Montana Workers’ Comp Reform Bill on Hold

By | January 25, 2011

A Montana workers’ compensation reform bill was put on hold Jan. 21, 2010, after its sponsor told a state House committee it would have to be heavily amended and suggested going with a “clean” version of the proposal in the Senate instead.

Rep. Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, told the Business and Labor Committee that 30 pages of the 94-page Labor-Management Advisory Council (LMAC) bill would have to be amended and suggested it not move forward. He had earlier warned committee members House Bill 87 would have “a twist.”

Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger said earlier this week that LMAC was created in 2006 and was prompted by complaints he and Gov. Brian Schweitzer heard from the business community that workers’ compensation rates were too high, keeping businesses from growing and prompting bosses not being able to afford raises for workers. State officials then put together a panel made up mostly of representatives from business and labor. The group has had nearly 60 public meetings since it was founded, Hunter said.

Montana now ranks No. 1 in the nation for workers’ compensation rates and bringing reform to the system has been listed by several lawmakers and members of the business community as the No. 1 issue facing the state Legislature this session. Neighboring North Dakota is at the bottom of the list.

Last summer, the state’s Economic Affairs Interim Committee (EAIC) approved the LMAC plan, which reduced medical costs, set up fee schedules and projected would bring in $122 million in savings, although that number has been disputed. Trial attorneys, doctors and other caregivers have disputed the findings by LMAC and warned it could force doctors to leave the system and actually drive up costs.

In the meantime, House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, has charged Rep. Scott Reichner, R- Bigfork, with drafting a workers’ compensation bill that will bring bigger savings more quickly than the LMAC bill. Reichner said the bill, which he said includes some provisions from the LMAC proposal, should be done this week.

Hunter said LMAC has continued to work on the bill after it was adopted by the EAIC. They built a data base of 30,000 claims and found what they proposed in the bill did not prove to be true and missed state deadlines for pre-introduced bill. He suggested going with an updated LMAC bill that Sen. Ryan Zinke, R-Whitefish, will introduce in the Senate.

Members of LMAC continued to support their bill. They received support from labor unions and others. But others, who testified against it before the EAIC, continued to oppose it.

“We appear today exactly in a place we did not want to be,” said Bob Olsen of the Montana Hospital Association.

He said his organization believes there are many items in the proposed LMAC bill that will increase workers’ compensation premiums. He said as a large employer, hospitals share “the goal of reducing workers’ compensation costs … but we believe this isn’t the way to do it.”

He and others said LMAC used incorrect information in putting the bill together.

Erin MacLean of the Montana Medical Association said care providers were never allowed at the LMAC table “to say how the system worked in the trenches.”

She warned physicians would leave the workers’ compensation system if deep cuts were made.

Hunter told the House panel about previous workers’ compensation crises in Montana where benefits were lowered for workers. He said the main cost driver in the workers’ compensation system is in providing medical aid in which 75 cents of every dollar goes for medical costs. He said last year it was 72 cents for every dollar.

“Something has to change,” he said. “Something has to be done with the system.”

Source: Montana Watchdog

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