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Workers’ Compensation Commission Touts Budget Needs

When SB 1062 mandated duplicate workers’ compensation systems in Oklahoma it was inevitable that the money the state spends would dramatically increase. In Fiscal Year 2013 the state appropriated about $4.3 million in general revenue to operate the system. This year the Commission and the Court of Existing Claims are seeking more than twice that amount, $9.7 million. The Commission by itself is seeking $5.8 million next year. This does not include additional fees levied on participants in the systems. The overall reasoning is correct; it does require much more money to operate duplicate systems. What is a little harder to understand are the arguments for additional funding which stretch well beyond the idea that dual systems are expensive to maintain. I suppose that if tossing around workload numbers helps to convince the Legislature of the need for additional funding then those exercises are understandable. It is important, however, that the public not be misinformed.

To bolster arguments for additional appropriations the assertion seems to be that the new Commission is a resounding success. What follows is an excerpt from a news story from Fox 23 by Shawn Ashley:

"This has been a turning point for the Oklahoma state workers compensation system," said Chairman Wilson. Wilson said Gov. Fallin gave the commission its mission: To make sure we get our injured workers the medical treatment they need, compensated and returned to their lives and work as soon as possible. "We have done that."

Compared to its predecessor judicial system, the Workers Compensation Court, Wilson said, "The Workers Compensation Commission is processing fewer cases at a faster rate than before due to a system that is much smoother and more effective in accomplishing the objectives than the previous system."

Wilson noted an average of 14,054 cases was filed annually with the Workers Compensation Court. Just 3,834 cases were filed in the commission's first year, he said.”

I can only guess that the Chairman is citing the number of fewer cases filed last year at the Commission over those filed at the Court in 2013 (and previous years) as evidence of this triumph. The logic the Commission must be following is that fewer injured workers have needed to involve the state in their injuries. So, simply because of the existence of the Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Commission on the planet, the system has become easier to administer for employers, insurers, and injured workers with no reason to involve the Workers Compensation Commission in the case.

There is no other evidence offered for how the new system is processing claims faster or for how workers are returning to work quicker, as is claimed. I hope the Commission is prepared to explain what went horribly wrong in calendar year 2015 when the number of cases will likely more than double from the 3,384 filed in 2014. Was it the additional funding they were given that made everything so much less efficient? Is climate change to blame? Have claims that used to be processed so efficiently in 2014 become lost in the fourth dimension? My guess is next year they will calmly explain this mystery, an explanation that should have been offered in the article the Chairman was quoted in above.

In 2014 the Commission only received notices for injuries occurring since February 1 of that year. Notice of injuries from all previous years continue to be filed at the Court and are not counted in the Commission’s numbers. Of course there was a dramatic drop; there will also be a dramatic increase in filings at the Commission in 2015 as notices of injuries occurring in both 2014 and 2015 are filed. 2016 will also increase over 2015 in the same manner. These compilations of claim’s counts have nothing to do with the efficiency of any system. It is simply a result of a worker needing to report his or her injury to the Commission in case they may need a hearing, or need to have a settlement approved.

In the previous years mentioned by the Chairman, the Court received filings based on injuries occurring over many years, not the most recent 11 months. Please don’t think the Commission has suddenly become inefficient simply because, during the first half of 2015, they receive roughly as many claims as were filed during all of 2014. No need to panic.

In the same article quoted above the Workers’ Compensation Commission and the Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce have once again congratulated themselves on a $220 million savings in the system, again leaving the impression that Commission operations or an “administrative” system is somehow responsible for the savings. Commissioner Engle, and Mr. Morgan at the Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce know that every penny of the savings touted are from a drastic cut in benefits to injured workers, not from changing the type of system we now have administering the law. Every penny in “savings” is money from an injured worker’s pocket into an employer’s bank account. It is unconstitutional. It is a disgrace.

Michael Clingman

Oklahoma Coalition for Workers Rights

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