Assembly-Senate Committee Approves Workers’ Compensation Reform Bill
A six-member Assembly-Senate committee early Thursday morning voted unanimously to approve a bill (SB 899) that would reform the state workers' compensation system, the Orange County Register reports. The bill, which is more than 200 pages, now moves to the full Legislature for a final vote, currently scheduled for Friday (Gittelsohn, Orange County Register, 4/15). The committee includes Senate President Pro Tempore John Burton (D-San Francisco), Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), Sens. Richard Alarcon (D-Van Nuys) and Chuck Poochigian (R-Fresno) and Assembly members Juan Vargas (D-Chula Vista) and Rick Keene (R-Chico) (AP/Sacramento Bee, 4/14). Nunez and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) on Wednesday approved a compromise reform package -- which served as the basis for SB 899 -- that would:
- Require injured workers to choose from a network of employer-selected physicians for treatment. However, workers could seek a waiver from a medical review panel to see a physician of their own choice. Currently, injured workers can choose their own physicians after 30 days of treatment by an employer- or insurer-chosen physician;
- Entitle workers to receive immediate medical care for workplace injuries at a cost of up to $10,000;
- Require the use of American Medical Association guidelines to rate impairments to injured workers and provide benefits based on workers' projected lost earning capacity;
- Pay more in benefits to workers who do not receive an offer to return to work and pay less in benefits to workers who do receive an offer to return to work;
- Require insurers to pay a penalty for late payments made to workers of 25%, up to $10,000, and allow insurers to "self-correct" mistakes they discover by making corrected payments;
- Require a one-year study of the effect the reform has on workers' compensation premiums for employers; and
- Allow employers to apportion workers' compensation payments to cover only work-related injuries and not partial impairments resulting from off-the-job accidents. In addition, workers could claim no more than a total of 100% of disability for multiple injuries to the same part of the body (California Healthline, 4/14).
Nunez said that "there's no question this is not a perfect bill," but he added that the bill "is an attempt to reach a compromise on a workers' compensation system that's broken, a system that doesn't serve injured workers very well and a system that is costing a great deal of money with premiums increasingly on the rise" (Wasserman, AP/Fresno Bee, 4/15). According to the Register, Burton called the bill "an imperfect compromise." However, he said, "I don't really compare this bill to the current law. I compare the bill to what I consider to be a very unfair initiative," referring to the workers' compensation reform ballot initiative supported by Schwarzenegger. Even though he voted for the bill in the committee, Alarcon said that he would not vote for the bill on Friday (Orange County Register, 4/15). "I, for one, do not trust that the insurance companies will pass on the cost savings to the employer community," Alarcon said. David Schwartz, president-elect of the California Applicant Attorneys Association, said that the measure "is a very, very bad bill for injured workers." Keene said the legislation would reduce workers' compensation costs while ensuring that "the emphasis is not on people trying to get cash awards for workers' comp injuries, but on folks getting better and getting back to work" (AP/Fresno Bee, 4/15). Assembly Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) said that Republican legislators would wait to read the wording of the bill before deciding how to vote, the Register reports. According to the Register, the bill "appears to be a victory for Republicans, who wanted to preserve an unregulated insurance market while imposing restrictions on medical fees, patient access to care and disability payments" (Orange County Register, 4/15). According to the AP/Fresno Bee, the bill "has bipartisan support" and likely will pass the Legislature (AP/Fresno Bee, 4/15). The bill would take effect immediately if passed by a two-thirds majority of the Assembly and Senate and would take effect after 90 days if passed by a simple majority (California Healthline, 4/14).
More than one million signatures have been collected to qualify a workers' compensation reform initiative for the Nov. 2 ballot, the Orange County Register reports. Joel Fox, president of the Small Business Action Committee, said, "Everything is in place to file Friday," the deadline for all initiatives seeking to appear on the ballot (Gittelsohn, Orange County Register, 4/15). The initiative would cut $11.3 billion from the state's workers' compensation system by prohibiting workers from receiving multiple disability payments for the same injury; requiring dispute resolution more frequently to reduce litigation costs; limiting penalties paid by insurers and employers in medical bill disputes; and establishing uniform standards for permanent disability (California Healthline, 3/4).
Several broadcast programs reported on workers' compensation reform:
- KCRW's "Which Way, L.A.?": The segment includes comments from Gilbert Chan, Capitol reporter for the Sacramento Bee (Olney, "Which Way, L.A.?" KCRW, 4/14). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- KPCC's "Talk of the City": The segment includes comments from state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi (D) and Vince Sollitto, deputy press secretary for Schwarzenegger (Felde, "Talk of the City," KPCC, 4/14). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- KQED's "California Report": The segment reports on the legislative proposal (Musiker, "California Report," KQED, 4/15). The complete segment will be available online in RealPlayer after the broadcast.
- KQED's "Forum": Guests on the program will include Chris George, spokesperson for the Committee for Workers' Compensation Reform and Accountability; John Myers, Sacramento bureau chief for KQED Radio News; and Schwartz (Krasny, "Forum," KQED, 4/15). The complete segment will be available online in RealPlayer after the broadcast.
- NPR's "Morning Edition": The segment includes comments from Scott Hayes, spokesperson for the California Injured Workers' Coalition, and Rob Stutzman, communications director for Schwarzenegger (Myers, "Morning Edition," NPR, 4/15). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.