Oklahoma Supreme Court to consider challenge to WC reform law
In addition to allowing employers to opt out of the workers' comp system, the law also changed the system from a court-based to an administrative one.
"I believe we need a workers' comp administrative system, just not the unconstitutional and unworkable system created by Senate Bill 1062," said Oklahoma State Sen. Harry Coates. "Instead, I'd support a bill that would give Oklahoma an administrative system like that in Missouri, which is working very well only a few years after being approved by that legislature."
Coates filed the suit along with Rep. Emily Virgin and the Professional Fire Fighters of Oklahoma. They are asking that portions of the law be declared unconstitutional -- including some of the opt-out provisions.
"The Opt-Out Act is a special law that establishes a 'private' workers' compensation system independent of the administrative system," the suit says. "It is a special law regulating jurisdiction that violates the Oklahoma constitution. Moreover, the employees of employers who opt-out lose their statutory administrative act benefit and are denied equal protection and due process."
The suit also challenges the language requiring opting-out employers to provide written benefit plans, and a provision providing exclusive remedy protection for those employers. "One of the onerous provisions of the Opt-Out Act is the authorization to the employer to prepare a benefit plan, free of regulatory limits, other than constraints specifically stated in the statute, that bind the employee," the suit reads. "That freedom from constraints by the state of Oklahoma renders Section 209(A) a special law granting privileges to the employer, and violates the equal protection and due process rights of the employee."
But supporters of the legislation have said it will reduce costs to businesses and may improve care to injured workers among some employers who opt out of the system. They argue the reforms are constitutional.
"While we are disappointed, we are not surprised that the same interests that opposed this legislation are making one last attempt to preserve a broken system that benefits themselves at the expense of our state," said Becky Robinson, chair of the Oklahoma Injury Benefit Coalition. "Although they claim to advocate against this change on behalf of employees or employers, their real motives lay in maintaining the financial benefit they receive from the adversarial system they have built."
Robinson noted the NCCI recently estimated the law would reduce workers' comp costs by 14.6 percent, which she said "validates the legislature's efforts to replace the state's archaic system and move Oklahoma forward." She said supporters would continue to fight to ensure the old system is replaced.
"SB1062 offers strong protections for workers, reduces lawsuits, and provides choices for employers," Robinson said. "Not only do these reforms include significant safeguards for workers, they will also boost job creation and economic development for the state."
Echoing the same sentiments was Gov. Mary Fallin, who signed the legislation in May.
"Senate Bill 1062 completely overhauls our flawed workers' comp system, dramatically reducing the costs to businesses and freeing up private-sector resources that can be invested in jobs rather than lawsuits," Fallin said. "Additionally, our reforms ensure injured workers are treated fairly and given the medical care needed to return to work. This is an important pro-growth policy that will help us attract jobs and build a stronger and more prosperous Oklahoma."
By Nancy Grover
Read more at the WorkersComp Forum homepage.
October 21, 2013
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