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Joint committee works on work comp, GOP finetunes its legislation

March 14, 2005
By: Ben Welsh
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - House and Senate lawmakers met Monday and ironed out differences in two bills that would fundamentally rewrite Missouri's workers' compensation law.

The legislation would tighten the definition of what qualifies for workers' compensation. Benefits would be awarded only when a job is deemed to be the "prevailing" cause of injury. Heart attacks at the workplace or car accidents while driving in a company car would not qualify.

It would also increase the burden of proof placed on workers who claim injury and step up the scrutiny given to the system's judges. The measure is supported by the insurance industry and business interests while opposed by unions and workers groups.

Differing versions have passed both chambers in recent weeks. The new compromise must now pass both chambers before Gov. Matt Blunt, who has made no secret of his support, can sign the measure into law.

The proceedings Monday were controlled by the Republican majority. The bill's sponsor, Sen. John Loudon (R-Ballwin), rolled out a new version that tread the line between the differing bills which passed the Republican-controlled House and Senate. The remainder of the hearing was spent rebuffing Democratic efforts to change the legislation.

In addition to reducing the number of injuries that qualify for compensation, the new bill would:

--Allow employers to make their employees use vacation or sick days to be tested for injury.

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

--Reduce the amount a worker can collect if they are injured while in violation of safety regulations.

--Limit the fees lawyers for injured workers can collect.

--Require a strict interpretation of the workers' comp laws and place the burden of proof on the injured employee.

--Increase the number of workers' comp judges to from 26 to 40 and create a review process that would allow for a panel to vote judges off the bench. Workers' comp judges now serve for life.

Republicans say the changes are necessary to cut down on fraud and reduce the number of cases that end up in costly litigation. They say the new laws will make Missouri more attractive to businesses.

"The point of this is to change the definition and say that we really mean it," said Sen. Michael Gibbons, (R-St. Louis County)

Democrats called the bill "gotcha" legislation that puts too much pressure on legitimately injured workers. They say it will allow Republican Gov. Matt Blunt to pack the courts with business friendly judges.

"What about when you have bad employers," asked Sen. Victor Callahan (D-Jackson County). "We're radically changing the law on one side and then radically changing the protection on the other."

The ten-member committee was made up of three Republicans and two Democrats from each chamber. It passed on a 6-4 vote that broke down party lines.

The bill is SB1 and 130.