Legislative Update, January 19, 2018

Although this is the end of the second week of the 2018 legislative session, it is our first update of the year. 

We are already seeing the effects of the shift of political power in Olympia from divided government to single party control, as the new Democratic majority in the state Senate in particular is busy working on a substantial number of bills regulating and impacting the workplace, including several old and new issues in workers' compensation.

Here are the big issues so far in workers' comp and safety. For bill numbers and links to the language, click the button below:

Occupational disease presumptions - first responders. For a few years now, we've been dealing with proposals by the unions representing police and firefighters to create occupational disease presumptions for police officers and expand the coverage of existing presumptions for firefighters. These issues continue to proceed on two tracks. First, police and fire seek coverage for stress-based conditions as occupational diseases for their line of duty employees, and a presumption that PTSD in particular is an occupational disease. Second, both forces seek expanded access to the existing cancers/infections/respiratory disease presumption, with a new list of conditions for police and more cancers and infections for fire. These bills are emotionally charged and politically popular to support for both sides of the aisle. HB 1655, for example, which is the PTSD/stress bill, passed the House of Representatives yesterday with a bipartisan vote of 84-13. The Senate versions of these bills are still in committee awaiting potential amendment and movement toward the floor. WSIA is attempting to work with advocates to limit the cost impact of these measures and place amendments that would provide some balance in the form of sideboards for employers in the event it is the will of the Legislature to move these bills this session. 

Occupational disease presumptions - Hanford workers. This bill appears poised to pass this year, creating a broad presumption of occupational disease for workers who spend as little as one eight hour shift on certain locations on the Hanford nuclear reservation in Eastern Washington. The presumption, which is lifelong, covers a vast array of cancers and infections. It heightens the burden of proof to rebut, escalating from the typical preponderance of the evidence to clear and convincing evidence. It allows for the refiling of previously denied claims. And it contains the typical fee-shifting provisions. This bill is riding on such a high tide of emotion in the Legislature that it will be difficult to stop this year. WSIA is attempting to work with legislators on amendments that would limit the impact and conform to existing structures, such as preponderance of the evidence to rebut, or a greater service threshold to qualify for presumption. The bills are HB 1723, which already passed the House of Representatives on a vote of 76-22, and SB 5940, which has been voted out of its Senate committee for further action.

IMEs. A newcomer to the scene this year, a bill has been introduced to require self-insured employers to submit medical records to IME panel companies electronically or, failing that, within ten days of a scheduled IME. The bill also directs the Department of Labor & Industries to develop "access" to telemedicine for IMEs. The bills appear to be driven by a concern that IME providers do not have centralized access to electronic records for self-insureds like they do with the State Fund, and some apparent qualms that any paper records are delivered too close to the IME to properly sort and review. As to telemedicine, it's difficult to ascertain what problem is being addressed or how that might work in practice. SB 6226 is set for public hearing on Monday.

Hearing aids. Another new topic this year, bills have been introduced to mandate the replacement of hearing aids in workers' compensation claims no later than five years after issue. The House version was heard this past week, and the Senate version is up for hearing next week. WSIA would prefer to see issues like this addressed as part of the Medical Aid Rules & Fee Schedule (MARFS) where medical necessity and data can better drive requirements, than chiseled into statute permanently. 

Mental health providers. Bills have also been introduced to expand the list of providers who may treat injured workers for mental health issues in claims to include mental health counselors, marriage and family counselors, and social workers. WSIA has some concerns with this. The House and Senate versions of the bills are scheduled for public hearing next week.

Pension discount rate. On the good news front, bills have been introduced at the request of the Department of Labor & Industries to make a surgical cut in the statute that directs how State Fund and self-insured pension liabilities are calculated and pre-funded, separating the two requirements into separate sections of law but not making any other change. The net effect of this is to eliminate the current requirement that the pension reserves be computed in the same manner. This change would then untether the pension discount rate -- the annual assumed return on invested pension assets -- used for the State Fund from that used for self-insureds, without any other change in the status quo. This is good for self-insureds, who would otherwise be facing significant prefunding exposure if the Department expeditiously lowers, as it has long sought, its discount rate for the State Fund. 

Social Security offset. Bills are back in the House and Senate this year to restrict the social security offset against time loss and pensions for those workers who have applied for or are already receiving social security retirement on the date of injury. While greatly limited from past proposals to eliminate the social security offset entirely, we know that is the acknowledged aim of proponents of the bill, so we continue to have concerns.

With these and other issues, we are still in the midst of committee activity. Although a couple of the higher profile bills on occupational disease presumption have already passed their chamber of origin, most issues are still being heard and marked up in committee, with a deadline of February 2nd for bills to emerge from committee to be considered still alive in the process.

Stay tuned and please do not hesitate to get in touch with any questions, comments, concerns, positions, or feedback on any of these legislative issues.