Rep. Mike Sells didn't mince words. The Everett Democrat doesn't plan to allow a hearing in his committee on a state Senate bill that would allow settlements for injured workers under the state's compensation system.
“It’s not a well-written bill,” Sells said this past week, arguing that a House package is a better way to save the embattled system money.
Sells’ statement is the latest skirmish in the fight over fixing the state’s workers compensation system, a permanent battleground between business and labor interests that has taken a central role in the Legislature after a state audit last year pegged parts of the system as insolvent.
Workers comp in Washington is a state-provided insurance system in which businesses pay premiums, although some large companies choose to self-insure. If a worker is injured on the job, they can file claims for workers compensation and receive money while they heal.
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Last year, voters soundly declined to privatize the system, defeating a business-backed initiative with nearly 60 percent of the vote.
Gov. Chris Gregoire is pushing changes to the system, and backed a middle-of-the-road approach at the beginning of the session.
After weeks of negotiations, the Senate passed a bill earlier this month that included an option to make lump-sum payments for permanently disabled workers — a major priority for the business lobby — during a weekend voting day earlier this month.
But hours later, the House unveiled its approach: A package of bills that cover several aspects to the system. Put together, the bills aren’t major overhauls, but nips and tucks to try to save money and streamline some of the process. Overall, House leadership says their bills would save about $150 million during the next five years.
“We think that taking those pieces and doing all the things we’re doing will save you more money in the short run and in the long run,” Sells said, adding that the workers compensation system is complicated and taking pieces of it and working on those better serves to inform lawmakers and the public.
The estimated savings from the House proposals would be on top of an estimated $200 million in savings expected in the next four years to come from expanding a medical provider network — an aspect of the system that was agreed upon by all stakeholders. Gregoire signed a bill earlier this month. Among the bills proposed by the House to fix the system include proposals to close companies during investigations; streamline appeals for cited companies; stricter accident prevention rules and new oversight measures for employers.
House lawmakers also approved a proposal that subsidizes 50 percent of a recovering worker’s wages for more than two months to encourage a return to the job; a similar proposal is included in the Senate bill.
The House also reluctantly approved a bill that would allow certain business groups to manage their own claims — a bill opposed by labor and business groups. The measure — so called the “retro” bill in reference to the business groups affected — also is receiving a lukewarm response in the Senate.
Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, chair of the Senate’s labor committee, said she hasn’t decided if she will hold a hearing on the retro bill. Most other House bills are moving forward, she said.
The system had about $499 million in reserves as of Dec. 31, the last figure available through the Department of Labor & Industries. That figure represents the sum of the medical fund of the system, which stands at nearly $709 million; the accident liability fund that is in the red for $275 million; and the pension fund that currently stands at $65 million.