Naked City

Workers' Compensation Gets Worked Over

March 31 saw the passage of HB 7 at the Lege, a bill destined to radically change workers' compensation. Authored by Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, two Dems, and another Republican, the bill seeks to get a handle on "untenable" costs afflicting workers' comp, resulting in employees being dropped from the system.

"The Sunset Commission found that the basic regulatory structure for workers' compensation in Texas has not proven effective for injured workers, or efficient for employers and insurance carriers providing services to Texas businesses," says the bill analysis. "The workers' compensation system has produced rapidly rising medical costs that are higher than the national average, slow and expensive health-care services, and a lack of success in returning injured workers to gainful employment."

To this end, the Texas Workers' Compensation Commission will be abolished, with its powers shifted to the Texas Department of Insurance in late February of next year. TDI will also oversee the federal Occupational Safety and Health Consultation Program as well as information co-llection of workplace accidents. (A maintenance tax on workers' compensation insurance carriers will fund the program, according to the analysis.) Basically, the state is attempting to save workers' compensation by destroying the current workers' comp system.

Surprisingly, many of the provisions in the House bill aren't completely at odds with organized labor. Ed Sills, Texas AFL-CIO communications director, stated in a bulletin that "[s]everal amendments improved the bill as it came out of committee, and none of the amendments appears to be a major setback for working people."

One of the bill's more contentious provisions involves doctor choice. Co-author Helen Giddings' Amendments 21 and 22 allow individuals to keep their own prior primary care physician if they have a pre-existing relationship and their doctor is part of an HMO. On the House floor, the Dallas Dem said it gives workers "more choice." Some insidious aspects of the legislation were kept at bay, including an amendment from Rep. Jim Solis, D-Harlingen, which would have allowed employers access to an employee's injury history without their consent.

Not all aspects of the legislation passed. El Paso Rep. Paul Moreno's hope to include farm workers in the compensation system fell on the floor, for example.

With the 79th Legislature passing the half-way mark, HB 7 seems destined for a duel with the Senate's SB 5, a similar deconstruction of workers' compensation. The following weeks will see whether the east or west corridor of the Capitol prevails.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Texas Legislature, HB 7, Burt Solomons, The Sunset Commission, Texas Workers' Compensation Commission, Texas Department of Insurance, Occupational Safety and Health Consultation Program, Ed Sills, Helen Giddings, Jim Solis, Paul Moreno, SB 5

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