Labor-committee members say bills violate historic, bipartisan workers’ compensation deal
OLYMPIA… Today brought the first deadline for policy committees in the Legislature to act on bills, and several measures that survived deal with the contentious issue of workers' compensation – a move some legislators say violates the spirit of the highly-touted 2011 bipartisan workers' compensation reform agreement.
At the beginning of the 2011 regular session, after years of conflict, much public debate and hours of intense negotiations among the governor and House and Senate leaders, legislators reached an historic agreement on ways to reform the costly, state-run workers' compensation system.
Three legislators, all members of labor committees, say committee approval of several bills introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate this session risks undermining last year's deal before it has even been fully implemented and erodes the trust needed to reach big agreements on solutions moving forward.
“A deal is a deal,” said Sen. Janéa Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake, who is the Republican leader on the Senate Labor, Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee. “The workers' comp reforms did not go into effect until January 1 – barely a month ago. Before the first settlement of an injured worker's claim has even been approved, we have colleagues who are determined to 'tweak' and 'tinker' with the agreement that made settling claims an option.
“If we knew this was going to happen, there are plenty of 'tweaks' our side of the aisle would like to make.”
Examples of bills that are moving include Senate Bill 6302 and its companion bill, House Bill 2431, which she says directly affect last year's workers' comp deal.
“These bills upset the apple cart and contain a laundry list of items that only serve to sow distrust and make things more difficult for employers,” Holmquist Newbry said. “It increases the number of requirements on businesses – especially on self-insured employers – intervenes in the flow of communication between employers and employees and makes broad changes to the workers' comp system that increase costs on employers at a time when we should be reducing their burden.”
She also pointed to other examples, including House Bill 2359, which limits when a provider may be removed from the provider network for failure to follow the Department of Labor and Industries' coverage decisions or treatment guidelines, and House Bill 2407, which would prevent employers from receiving critical information they need to fairly manage claims. The latter bill also makes inadmissible in any future litigation certain information gathered during the structured settlement agreement process used to resolve claims.
Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima and member of the Senate Labor, Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee, also called on Democrats to honor the 2011 deal.
“During negotiations last year, everyone agreed that there would be no new bills related to workers' compensation during the 2012 regular session,” said King. “It doesn't matter if there are small changes being proposed or large ones…any new bill to modify what we all agreed upon last year is in violation of that agreement and it should not be advanced this year. We're here to reconcile a revenue and spending gap of more than a billion dollars and we've had more bills that are nothing but distractions to us finding a solution. We need to concentrate on what the people sent us here to do, and that is to solve the budget problem.”
In a letter to Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, chairwoman of the Senate labor committee, after introduction of the bills in the Senate, Holmquist Newbry voiced disappointment with the failure of Democrats to live up to their end of the deal.
The letter points out that Labor and Industries and the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals are dealing with big changes already. Additionally, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee is conducting a performance audit of the claims management system; and the Workers' Compensation Advisory Committee (WCAC) is contracting for a study on occupational disease claims, in addition to being tasked with reporting on the implementation of the settlement agreements.
“It would be more prudent to wait for these assessments before making additional changes,” wrote Holmquist Newbry. “Accordingly, I'm requesting that you decline to hold hearings on workers' compensation legislation this session.”
Despite last year's deal and Holmquist Newbry's written request, Kohl-Welles moved forward with hearings and allowed the passage of the bills out of her committee.
Rep. Cary Condotta, R- East Wenatchee and lead Republican legislator on the House Labor and Workforce Development Committee, said it isn't too late for Democrats to do the right thing. He called on House and Senate Democrats to keep their word and withdraw any bills related to workers' compensation this session.
“Now is not the time to make adjustments to a major reform that has yet to be fully implemented,” Condotta said. “Last year, everyone at the table was in agreement to give the reforms some time to work. Pushing this legislation undermines the agreement, the reforms and all the work that was put into getting them passed.”
###Washington State House Republican Communications