Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Weekly Opinion/Editorial
By Steve Fair

Oklahoma Trial lawyers have come up with a clever way to contribute to political candidates. After an award settlement, they simply deduct some of the proceeds from their client’s award and write a check to an Oklahoma State Political Action Committee called Working Oklahomans Alliance. One lady said her attorney handed her a Working Oklahomans Alliance membership card "and told me I was a member. He had already subtracted it out of my check, so what was I to do?”

This practice is nothing new. Five years ago, The Oklahoman wrote about workers' compensation attorneys using donations from their clients to pad a fund that bankrolls liberal political causes and Democrat candidates. The donations were strictly voluntary, the attorneys claimed but their clients whose names appeared on the contribution cards said they felt pressured to do so, and others had no idea they had donated. This practice sounds a little like Stipe/Phipps/Mass/McMahan straw donor scheme. A though investigation should be pursued by the AG in Oklahoma, but don’t hold your breath. He may have come up with the scheme. Why are the lawyers so interested in keeping the Democrats in office? Because they don't believe the current system is broken.
Who governs workers comp in Oklahoma and who selects those that do?

The current Oklahoma's workers' compensation system is governed by the body of law found in Title 85 of the Oklahoma Statutes. This law provides for medical, indemnity and rehabilitation benefits to injured workers. Currently injured workers hire a lawyer to represent them before the Workers Compensation court.

The Oklahoma Workers' Compensation Court administers the Workers' Compensation Act. It is vested with jurisdiction to determine claims for compensation, the liability of employers and insurers, and any rights asserted under the Act. The Court's mission is to ensure fair and timely procedures for the informal and formal resolution of disputes and identify issues involving work-related injuries.

The Court is comprised of ten judges appointed by the Governor from nominees, including the incumbent judge, if any, presented by the Judicial Nominating Commission. Judges serve staggered six-year terms. A judge may be appointed to successive terms. A Presiding Judge is appointed by the Governor from among the Court's judges to serve a two-year term. Awards of the Court are final and conclusive unless appealed to a panel of three Workers' Compensation Court judges unrelated to the case, or directly to the Supreme Court. An order of the three-judge panel may be appealed to the Supreme Court.

The chief administrative officer of the court is an Administrator who, until 2005, was appointed by the Presiding Judge from a list submitted by a five-member selection committee. Thereafter, a vacancy in the position is subject to gubernatorial appointment for a six-year term. The Administrator supervises all departments of the Court. Departments include Docketing, Order Writing, Data Processing, Records, Medical Services, Insurance, Counselors, Form 3 Processing, and the Court Clerk's Office.

Because Oklahoma is one of only two states still settling workers comp disputes before a court, Republicans in the State Legislature have worked for decades to reform the system. Senator Jim Williamson, R-Tulsa, introduced a bill that would have required the State Senate confirm those nominated to the court by the Governor. The bill sailed through the State House, but hit a snag in the Senate.

In April of this year, because the Senate was tied at 24, Lt. Gov. Jari Askins broke the tie and helped Senate Democrats block consideration of Williamson’s bill. This highlights once again the importance of the 2008 election cycle for both Republicans and Democrats. The tie will likely change the Senate in November- ether back to the Democrats control or the Republicans will control the Senate for the first time in state history.

According to State GOP Chairman Gary Jones, "the Workers Comp Court is currently set up just the way Brad Henry likes it: stacked with anti-business pro-trial lawyer judges." Williamson's amendment would've brought balance and fairness by requiring Senate confirmation of the judges appointed to this critical court in Oklahoma, but unfortunately Lt. Gov. Askins and Gov. Henry have once again shown their true colors by putting the interests of trial lawyers ahead of the interests of everyday Oklahoma taxpayers," concluded Jones.

Texas enacted workers’ compensation reform in 2005. The bill addressed specific problems in the Texas workers' comp system, namely, high medical costs, poor return-to-work outcomes, and the structure of the state agency charged with administering the system. HB 7 transferred the functions of the Texas Workers' Compensation Commission (TWCC) to the newly created Division of Workers' Compensation at the Texas Department of Insurance (TDI)

The idea of moving to an administrative board to settle worker comp disputes has been proposed in Oklahoma for years. But Republicans have met major resistance from the Trial Lawyer lobby. What’s really at stack is the future payoffs for Trial Lawyers. They are unwilling to give up the workers comp income stream. The Governor is on their side and will do everything in his power to keep the disputed claims in a court he stacks. The loser in those circumstances is the Oklahoma consumer, who will pay more for goods and services due to the higher workers comp premiums paid by Oklahoma businesses.

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