Battle Lines Drawn Over Workers’ Compensation Reform

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The battle lines over competing workers’ compensation reform plans crystalized Monday at a hearing for the Republican reform plan, as workers made it clear they don’t like a bill partially written by the insurance industry.

Construction, timber, oil companies all made up parts of the business community that aligned with the medical community in backing a Republican proposal aimed at cutting rates by as much as 40 percent. One eastern Montana oil business said it could save more than $600,000 in work comp costs alone if it moved its headquarters across the border to North Dakota.

That proposal was also viewed more favorably by the insurance companies.

The supporters said the bill is needed to have immediate relief from work comp rates universally seen as among the most expensive in the country.

“To keep Montana competitive, we need to have major work comp reform,” said Flathead county area home builder Terry Kramer.

Labor interests, injured workers and the administration of Gov. Brian Schweitzer opposed the plan. They largely favor a measure four years in the making that Republican legislative leaders pushed to the side once they took charge.

They argue the GOP proposal makes most of its cost savings by cutting worker benefits instead of taking a bite out of medical payments to doctors and others. The labor community said that every work comp reform effort stretching back decades has whacked workers the most, and pointed to a proposed new cutoff for claims at five years as far too rigid to deal with the complexity of claims that can arise.

“Don’t take it away all from one side,” said JD Lynch, a lobbyist representing labor interests. “And don’t take it all away from the people who are driving our trucks, building our roads and building our houses.”

All sides agree workers’ compensation premiums are too high in Montana and that something needs to be done about it. But with big winners and losers at stake, negotiations over the final deal are expected to take the length of the legislative session.

Workers especially don’t like a provision that lets the insurance company choose their doctor, arguing the company will choose a doctor that cuts off treatment too soon.

And on the other side, Doctors — siding with the new GOP proposal — said the labor-backed bill cuts medical payments too much as a way of saving money. And Republicans said it doesn’t do enough to undo egregious worker claims and force people back to work once they are ready to do so.

Rep. Scott Reichner, R-Bigfork, said he spent a couple months drafting his bill. He said he looked for ways to have immediate cost savings, such as putting in deadlines to bring to an end neverending claims.

“This bill represents, frankly, the largest reform in work comp history for the state of Montana,” he said.

The Montana State Fund, which told the House Business and Labor Committee that it helped draft the proposal, drew the ire of at least one business opposed to the Republican bill. And its involvement does not please some Democrats allied with labor interests.

Wayne Dykstra, who runs a marine engineering firm, said the bill doesn’t do anything to fix the way the State Fund manages claims. Dykstra said he believes bungled cases at State Fund, which recently completed construction on a large office building in Helena, are a big part of the problem.

“The bill is silent on any reorganization of the chowderheads down here in their Taj Mahal,” Dykstra said.

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