Week 1 Highlights

The 2015 session of the Washington State Legislature kicked off this past Monday, and already there have been interesting developments overall, and some early movement on workers' compensation policy.

Opening Day Intrigue 

Monday’s opening of the 64th regular session of the Legislature began with some palace intrigue in the Senate, where minority Democrats crossed over to vote maverick Republican Pam Roach, R-Auburn, into the leadership role of President Pro Tempore of the Senate, to spite fellow Democrat Tim Sheldon, D-Hoodsport, who held the position previously by virtue of having crossed party lines to caucus with Republicans and create the Majority Coalition Caucus that has held the majority in the Senate since 2013.  The Senate also adopted a parliamentary rule that would require a 2/3 supermajority vote of senators to advance a bill containing a new tax to the floor for a vote. Because tax and fiscal policy, and education funding in particular, promises to be the dominant theme of the 2015 session -- in the context of a state Supreme Court contempt order on education funding and an ambitious serious of tax proposals from Governor Jay Inslee hanging over lawmakers – this parliamentary hurdle for any new tax bill creates an interesting dynamic. Both opening day moves set an interesting tone for what promises to be an arduous session. 

Workers’ Comp Activity 

In workers’ compensation, Labor & Industries’ Vickie Kennedy opened things Monday afternoon in the House Commerce & Labor Committee, delivering reports on structured settlement activity, the Logger Safety Initiative, and a pilot program with retrospective ratings groups and IME scheduling and processing. Vickie’s three reports can be viewed at this link. Of interest on structured settlements, the unnecessarily restrictive program continues to disappoint, with only 118 State Fund and 28 self-insured settlements approved by the BIIA out of 1,000+ State Fund applications from January, 2012 through August, 2014. Evidently, as of January, the number for the State Fund has risen to 142 final settlements. The State Fund has had to adjust down nearly $300 million in booked savings from underperformance of this program since 2012. Video of the committee work session where Vickie delivered the report is available at this link.  

Bills Introduced 

A few bills have been introduced so far, including: 

  • HB 1156, sponsored by Rep. Liz Pike, R-Vancouver area, which would authorize “three way” workers’ compensation system in Washington with the State Fund, private insurers, and self-insureds. Although an ultimate policy objective of the state business community, this is more or less a “statement” bill that has little chance of moving forward, particularly in the House.
  • HB 1194/SB 5246, sponsored by Rep. Steve Kirby, D-Tacoma in the House, and the aforementioned Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, in the Senate, at the request of the Law Enforcement Officers and Fire Fighters (LEOFF) Plan 2 Retirement Board. These companion bills would eliminate the so-called “remarriage penalty” for total permanent disability benefits to continue after remarriage of the surviving spouse of a law enforcement or fire fighter employee who died while receiving a workers’ comp “pension.” This bill, which has been introduced but not passed in previous sessions, provokes considerable political sympathy, but unfortunately misunderstands the nature of the TPD benefit at issue, treating it like an accrued retirement benefit rather than a wage replacement benefit. Further, the proposal creates unequal treatment among beneficiaries, insofar as the surviving spouses of public safety officers would enjoy a privilege no other claimant or dependent would enjoy.
  • HB 1253, sponsored by Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, would require injured workers or their representatives to notify employers of injuries within 60 days from the date of injury or before filing a claim, whichever happens first, the failure to do so resulting in invalidity of the claim.
Looking Ahead to Next Week 

We have been meeting with leaders in both the House and Senate about WSIA legislative priorities and expect to see bills introduced on benefit accuracy/consistency (wage simplification), occupational disease coverage, structured settlement expansion, and third party recovery introduced on the Senate side next week. Further, we expect to see the Department’s request legislation on expanding the Preferred Worker Program and Vocational Improvement Pilot introduced, as well as a bill authorizing group self-insurance for smaller private businesses.  The labor/claimant attorney community has voiced intent to bring forward bills (a) eliminating the social security retirement offset for workers still working in part while receiving SSI benefits, (b) reversing the Slaugh decision by authorizing post-PPD closure medical treatment, (c) imposing an escalating menu of new/increased penalties on self-insured employers who fail to pay benefits on appeal, and (d) authorizing awards of attorney’s fees and costs independent of benefit awards on appeal. Links to the language of these bills will be provided and comments solicited when the language becomes available. 

For scheduled hearings, on Monday the 19th, the Senate Commerce & Labor committee will be calling the Department in for an agency overview and update.  

More info to be provided in next week’s update, as more bills are introduced, language becomes available, and the public hearing schedule becomes clearer.