State House speaker Todd Hiett lists work comp reform No. 1

Tuesday, January 11th 2005, 4:59 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Talking over the whirr of machinery at an industrial plant, newly elected House Speaker Todd Hiett said Tuesday that major of the workers' compensation system will be his No. 1 priority in the 2005 Oklahoma Legislature.

Hiett said he had assigned veteran Rep. Fred Morgan, R-Oklahoma City, to manage a comprehensive work comp reform plan that would cut costs to protect businesses and lure new companies to the state.

"We don't need minor reforms of our system. We need A+ reform," said Hiett, R-Kellyville. "We want people to get their benefits. We want costs to go down. And we want a better process than we've got today."

Workers compensation insurance systems exist in every state as a way to compensate workers who are injured on the job. Critics say the cost to employers to insure workers in Oklahoma is higher than most states, second only to Missouri in the region.

Hiett and Morgan said a bill would be filed prior to a Jan. 20 legislative deadline that would have several goals, including reducing health care costs and legal expenses and improving benefits to workers.

Hiett indicated the newest GOP work comp plan would likely propose an administrative system in one form or another.

Morgan said Oklahoma is twice as likely as other states to have "attorney involvement" in work comp cases.

"We think workers' compensation is the most important issue facing business, and we hope that Sen. Cal Hobson and Gov. Brad Henry will work with us to bring fundamental reform to a broken system," Morgan said.

Hiett and Morgan held a news conference at the Oklahoma City-based Kimray plant, which manufacturers valves and regulators for oilfield production equipment.

Tom Hill, chief operating officer, said high work comp costs hurt his company's ability to compete with countries around the world.

He said the high rate of attorney involvement in Oklahoma's system harms workers.

"We actually had workers' comp claims where people have gone to attorneys and by the time it was all said and done, they would have received far more if they had just taken the standard settlement first offered," he said.

Hobson, D-Lexington, Senate president pro tem, said he met Monday with prominent Tulsa business leaders "discussing at length the governor's task force and their own efforts to craft bipartisan reforms" to the system.

"It's clear we must do something about the escalating health care cost component of workers' compensation along with emphasizing greater workplace safety and strengthening the role of the independent medical examiner," he said.

Hobson said he was looking forward to working with Hiett and Henry to draft "sensible" changes in the system.

He said he hoped Hiett "will offer me the opportunity to serve as the Senate author of the eventual proposal just as I will offer him the chance to be the House author of any measure I bring forward."

Sen. Charles Laster, D-Shawnee, will take the lead role in developing "meaningful and workable reforms," Hobson said.

Spokesman Paul Sund said Henry has listed work comp reform as one of the session's top issues and "looks forward to working with legislative leaders of both parties to address this important issue."