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Workers' Comp bill passes House

March 02, 2005
By: Ben Welsh
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - A reduction in the number of injures covered under Missouri's workers' compensation law won approval from the House Wednesday.

The measure passed 90-66 in the Republican controlled chamber in a vote that broke mostly down party lines.

House Republicans discarded the concessions won by Senate Democrats last month and added several more measures sought by business interests.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. John Loudon (R-St. Louis County), said he plans to work out the differences in a conference committee.

If a committee is called, five members of each chamber will meet to develop a compromise. An identical bill must pass both chambers before the governor may sign it into law.

Sen. Tim Green (D-St. Louis County) was one of the bill's most vocal opponents in the Senate. He said much of the House language was unacceptable.

"It has a lot of devastating words in it that could make it more difficult for the injured worker to receive just compensation," Green said.

The legislation would tighten the definition of what qualifies for workers' compensation. Only those injuries where the job is deemed to be the "prevailing" cause would earn benefits. Heart attacks at the workplace or car accidents while driving a company car would not qualify.

In addition to reducing the number of injuries which qualify, the House bill would:

>Allow an employer to make their employees use vacation or sick days to take time off for treatment.

>Disqualify a worker fired for "post-injury misconduct" from receiving compensation.

>Require complaints of pain be certified as "objective" by a physician before they are admissible in court.

>Reduce the fees lawyers for injured workers can collect. Supporters say this will reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits bogging down the courts. Opponents argue it will remove the incentive for lawyers to represent poor clients.

>Force injured workers who are found to be in violation of their employer's drug or alcohol policy at the time of their injury to forfeit the right to compensation.

>Establish 12 year terms for workers' comp judges, who now serve for life. Conduct annual audits of their performance and increase the total number of judges to 40, who in the future would be appointed by the governor and require Senate approval before they take the bench.

Supporters say reform is necessary to fix a costly system they say is scaring businesses away from Missouri.

"I think we need to pull out the legitimately injured from those who are faking it," Loudon said. The senator said he was not a "big fan" of term limits for judges but he was keeping an open mind going into conference committee.

Opponents argue that it's a hand out to insurance companies that does little to help a legitimately injured worker.

"All of the stakeholders on one side of the issue have taken hold of the process," said Rep. John Burnett (D-Jackson County).

House lawmakers moved workers' comp from committee to a floor vote in one week. Supporters said that while they had not been directly pressured by Gov. Matt Blunt to push through a bill he has long favored, they had been getting the message.

"The governor said he was looking for real leadership," Loudon said. "I think there is a sense he wants something on this before spring break."

The Legislature will take an 12 day recess beginning on March 17.