‘Framework’ Bill on Workers’ Injuries Approved by Panel
A heavily lobbied, much-amended bill to transform the state’s $8-billion injured workers program was approved Wednesday by the Assembly Finance and Insurance Committee.
The bill, the result of more than 40 hours of public hearings conducted by a special subcommittee formed to draft the legislation, won committee approval on a 12-1 vote. Most committee members conditioned their support on a satisfactory conclusion to negotiations between labor, business groups, lawyer organizations and legislators.
Assemblyman Burt Margolin (D-Los Angeles), the author of the bill, said he considers the vote an important step because it contains “the framework for a compromise.”
“This bill has so many important components that we just could not work them all out. Legislative deadlines are forcing us to move the bill forward even though it is still incomplete,” Margolin said.
The bill, as it was originally introduced, was backed by Gov. George Deukmejian, the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, and a coalition of many of the state’s largest corporations organized as Californians for Compensation Reform.
With numerous amendments already made and many more said to be on the way, nearly all of those groups were withholding support.
Jose Hermocillo, legal counsel for Californians for Compensation Reform, said: “There is a lot of work that still has to be done. No one is satisfied with the bill in its present form.”
One of the principal objectives of the bill is to raise weekly benefits for workers from the current minimum of $112 a week and maximum of $224.
The benefits have remained static since 1982, the result of efforts by employers to enact reforms they say are necessary to keep a lid on the soaring costs of the workers’ compensation system.
Under the Margolin bill, within three years of enactment the maximum weekly benefit would be raised in increments up to 100% of a statewide average weekly wage. The maximum benefit, based on average weekly wages earned by California workers over a three-year period, would increase to an estimated $511.
Employers would bear the cost of the increase in benefits--about $2 billion over the three years.
In return, employers are asking for several concessions.
Employers want to make it harder for workers to receive benefits for hard-to-diagnose injuries such as psychological stress and lower back pain. They want to end such practices as “doctor shopping” in which workers search out physicians who specialize in workers’ compensation cases and can be counted on to give favorable medical evaluations.
Margolin said provisions of the bill dealing with stress claims are one of the key areas that remain to be worked out. As it stands, the bill would set up a system of impartial medical evaluators who would conduct examinations of injured workers.
Also still to be worked out are provisions dealing with vocational rehabilitation. Opponents of the bill claim that employers want injured workers for the first time to bear a significant share of the costs of rehabilitation.
Amendments to the bill Thursday would require an injured worker to choose to have his injury evaluated from a doctor selected from a panel of four, rather than six, state-appointed physicians.
Another amendment would allow the doctors chosen for evaluation panels to serve four-year terms. Originally, employer groups wanted to limit the length of service on panels to two years.