Home > Workmens Compensation > New workers’ compensation bill clears second reading in House

New workers’ compensation bill clears second reading in House

By Phil Drake on February 9, 2011

HELENA – A newly crafted workers’ compensation bill cleared a legislative hurdle Wednesday, but not without criticism from opponents who said it was unfair to employees and undermined a bill much longer in the making.

House Bill 334 by Rep. Scott Reichner, R-Bigfork, is one of two major proposals for workers’ compensation reform working its way through the Legislature. Montana is ranked as having the worst workers’ compensation rates in the country and paid nearly $400 million in workers’ compensation rates last year, officials said. Lawmakers say while on the campaign trail they consistently hear from business owners that the high rates are keeping them from expanding their business, paying employees better or forcing them to move out of state.

“It’s our duty and responsibility to set the benefits of our own workers’ compensation system,” Reichner told the House chamber, adding that Montana businesses were unfairly getting crushed by a “bloated” workers’ compensation system.

He said his bill, scored by the National Council on Compensation Insurance, would bring savings of 20 percent to 44 percent in the first year alone, or guaranteed savings of $84-$183 million. Reichner was approached by House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, shortly after the Nov. 2 elections to come up with a workers’ compensation reform package that would bring bigger savings faster than other proposals.

Among proposals in the 37-page bill are ending medical benefits 60 months after the day the injury occurred instead of the last time medical services were used and it also creates a list of doctors that injured workers can see rather than letting them request their personal doctor.
The bill passed 67-32. Late Wednesday it was listed on the legislative website as being referred to the House Appropriations Committee and no third reading had been scheduled.
Some lawmakers said Montana could end up with the most restrictive workers’ compensation system in the country.

Supporters praised the bill.
“This issue is the No. 1 reason I ran for this body,” Rep. Derek Skees, R-Whitefish, said. “This is a dream come true if we can make it law in Montana.”

Rep. Gerald Bennett, R-Libby, said he planned on giving his employees a raise if it passed.
House Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, described the bill as being more of a nightmare.
“I would venture to guess that half the people in this room know what’s in this bill,” he said, that a bill hashed out over a four-year period by a state-appointed panel was dead within three days of the Legislature convening Jan. 3.

He said the bill, now known as SB243, was drafted by the Labor-Management Advisory Council and was formed by consensus. Sesso said the bill was criticized by providers and added the legislation “took the biggest bite of the biggest butt.” (See related story on this page)
He said Reichner’s bill swung the pendulum too far in the other direction and was taking awaybenefits from workers.

“We need to put the right product in front of the governor for his signature,” he said.
“For those who think this is the bill – guess again,” he said. “This product is not the best we can do, but the best we can do today.”

Rep. Chuck Hunter, D-Helena and Rep. Michele Reinhart, D-Missoula, both fielded questions from fellow Democrats about problems they saw with the bill.

Reichner, who said in earlier interviews that he incorporated many suggestions from the LMAC proposal, said his bill provided employees with an opportunity to get back to work instead of a never-ending cycle of workers’ compensation.

He vowed there would be changes.
“We will fix workers’ compensation,” Reichner said. “We will have workers’ compensation reform this session.”

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