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Workers’ comp rework unveiled

Democrats’ plan includes lump sum

Manuel Valdes Associated Press

OLYMPIA – A group of eight House Democrats unveiled a proposal Tuesday to reform the state’s workers’ compensation system, keeping the thorny issue of settlements but making several changes to a broader Senate measure.

The group’s plan builds off a business-backed measure approved by the Senate that allows the options of lump sum settlements to claims made by injured workers.

Backers say the Senate bill would save hundreds of millions of dollars. But labor groups have steadfastly opposed any kind of lump sum settlements.

Tuesday’s proposal was also opposed by organized labor officials, who have argued that settlements wouldn’t fully compensate a worker injured on the job.

The proposal is the latest in a session-long fight to reform the workers’ compensation system.

Gov. Chris Gregoire and Senate and House leaders have made reforming the state’s system for injured workers a priority after the state auditor’s office last year said reserves were at risk of insolvency.

Gregoire has said she wants savings enacted this year to avoid a hike in the payments businesses are required to pay into the system.

Under the moderate plan, settlements from medical claims are eliminated – a provision that was included in the Senate bill.

The plan also enhances safeguards for workers who can’t afford a lawyer and asks for a study to be completed after three years to assess the plan.

The Senate bill would bring an estimated savings of $1.2 billion over the next two years, according to state officials. There were no estimates on how much money the moderate proposal would save the system.

An older package of bills that has stalled in the House would freeze cost of living allowances for a year and stop injured workers who receive total-disability pensions from receiving partial disability benefits. The measures have a projected savings of about $500 million in the next six years.

About 85 percent of compensation costs come from only 8 percent of all claims, which involve workers who are receiving benefits for a prolonged period or have lifetime pensions, according to the Department of Labor and Industries.

To curb those costs, business has backed the settlement option.

The moderate plan is a good proposal that preserves the essential elements of the Senate bill “but also adds even more protections for injured workers, which seemed to be the main concern of the bill’s opponents,” said Kris Tefft of the Association of Washington Business.

But the odds that the Senate bill or the House moderates’ proposal would make it to a floor vote were uncertain. The moderate Democrats would need to win the support of every House Republican before such a vote could take place on their plan.

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