The legacy of the late State Senator Gene Stipe may be coming to an end. For fifty four years, every piece of workers’ comp legislation (and most other legislation) had to be blessed by Stipe, a Democrat from McAlester before it was passed and signed into law. What was even more bizarre was Stipe’s law firm was one of the most active in representing workers’ comp cases in the state. Can you say ‘conflict of interest?’
During his tenure in the Senate, Stipe worked to construct a workers comp system that kept lawyers involved. For over fifty years, companies looking to locate to the state would cite Oklahoma’s high workers comp premiums as a primary reason they wouldn’t build a plant or distribution center in the state.
As far back as the mid 1970s, Oklahoma legislators were calling for an ‘administrative system’ that would get the attorneys out of workers comp. In a 1976 editorial, The Oklahoman said Stipe had been the “author of every major piece of workers comp since 1949. “ They went on to say Oklahoma needed to get the lawyers out of the system.
In an article in The Oklahoman in 1985, Ed Estes, plant manager of Uniroyal in Ardmore, was quoted as saying during an appearance before a legislative committee; “It’s(Worker Comp) an impediment to getting new industry into the state. My plants safety improved 33% but our workers compensation costs went up 58%.
The Oklahoma legislature has been nibbling around the edges of workers compensation reform for years, but it appears real workers comp reform may be in sight. On Monday Senate President Pro Tempore Brian Bingman, (R-Sapulpa) and State Senator Anthony Sykes, (R-Moore) unveiled SB #1062 which if signed into law would move Oklahoma to a workers comp system similar to that found in Arkansas.
The bill is titled, ‘The Administrative Workers’ Compensation Act,’ and would reduce the cost of workers’ compensation premiums to employers and make sure injured workers receive quality medical care in a timely manner by implementing an administrative system.
Bingman described Oklahoma’s workers’ compensation costs as a drag on Oklahoma’s economy. “The biggest roadblock to a stronger economy in Oklahoma is our adversarial workers’ compensation system,” said Bingman, R-Sapulpa. “Worse yet, our adversarial system doesn’t do a very good job of helping injured workers get the care they need to get healed and back to work. The system is designed to reward trial lawyers for dragging cases out and delaying outcomes as long as possible.”
Sykes, chair of the Judiciary Committee and co-author of the measure, learned first-hand about the benefits of an administrative system on a fact-finding trip to Arkansas. “The Arkansas system is a model for states that want a system designed to help injured workers get the care they need without delay,” said Sykes. “Oklahoma’s small business owners care about their employees, and they know they wouldn’t be successful without them. I believe this system is the right solution for employees, and it’s good for business.”
According to a recent national survey of workers comp systems, Oklahoma employers pay 2.8% of their payroll for workers compensation insurance. In Arkansas, employers pay less than half that- 1.2%. Oklahoma’s workers comp premium rates are nearly 50% more than national average.
Bingman said in addition to reducing costs for business, SB 1062 will generate better outcomes for injured workers. An administrative system will resolve cases based on an evaluation of the merits of the case and objective medical evidence. Under the current judicial system, employees are often pitted against their employer in litigation proceedings characterized by dueling trial lawyers and dueling doctors.