Alaska editorial: Red flags in new workers' comp law

Posted: Tuesday, June 07, 2005

This editorial appeared in Wednesday's Anchorage Daily News:

One of Gov. Frank Murkowski's must-pass legislative priorities, the workers' compensation bill, may have enough constitutional holes to sink it. That's what you get with a process that's done behind closed doors.

The workers' comp bill suffers from some squishy language - how exactly do you define "substantial" cause of injury in an incident that exacerbates old injuries? Based on this legislation, nobody knows.

There are questions too about potential inequities in calculating workers' benefits, how chronic pain and other medical conditions will be covered and whether the new appeals commission concentrates too much power in the hands of the governor.

Critics say this legislation, which even its supporters have said is only a start, could get a judicial toss before its start is much under way.

The administration's response? Don't worry; we'll fix any problems next session. In closed-door sessions again? With last-minute amendments and changes?

Alaska's workers' compensation law is an important issue. High rates of insurance can strap small businesses. Medical expenses can multiply rapidly. Some cost controls are in order, and at one point in the regular legislative session, the House had a decent bill that offered modest changes and impaneled a task force to report on more.

The bill as finally passed still puts a task force on the case. There's no guarantee that it will bring insurance rates down. So what have we a gained? A big maybe that may be short-lived due to legal problems?

It's a risky business to predict what courts will rule. But there's well-informed doubt about Senate Bill 130 that suggests its passage was more about winning than sound reform to serve all hands.

The more important the issue, the more important is open scrutiny. Any time the governor or lawmakers rush a "must-pass" bill with a promise of "we'll fix it later," red flags should spring to attention - especially when the last rush is done out of public view.

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