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Workers’ comp reform goes to House

Sun., March 6, 2011

OLYMPIA – The state Senate approved a measure Saturday that would drastically change Washington’s workers’ compensation system by establishing an option for lump-sum settlements.

The 34-15 vote in the Senate was a significant win for the business lobby, which has been trying to move the state away from prolonged payment benefits and pensions for injured workers. It now goes to the House for consideration.

Organized labor has steadfastly opposed settlements and will take its fight to the House, where support for business may not be as robust as in the Senate.

Meanwhile, the House approved a package of bills that address everything from shutting down companies during investigations to streamlining appeals for cited companies, but none included a settlement option. Yet, the chamber’s leadership argued that the changes in their package will save money to the system by getting workers healthier faster and helping bring down premiums.

This year, workers’ compensation has taken a central role in the legislative session because the system is bleeding money.

Gov. Chris Gregoire, the head of the state Department of Labor and Industries and the state auditor have said the system was headed toward bankruptcy. The auditor’s office said in December that the state’s fund for workers’ compensation had a 95 percent chance of becoming insolvent in the next five years.

The major expenses of the system came from only 8 percent of all claims, which involve workers who are receiving benefits for a prolonged period of time or have lifetime pensions. That section of workers represents 85 percent of the compensation costs, according to the state labor department that manages workers’ compensation.

The measure approved Saturday was a deal worked out between Senate Republicans and Democrats, amending the governor’s bill to include the option of a voluntary settlement in case of an injury at the workplace. Supporters said most states have such an option.

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