Montana Gov. Amendments Added to Workers’ Comp Bill

A Montana state Senate committee got a look at the newest version of what is being labeled a “historic” workers’ compensation reform bill that was crafted by Republicans and now includes amendments from the governor’s office.

Rep. Scott Reichner, R-Bigfork, told the Senate Business and Labor Committee that he had worked with the Department of Labor to add amendments to House Bill 334 to satisfy concerns by Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

A nearly equal number of supporters and opponents lined up to speak on the bill. Supporters said HB 334 would bring much needed relief and reform to an expensive system. Opponents said they believed the bill would be unfair to workers.

Montana, which has the highest workers’ compensation rates in the nation, paid nearly $400 million in workers’ compensation rates last year, officials said. Lawmakers say while on the campaign trail they consistently hear from business owners that the high rates are keeping them from expanding their business, paying employees better or forcing them to move out of state. Workers’ compensation reform is a top priority for the House and Senate.

In 2006, the governor started the Labor-Management Advisory Council, made up of labor and management representatives, to look at the bill. LMAC came up with HB 87, which was approved last summer by the state’s Economic Affairs Interim Committee. The plan was discarded earlier in the session in favor of HB 334, which officials said incorporates a lot of LMAC’s ideas.

Earlier in March, the governor met with GOP House and Senate leaders and asked if the bill should be delayed, adding he was skeptical that HB 334 would improve the system and wondered if history would treat lawmakers kindly for passing a mediocre bill.

Officials said they worked until late March 23 to make the amendments, which included allowing an independent review board to extend claim closure, allows for actual wage loss for partial disability, allows patients their choice of medical providers and locks in medical provider rates at 2010 levels.

“This is not the best bill but it’s awful close,” Sen. Ryan Zinke, R-Whitefish, said after the meeting.

The law proposes closing benefits after five years, with a provision to re-open if necessary after a medical panel review; a part of the proposal is to require an impairment rating of at least Class 2, or “moderate” impairment, instead of “mild” in order to receive Permanent Partial Disability wage loss benefits; provide the ability for insurer and worker to agree to settle non-disputed medical benefits; make the insurer provide Stay at Work, or Return to Work programs and services, to assist workers with returning to the same, or a modified job; prohibit claims for workers’ compensation benefits in cases where employees are on breaks off the premises.

Reichner said his bill, scored by the National Council on Compensation Insurance, would bring savings of 20 percent to 44 percent in the first year alone, or guaranteed savings of $84 million to $183 million. Reichner was approached by Milburn shortly after the Nov. 2 elections to come up with a workers’ compensation reform package that would bring bigger savings faster than other proposals.

“We’re losing businesses that are going to other states,” Reichner told the Senate panel.

Department of Labor Commissioner Keith Kelly said the bill would “provide significant savings while honoring the needs of injured workers.”

He supported the bill on behalf of himself and Schweitzer.

“The department believes HB 334, with amendments, will bring significant reform to the workers’ compensation system.”

Zinke labeled the bill “the single largest charge of workers’ compensation in a positive direction” in the state’s history.

Jon Bennion, government affairs director with the Montana Chamber of Commerce, supported the bill and presented the board with letters of support from employers.

Several business representatives also spoke in support of the bill.

But J.D. Lynch, representing Montana Building and Construction Trades, said not one person representing the working people were proponents. He said businesses would lose under the proposed bill. “There’s not a worker in this state who wants to be injured,” he said.

Several police officers told the panel their wounds did not heal after five years.

“You are chopping the existing law into something that serves one thing: the budget,” said James Pontrelli, an officer in Missoula who was injured.

Others criticized the proposed cuts to permanent partial disability benefits.

Even LMAC members were divided on the bill. Some, such as Bob Worthington and Riley Johnson, supported it. Others, like Jason Miller and Don Judge, opposed it.

“There’s no good reason to cut permanent partial awards,” said Miller, who represents Teamsters 190. “The amendments are good, but you’ve got a long way to go.”

Source: Montana Watchdog