring legislative changes were removed from the list. Those included: ending Temporary Total Disability (TTD) benefits at maximum healing and impairment rating; begin Permanent Partial Disability (PPD) wage loss payment based on whether employee is back to work at full wage; remove need for employability assessment to determine PPD wage loss payments; use impairment rating to help calculate future wage loss payments and use employability assessment to determine requests for permanent total disability benefits.

At one time it was estimated that the changes to the Montana’s workers’ compensation system could save $152 million. That estimate is now $131 million.

Provisions of the bill requiring legislative changes include:

  1. Course and scope language on breaks and recreational activities
  2. Statutory closure of claims after 3 years with limited reopening provision
  3. Allow settlement of future medical benefits
  4. Implement early Stay at Work/Return to Work program
  5. Provide for Return to Work Assistance upon request of claimant
  6. Codify the use of the 5
  7. Increase maximum weekly PPD rates to 75% of SAWW (now at 50%)
  8. Effective 7/1/2013 increase maximum weekly PPD rates to 100% of SAWW
  9. Provide retroactive payments for waiting period after 21 days of disability
  10. Effective 7/1/2013 increase # of weeks for PPD benefits to 400 (now at 375)
  11. Limited payment of attorney fees in medical only disputes

Provisions to be adopted by administrative rule include:

  1. Set medical fee reimbursement rates at 150% of Medicare
  2. Adopt utilization and treatment guidelines for treatment of injured workers

Provisions that were removed at the LMAC meeting this week include:

  1. End TTD benefits at maximum healing & impairment rating
  2. Begin PPD wage loss payment based on whether or not employee is back to work at full wage
  3. Remove need for employability assessment to determine PPD wage loss payments
  4. Use impairment rating as a component for calculation of future wage loss payments
  5. Use employability assessment for determinations of requests for permanent total disability benefits

Source: Montana Watchdog

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