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House tweaks Senate compromise in workers' compensation bill

February 24, 2005
By: Chris Blank
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - As a result of a House committee's significant changes to a Senate bill tightening workers' compensation eligibility requirements, one lawmaker warned Missouri workers to, "don't get hurt, don't get hurt, do not get hurt,"

Rep. Tom George, D-St. Louis County, said the House version would increase the involvement of lawyers while politicizing the role of the judges that hear workers' compensation cases.

Republican supporters have said reducing the need for lawyers was one of the aims of the bill.

Repeating many of the objections of Senate Democrats when the bill passed the Senate earlier this month, George said changes to the system must include workers, employees and insurance companies.

"You cannot just take one part of it and put it all on the worker that he's going to get less of a settlement or anything along those lines, and that's what they're trying to do," he said.

But supporters said lawyers would only be required for frivolous cases that the worker should not win.

"It's a little bit of a red herring to saying that will create more lawsuits," Rep. Todd Smith, R-Sedalia, said. "I think that if it's fraudulent or frivolous claim, the attorney will have to question if he wants to take that case."

The House makes significant changes to the language crafted after serious negotiations between a handful of senators. Lawmakers, however, said that some of these negotiations could be returned to the bill during an expected conference committee to work out the expected differences in the Senate and House version.

The Senate version is expected to be the basis of the conference negotiations.

"This bill is just too extreme," Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis County, said. "It's a blatant attack for an injured worker not to be compensated while injured. And hopefully, they will change their tune while it's debated through the House."

Sen. John Loudon, R-St. Louis County, said that despite the House's changes, the Senate compromise was still intact.

"Now there are some things that maybe (Green) didn't want in that the House would really like to see in, and that's typical," Loudon said. "The House is always able to do a stronger or more overreaching version of a bill, and the Senate is always going to be the moderating body."

Among the changes are provisions allowing employers to require workers to use paid leave to seek treatment, that would reduce the fees attorneys can collect for injured workers, that would require gubernatorial appointment and Senate confirmation for these judges and would also bar workers from simultaneously collected workers' compensation payments with unemployment compensation or workers' compensation from other states.

While Democrats said the system would suffer under the politicization of the process resulting from Senate confirmation of the judges, Republican lawmakers said the system already is political.

"I don't think you're going to see people rejected because of party affiliation, but if you see someone that has a horrible track record, I think it's legitimate for the Senate to be able to question them on that," Smith said. "Right now, it can very easily be argued that it's political."

The House Rules Committee will set time parameters for floor debate next week.