Arkansas' workers comp system could be a model for the state
BY RANDY KREHBIEL World Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 25, 2012
12/25/12 at 7:06 AM
Find resources on
the state’s workers
system, a searchable
For years, Oklahomans have heard how much better business conditions are in Texas.
In 2013, we're likely to hear the same thing about Arkansas.
An October report by the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services rated Arkansas' workers compensation insurance premiums third-lowest in the U.S. The same report ranked Oklahoma's premiums sixth-highest.
So, with workers comp again high on the Republican-controlled Legislature's list of priorities, Arkansas is getting a close look from business and legislative leadership.
"There's too much litigation in Oklahoma," said Allyn "Lyn" Tatum, a former Arkansas Workers Compensation Commission chairman and Tyson Foods executive.
"In Arkansas," said Tatum, "the incentive is for employers to put employees back to work, and for employees to go back to work."
Arkansas completely changed its workers compensation system in the early 1990s, going from a court system similar to Oklahoma's to an administrative form that is, at least in theory, less adversarial. Workers compensation costs have dropped steadily since, with the Oregon study pegging Arkansas' premiums at 63 percent of the national median.
Oklahoma's rates, by comparison, are at 147 percent.
Tatum, now a private consultant, says Arkansas has better outcomes for employers and workers.
"The only successful workers comp program is one that puts the employee back to work," he said. "If it doesn't put the employee back to work, the employee is going to lose."
He said workers compensation court intensifies hard feelings and causes "delays getting back to work."
Others, though, say workers' rights have eroded substantially since the reforms of 20 years ago, and continue to do so today.
"They've pretty much gutted workers comp for the workers," said Alan Hughes, president of the Arkansas AFL-CIO.
"Right now, people feel like the system is set up to fail them. It's hard to get a lawyer. There are so many hoops you have to go through to treatment."
Mike Boyd, a workers compensation lawyer in Magnolia, Ark., said attorneys are barred from receiving compensation for representing workers seeking medical treatment only. By law, Boyd said, lawyers can only be paid from indemnity payments.
"The insurance can't pay you. The workers comp claimant can't pay you," said Boyd.
The result is that few medical cases are filed, said Boyd.
"For medical only, it's tremendously difficult to find an attorney to represent you," he said.
Replacing Oklahoma's workers compensation courts with an administrative system seems to be gaining momentum. Legislative leaders have indicated interest in the idea, and Labor Commissioner Mark Costello is a firm supporter of the transition.
Many of those favoring the switch say it will benefit employers and employees by diminishing the financial stake of workers comp lawyers.
"An administrative system would be the death knell of injured workers' rights," said Donald Smolen II, a Tulsa workers compensation lawyer.
"Yeah, the cost to employers might be less, but it's because they're screwing the workers over," said Smolen.
Tatum said that is not the case in Arkansas.
"You can always find exceptions," he said. "The lawyers clearly are unhappy."
"There's a reason employees have to hire attorneys," said Smolen. "It's because the employers and the insurance companies don't do what they're supposed to do."
Original Print Headline: State likely to look at Ark. workers comp system
Randy Krehbiel 918-581-8365