Senate passes workers' comp overhaul bill

Legislation includes an appeals panel made up of governor appointees

Posted: Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Senate on Wednesday passed a rewrite of the state's workers' compensation laws, despite the late inclusion of an appeals commission that detractors called a "poison pill."

The purpose of the bill - Gov. Frank Murkowski's second attempt in two legislative sessions to pass the overhaul - is to make the system more efficient and cut costs, according to the governor's letter to the Legislature.

Murkowski called the bill a "must pass piece of legislation."

"We didn't get it done last year because we said we'd get it done this year. There's no more excuses," Murkowski said Wednesday.

The bill passed the Senate 11-9. A companion bill is in the House Labor and Commerce Committee.

The bill originally capped medical fees paid for injured workers at 1999 prices, but changes in committee put the cap at the fee schedule set in December 2003.

Opponents say the committee changes made the proposed overhaul "workable." But the bill became fatally flawed when Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, reinserted a provision on the Senate floor Tuesday in which appeals would be heard by a new commission whose members would be appointed by Murkowski, they said.

"The appeals panel is a poison pill. It always has been," said Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage.

The five-member commission would have jurisdiction over appeals on decisions by the Workers' Compensation Board. But making the commissioners gubernatorial appointees, all of whose terms will be up at the same time, creates additional bureaucracy and politicizes the process, opponents said.

Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, said creating an appeals commission of gubernatorial appointees is "like putting the butcher's thumb on the scale."

Instead, he said, all workers' compensation appeals should be assigned to a single state judge.

French also questioned that a major provision was put back in a day before the full Senate was to vote. The bill had gone through the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Seekins is chairman, without an attempt to include the provision.

Seekins refuted the idea that the commission would be biased against workers, saying the panel would provide consistency and predictability to the appeals process.

There was nothing duplicitous in the way the provision was put back in, Seekins said. The governor's office had requested it be put back in the bill, he said.

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