Saturday, February 21, 2009

Workers' compensation reform

COLA sticks on bill increasing benefits

KidCare bill comes up Monday night

After fighting off an effort to delay adjusting payments to permanently disabled workers to account for inflation, the bill that will increase benefits for injured Wyoming workers and their families was approved by the Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee on Friday.

The bill was helped by testimony from Laramie construction contractor Gregory Stouffer and Richard Johnson, who has been on Permanent Total Disability payments from the Wyoming Workers’ Compensation system since the 1980s. Both argued for implementing the proposed Cost of Living Adjustment, which would increase benefits by up to 3% annually for the 184 people on Permanent Total Disability.

Stouffer told of a former employee of his who was injured in 1993 and lost 80% of his lung capacity. The employee, identified as “Carl N.” by Stouffer, originally was awarded monthly Permanent Total Disability (PTD) benefits of about $1,600. The benefit was adjusted once years ago, he said, rising to about $1,800 per month. Stouffer argued that rents and wages have doubled since Carl’s injury, but his award amount remains fixed.

The division has made life tough for Carl and has ignored its own rules, Stouffer said. He “has had to fight the division over his status” and once lost his benefits for 14 months. When the benefits were restored, the division forced him to settle for half of what he was due. “He should not have to re-file annually for his benefits,” Stouffer said of his former employee.

Instead, the division has “tried to squeeze the remaining life out of Carl” and his family, and has even told him he would get more benefits if he was not married.

Richard Johnson strives to survive on annual PTD payments of about $13,000 and last year gained some fame when the Wyoming Supreme Court, at the urging of attorney George Santini, ordered the Workers’ Compensation Division to end its practice of considering Johnson’s wife’s earnings when it calculated his extended benefits. (That's a photo of Richard, left, and George outside the Senate hearing room Friday morning.)

Johnson described a litany of woes involved in his dealings with the division.

“I’ve already suffered the hardships of this stuff,” he said. “Let’s do something to get this straightened up.”

Department of Employment Director Gary Child, the former director of the Workers' Comp division, and other division employees attended Friday's hearing. None disputed comments by either Stouffer or Johnson.

The committee voted 1-4 to defeat Chairman Charles Scott's amendment that would have offered a COLA only on extended permanent total disability payments - basically subjecting an injured worker to the benefits-eating appetite of inflation for eight years before the COLA would be applied.

House Bill 54 Workers’ compensation amendments will:
  • Increase dependent children’s, death and permanent impairment benefits;
  • Provide a minimum and extend the duration of temporary total disability benefit;
  • Provide an annual cost of living adjustment to permanent total disability benefits;
  • Extend the maximum duration of vocational rehabilitation benefits;
  • Extend the period over which death benefits are paid;
  • Limit the time for the Workers’ Compensation Division to recover overpayments;
  • Revise the criteria for, and distribution of, employer premium credits;
  • Authorize companies with as few as two employees to obtain coverage under the system;
  • Require the state to pay a fair share of the costs of litigation when covered workers recover damages from third parties;
  • Require the division to reconsider claims if an injured worker’s failure to meet a procedural deadline is the fault of the worker’s attorney;
  • Authorize and appropriate $200,000 to two additional positions in the Office of Administrative Hearings.

The bill must be re-referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee for consideration of the funding for the new positions at the Office of Administrative Hearings. Then it must go through three hearings on the Senate floor.

Children’s health insurance

Monday, the House Labor committee is scheduled to consider Senate File 39 Children’s health insurance program. The ESPC and many of its allies, including the Wyoming Children’s Action Alliance, support the measure, which was significantly amended in the Senate.

You can read comments from Marc Homer of the WCAA, who has worried the measure would die if the committee chaired by Rep. Jack Landon fails to consider it Monday evening. Here's a sample of Homer's analsis:

“Working parents in Wyoming earning between 200 and 300 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) are often unable to provide health insurance for their children. Wyoming Senate File 39 was introduced with the aim of helping parents securely know that their children’s health care needs will be met.

"If passed into law, the SCHIP program would become more equitable by covering more children across income brackets.”- Marc Homer, WCAA

You can read the ESPC fact sheet about SF 39 here. Interested parties should contact members of the House Labor Committee and ask them to support it.