Archive for Monday, March 13, 2006

Fight in the making over legislation that could limit claims on workers’ comp

March 13, 2006

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— A workers' compensation battle brewing in the Legislature pits employer groups against injured workers, defense attorneys against plaintiff's attorneys and Republicans against Democrats.

And it promises to get ugly.

"This is a dreadful way to make public policy," Rep. Candy Ruff, D-Leavenworth, said.

The dispute is over the business-sponsored Senate Bill 461, which would expand the definition of pre-existing conditions that would in some cases lead to reduced benefits for injured workers.

The measure has been approved by the full Senate and a House committee and is expected to be fought on the floor of the House soon.

Business groups and insurance companies say they need the bill so that when a worker is injured they don't have to pay for the impairment caused by injuries that happened in the past and were unrelated to work, such as a high school football injury.

"The Kansas Legislature never intended for employers to bear the full financial responsibility for the employees' pre-existing conditions," Doug Hobbs, with the Kansas Self-Insurers Assn, said.

But labor groups, trial attorneys, and injured workers say the bill goes too far.

They say benefits could be reduced or eliminated because of pre-existing conditions even if they were caused by job-related wear and tear on the body injuries that were previously unknown and had never been reported.

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For example, firefighters routinely carry heavy loads, such as equipment and protective clothing, that over time could lead to degenerative bone conditions.

"Working under these conditions, firefighters have suffered many injuries over the years that are never reported but may lead to a more serious injury," Dennis Phillips of the Kansas State Council of Fire Fighters said. "Under Senate Bill 461, these could be held against them as a pre-existing condition," he said.

On Friday, the House Commerce and Labor Committee recommended approval of the measure on a 10 -7 vote. All 10 votes were from Republicans, while the seven votes were from six Democrats and one Republican.

Labor also is upset because they see the bill as a raw power play by business interests since workers' compensation benefits to injured workers in Kansas rank 45th in the nation, while premiums paid by employers are the sixth lowest nationally.

But business and insurance interests said it's a fairness issue employers shouldn't have to cover injuries that employees sustained in the past.

Both sides conceded that if the bill were to become law, it could lead to more litigation in workers' compensation cases because the stakes would be higher in determining pre-existing conditions.

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