By PHIL DRAKE
A House Republican said Thursday he is working on a new version of a workers’ compensation reform bill because the proposal crafted by a committee that spent four years looking at the issue needs to make deeper cuts.
Rep. Scott Reichner, R-Bigfork, complimented the work done by the Labor-Management Advisory Council to reform workers’ compensation in this state but added the House Republican caucus wanted “to take a bigger bite of the apple.”
“We are not discouraging any bills at this moment,” he said. “We appreciate what they (LMAC) have done.”
But he said Montana had the highest workers’ compensation rates in the country and deeper cuts need to be made to lure new businesses and help current employers. He said the caucus would take what was good in the LMAC bill and blend it into a new proposal.
LMAC consists of labor and management representatives and was formed in 2006 to look into solutions for reforming Montana’s workers’ compensation system. The bill covers new fee schedules for doctors, a statutory closure of claims after three years and the implementation of treatment guidelines. LMAC estimates savings of $131 million. Some projections have the savings as much lower.
Montana, which had been ranked No. 2 in the 2008 Oregon Workers’ Compensation Premium Rate Ranking Summary, took the top spot in 2010. Alaska was No. 1 in the 2008 study and ranked as No. 2 in 2010.
Although Montana is ranked No. 1, for the past five years it has paid less for workers’ compensation rates. In 2008, Montana paid $356 million in Workers’ Compensation premiums and $324 million in 2009.
Upon learning that the House GOP would not support the current bill, LMAC decided to introduce its bill in the Senate first in the hopes it will be moved on to the House and passed.
The bill has hit a few snags as it nears the legislative session which starts Jan. 3. Members of the Montana Medical Association (MMA) and Montana Hospital Association (MHA) have said it will shortchange their members on paying for services provided and would likely drive some from participating in treating workers’ compensation patients. The formula used to figure out payment distribution has also been questioned. LMAC members plan to work on the kinks well into the legislative session.
LMAC Chairman Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger told panel members Wednesday about the House GOP decision. “It’s unfortunate that people with limited background have made that declaration,” Bohlinger, a Republican who serves with a Democratic governor, said.
Bohlinger said Republicans, Democrats, labor and management compromised on the bill as they sought middle ground.
“They crafted public policy that is fair and balanced,” he said. “I’m hopeful that the four-year effort will be honored by the Legislature.”
But Reichner said the Nov. 2 election that brought a Republican majority to the House “meant something.”
“We’re focused on job creation in this session,” he said. “One way to create jobs is to decrease the deterrent of high workers’ compensation.
“It’s time to make broader changes to workers’ comp than we have now.”
Reichner said the new bill would have portions of the LMAC proposal. He said he was not looking for a plan that would make Montana the cheapest in the nation, but to be competitive in regional numbers with Wyoming, Idaho, Utah and North and South Dakota.
He said the bill would require some big sacrifices for all parties involved.