Week 9 Legislative Update

(Reposted from the WSIA blog)

State Senate passes modest workers’ comp reforms

Yesterday evening, on the eve of the deadline for proposed legislation to be emerge from its chamber of origin, the Washington State Senate passed a handful of workers’ compensation bills over to the House of Representatives. Two represent legislative priorities of the Washington Self-Insurers Association, and the other two make reasonable policy sense.

First, the Senate took action on SB 5451, a bi-partisan bill introduced at the request of the Department of Labor & Industries, and sponsored by Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, promoting a return to work agenda through enhanced incentives for the state fund’s Preferred Worker Program, and making the 2007 vocational rehabilitation improvement program permanent, with some policy adds such as a cap on tuition increases and expanded incentives to settle out of an undesirable training plan. The vote on SB 5451 was 49-0. It should have relatively smooth sailing in the House of Representatives.

Next, the Senate took up WSIA’s top legislative priority, ESB 5510, addressing the accuracy and consistency of the wage benefit calculation. When it became clear that a consensus just didn’t exist in the Senate around the underlying proposal for fixing the system’s outdated and unduly complicated formulas for determining disability benefits, WSIA sought an amendment to form the “Benefit Accuracy Working Group,” an L&I led business-labor collaborative to work on the issue in the 2015 and perhaps 2016 legislative interims, reporting back to the Legislature with any consensus solutions. Both SB 5510 and the working group amendment were sponsored by Sen. Braun.

Speaking on behalf of the amendment on the floor, Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Beacon Hill, a stalwart union supporter, said that “a work group makes all the sense in the world,” and that, as amended, “this is a pretty decent bill now.” Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, another longtime labor ally applauded the effort to study the issue, acknowledging “this is a very complicated system.” Conway did, however, lead a handful of Senate Democrats (and one Senate Republican) in a “no” vote. Nevertheless, the working group concept passed the Senate 41-8 with a wide bipartisan majority. To become law, it will now have to clear the House of Representatives and garner the Governor’s approval.

The Senate next considered SB 5418, sponsored by Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines. The bill, which passed unanimously and without controversy, directs Labor & Industries to conduct a three year pilot program on catastrophic claims management in the state fund, contracting with an outside firm on a given number of claims per year. The bill is championed by Paradigm Outcomes, the California-based provider of catastrophic medical and claims management services.

Rounding out the floor action, for the third time in the last three years, the Senate took up the issue of structured settlement of workers’ compensation claims. ESB 5513, also sponsored by Sen. Braun, is another WSIA priority bill. It would have struck the eligibility age limitation (currently at age 53, transitioning to age 50 next year), but on the basis of a bi-partisan amendment offered by Sen. Steve Hobbs D-Lake Stevens, the age limitation was lowered to age 40, the average age of workers at time of injury in our system. As has been the case, the issue of settlements — even at age 40 — sparked considerable controversy on the floor, taking about 36 minutes with a number of Senate Democrats rising to oppose the bill.

Highlights of the debate over settlements include Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, crossing party lines to support the bill “for the workers.” He went on to point out that a workers’ comp settlement is voluntary, and that the underlying law still requires that a settlement be in the best interests of the worker.  “This is a pro-worker bill,” said Hargrove. “It gives them a choice, and lets them continue to have a healthy life as they try to get their lives back together from some serious injuries.”

Across the aisle, Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, described his support as “reluctant” for the bill because it didn’t go far enough. This is the “tater tots version of what needs to happen in workers’ comp,” said Baumgartner.

With stringent union opposition and a democratic House majority, EHB 5513 faces a steep, but not impossible, climb in the House as the session continues.