Murkowski plan would revamp workers' comp appeals system

Posted: Wednesday, June 23, 2004

The Murkowski administration introduced a new plan to overhaul the appeals system for workers' compensation claims on the first day of the special session of the Legislature.

But the plan could have a hard time making it through the Senate, where a similar version of the bill barely passed earlier this year on an 11-9 vote.

And House Speaker Pete Kott, R-Eagle River, said movement of many of the bills proposed for the special session are dependent on what happens in the Senate.

The absence of Sen. John Cowdery, R-Anchorage, who is recovering from knee-replacement surgery, could kill the bill unless he returns to Juneau later this week or Senate Republicans can convince another lawmaker to vote with them.

The current appeals system sends about 100 rejected claims appeals to one of seven hearing panels around the state. Rejected claims are then appealed to Superior Court and then to the state Supreme Court.

The proposed bill would create an administrative law judge system, in which a panel of judges would hear initial appeals. Further appeals would bypass the Superior Court and go to a three-member panel made of a professional hearing officer appointed by the governor and one member from labor and one from management. Final appeals would go to the Supreme Court.

The three-member appeals panel would have additional powers of establishing legal precedent on the cases they decide, an authority that the Superior Court currently does not hold. The Murkowski administration argues that the precedent-setting power would clarify the law and cut down the number of appeals.

Labor Commissioner Greg O'Claray said Tuesday that the change would save money in litigating expensive and lengthy appeals.

"Even now, with those seven panels, it's difficult to get a panel to sit, so there's a delay in getting a hearing," O'Claray said.

O'Claray also said the seven existing panels often reach different decisions on similar cases.

Senate Democrats who oppose the bill argue that the proposal would not necessarily save money and that they've been given no proof that the current appeals panels and Superior Court judges return drastically different decisions on similar cases.

"I am completely unconvinced on that point," said Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage. "I keep begging them to bring me some evidence that there is an inconsistent body of law out there."

Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, said he doesn't support the bill because he doesn't trust Murkowski enough to grant him the power to appoint an administrative hearing officer.

"We come from a position of suspicion of Frank Murkowski's judgment on the appointment of highly paid political appointees to positions of public trust," Ellis said. "Lisa Murkowski and Randy Ruedrich: that's exhibit A and exhibit B."

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