Work Comp Bills Advance Amid Uncertain Future

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Lawmakers intent on decreasing workers’ compensation insurance rates, but still grappling with how to best do so, said a Republican-backed deal favored by many businesses that cleared the House Wednesday will need to be reworked in the Senate.

The plan cleared the House on a partisan 67-32 vote. It is opposed by labor interests, who argue it unfairly cuts benefits for injured workers while rewarding doctors and others. The governor has also made it clear he doesn’t like the plan.

The plan is supported by Republican leaders and many business interests as the most effective way to quickly lower Montana’s work comp insurance rates, which most agree are among the most expensive in the nation.

But a Senate committee on Wednesday was reviewing a different compromise bill four years in the making. Labor groups and Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s administration support it, but doctors don’t like how it reduces payments to them. Doctors, hospitals and insurance companies favor the House Republican plan.

But Republican Sen. Ryan Zinke of Whitefish said the Senate needs to carefully review both bills after the House sends over its version in hopes of finding a bipartisan package. He said the concerns of labor and the governor’s office need to be addressed.

Zinke said the issue is far too important to get bogged down in political gamesmanship. He said negotiations should continue in the Senate.

“Let’s get a bill that brings the best of the discussion together,” said Zinke, who is sponsoring the version favored by labor that came out of years of negotiations. “There is plenty of room to play politics on everything else. But on this issue let’s put Montana first.”

Both proposals are very complicated and affect injured workers, businesses who pay for the insurance and the medical care providers who get more than 70 percent of the money in the system.

Democrats in the House who voted Wednesday against the plan being touted by Republican leadership said it takes way too much from hurt workers in its attempt to fix the system. Minority Leader Jon Sesso said the Senate, also run by Republicans, is certain to revamp it.

“It is going to go over and get changed because it has to be changed. It is not fair that the worker has to take the brunt of the change we all want to get,” Sesso said. “I will vote yes when the return bill comes back and treats the injured worker a little better.”

Rep. Scott Reichner, R-Bigfork, is carrying the plan touted by GOP leaders to immediately save business owners millions of dollars that could be used to hire more workers. He acknowledged some changes to the plan remain.

“Currently the work comp system is not fair. Our businesses are being crushed by the cost of our work comp system,” he said during House debate. “Let’s get it to the Senate, and let’s work on it in the Senate.”

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