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House Republicans gut Senate compromises on Workers' Comp

February 23, 2005
By: Ben Welsh
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - House Republicans want it their way on workers' comp.

By introducing a substitute bill that erases compromises made in the Senate and inserting several changes desired by business interests, Republicans reasserted their control over workers' compensation legislation at a hearing held Wednesday.

Like the bill which passed the Senate two weeks ago, the House proposal would narrow what qualifies for workers' comp to injuries where the job is determined to be the "prevailing" cause. Left out would be those workers who aggravate a previous injury, suffer from an ailment deemed to be caused by the aging process or get in an accident while driving to work in a company car.

The House substitute removes Senate amendments that stiffened the penalties on companies who defraud workers and erases several concessions won by Senate Democrats to soften the bill.

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, rehabilitation or evaluation.

> Disqualify a worker fired for "post-injury misconduct" from receiving compensation. A Senate amendment that banned the firing of workers who claim their injury keeps them at home on the grounds that they did not show up for work was removed.

> 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 mean more money for the injured worker. 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.

> Require workers to submit written notice of their injury within thirty days or risk being disqualified.

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

The committee substitute for the Senate bill, SB 1 & 130, is sponsored by chairman Steve Hunter, R-Joplin, and cosponsored by more than two dozen other House Republicans, including Speaker Rod Jetton.

Supporters at the hearing said reform is necessary to fix a broken system and make Missouri more business friendly. Detractors described the bill as a gift to big business that does little to address the system's real problems.

Hunter said he expected to vote it out of the Republican controlled committee today. If passed the bill could reach the House floor for debate as early as next week.