House OKs workers' comp revamp

Bipartisan opponents say measure does not protect injured workers

Posted: Monday, May 23, 2005

The Alaska Legislature inched closer to ending its special session Sunday with the House's approval of a controversial bill that changes workers' compensation regulations.

While the Senate majority is in agreement over Senate Bill 130, the debate has continued among House members harboring strong objections.

But a version retooled by a conference committee on Saturday was satisfying enough to swing a few votes in the House to approve the bill 25-13.

"Fundamentally, the bill is about who pays without diminishing worker benefits," said Rep. Norman Rokeberg, R-Anchorage.

Among many goals, the bill sets out to reduce workers' compensation insurance costs for companies that have been paying increases of more than 30 percent in the last two years, even when they have no claims.

By capping medical costs at two-year levels starting with 2004, and making regulations tougher on fraud, some lawmakers predict a lowering of insurance costs.

But a coalition of Republicans and Democrats opposed the plan, claiming that while the bill may benefit insurance companies and businesses, it doesn't protect the rights of an injured worker.

Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage, called a provision to curb fraud for workers with chronic pain "mean-spirited and unnecessary." An injured employee who is able to return to work but still has discomfort must wait six months to receive ongoing treatment for any symptoms considered degenerative.

"We are forcing injured workers to be in such pain that they can't work anymore," he said. A fellow Democrat added that it doesn't reward employees who "fight through pain" and agree to work.

Rokeberg said there are several examples of workers abusing the system to get free massage therapy and pain medication for chronic pain.

The final bill kept a measure to establish an appeals committee that would be stacked with the governor's appointees. The panel would hear cases that now go to Alaska Superior Court. The legislators' rationale has been to provide consistency with the setting of legal precedent and speeding up the process for all parties.

The panel was repeatedly removed and then placed back in the bill what many critics call another level of bureaucracy. It will cost the state $1.5 million annually.

"Of the thousands of cases, less than 50 reached the Superior Court, and less than 10 reached the Supreme Court," said House Majority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage.

A union representing physicians said it agreed to capping medical costs temporarily if a medical review board is allowed to monitor the changes and make recommendations.

A public employee labor union is still opposed to the bill.

"We've been trying to work with them for two years to fix it and they just want to get what they are after," said Don Etheridge, lobbyist for AFL-CIO.

This is the third time the governor has tried to pass an overhaul of workers' compensation regulations. His measure failed during last year's regular session and a summer session.

The Senate has not voted on the conference committee version of the workers' compensation bill, but is expected to pass the bill today.

Going into its 13th day of the special session, the Alaska Legislature is still sitting on two contentious bills.

Speaker of the House John Harris, R-Valdez, said the House wants to vote on the capital budget before it votes again on the plan to overhaul the teacher and public retirement systems. The retirement measure has failed twice during the special session.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com



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