Oklahoma: 2 pieces of legislation seek to overhaul cost, care components of system
The first piece of introduced legislation, H.B. 1601, would ensure that workers' comp attorneys cannot siphon money from injured workers for political donations. Last August, The Oklahoman
reported that roughly $1 million had been donated over the last decade to the Working Oklahomans Alliance, a political action committee run by workers' comp lawyers. The report found that the attorneys involved raised funds for the PAC by withholding a portion of their clients' workers' comp awards. Several injured workers interviewed by The Oklahoman said they had no knowledge that they had "donated" money to the PAC.
The legislation, filed by Rep. Dan Sullivan, R-Tulsa, would make it illegal for an attorney to deduct or withhold any portion of a client's judgment or settlement proceeds "for the purpose of donating or contributing funds or monies to a political fund, political action committee, campaign of any kind, or candidate for state, federal or local office."
"Lawyers are supposed to represent their clients, not prey upon them," Sullivan said. "Unfortunately, we know that some attorneys have been secretly bilking clients to fund political candidates. Those injured workers should not have their settlements turned into a slush fund for politicians."
Sullivan said the bill would stop this practice and ensure that workers' comp awards make it into the hands of the deserving individuals.
"Any injured worker who wants to make a political donation will obviously be free to do so at his or her individual discretion, but my bill will ensure the worker makes that decision," he said.
The legislation was recently passed by the House Judiciary Committee and now heads to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives for debate.
Proposal would create comp commission. Over the past few months, Rep. Mark McCullough, R-Sapulpa, has been laying the groundwork for legislation that would create a three-member workers' comp commission to replace the current Oklahoma Workers' Compensation Court, saying the move could drive down costs while improving worker benefits.
"My plan would dismantle our lawsuit-based Workers' Compensation Court and replace it with an administrative system modeled after the successful Arkansas system," McCullough said. "Injured workers would get the most benefit thanks to streamlining access to medical care and focusing on vocational rehabilitation."
McCullough noted that attorney involvement is 50 percent higher in Oklahoma's workers' comp system than the national average. To reverse that trend, the proposal would move all workers' comp claims, issues, and hearings to an administrative process. The new workers' compensation commission would have the authority to hold hearings to settle proceedings related to all compensation claims made by employees. The responsibilities and authority of the commission members, who would be appointed by the governor, would include appointing administrative law judges to preside over claims hearings.
McCullough said the proposed bill includes an in-depth legislative study that identified the major failings of Oklahoma's workers' comp system. The study found that the rate of permanent partial disability payments in the state was almost twice the regional average. In addition, the study found that the average lost time claim frequency was 60 percent higher than the national average.
Bill would also focus on vocational rehab. The bill would also establish a vocational rehabilitation program. A study found that the state ordered vocational rehabilitation for only 4 percent of the 14,919 total workers' comp claims in Oklahoma in 2006.
"Since most attorneys are paid by getting a cut of a worker's monetary award, they don't have any incentive to pursue rehabilitation programs for clients," he said. "I believe it's better to help an injured worker regain his or her health instead of giving them a one-time minor payment that ultimately goes to their lawyer."
March 16, 2009
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