Legislature(2005 - 2006)
2005-02-25 House JournalFull Journal pdf
2005-02-25 House Journal Page 0429 HB 180 HOUSE BILL NO. 180 by the House Rules Committee by request of the Governor, entitled: "An Act relating to a special deposit for workers' compensation and employers' liability insurers; relating to assigned risk pools; relating to workers' compensation insurers; stating the intent of the legislature, and setting out limitations, concerning the interpretation, construction, and implementation of workers' compensation laws; relating to the Alaska Workers' Compensation Board; establishing a division of workers' compensation within the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, assigning certain Alaska Workers' Compensation Board functions to the division and the department, and authorizing the board to delegate administrative and enforcement duties to the division; establishing a Workers' Compensation Appeals Commission; providing for workers' compensation hearing officers in workers' compensation proceedings; relating to workers' compensation medical benefits and to charges for and payment of fees for the medical benefits; relating to agreements that discharge workers' compensation liability; relating to workers' compensation awards; relating to 2005-02-25 House Journal Page 0430 reemployment benefits and job dislocation benefits; relating to coordination of workers' compensation and certain disability benefits; relating to division of workers' compensation records; relating to release of treatment records; relating to an employer's failure to insure and keep insured or provide security; providing for appeals from compensation orders; relating to workers' compensation proceedings; providing for supreme court jurisdiction of appeals from the Workers' Compensation Appeals Commission; providing for a maximum amount for the cost-of- living adjustment for workers' compensation benefits; relating to attorney fees; providing for the department to enter into contracts with nonprofit organizations to provide information services and legal representation to injured employees; providing for administrative penalties for employers uninsured or without adequate security for workers' compensation; relating to fraudulent acts or false or misleading statements in workers' compensation and penalties for the acts or statements; providing for members of a limited liability company to be included as an employee for purposes of workers' compensation; establishing a workers' compensation benefits guaranty fund; relating to the second injury fund; making conforming amendments; providing for a study and report by the medical services review committee; and providing for an effective date." was read the first time and referred to the Labor & Commerce, Judiciary, and Finance Committees. The following fiscal note(s) apply: 1. Zero, Dept. of Commerce, Community, & Economic Development 2. Indeterminate, Dept. of Administration 3. Fiscal, Dept. of Law 4. Fiscal, Dept. of Labor & Workforce Development The Governor's transmittal letter dated February 24, 2005, follows: "Dear Speaker Harris: Under the authority of article III, section 18, of the Alaska Constitution, I am transmitting a bill related to the workers' 2005-02-25 House Journal Page 0431 compensation system. This bill proposes discrete improvements to the current system. The goal of these changes is to increase the efficiency and flexibility of the current system, and significantly reduce some of its costs, in order to ensure that benefits will continue to be available in substantially the same form they are today without stifling employment opportunities. The Legislature has consistently striven to have our workers' compensation system quickly and efficiently deliver fair and predictable benefits to injured workers at a reasonable cost to their employers. Despite those efforts, the current system has not kept pace with the pressures caused by a growing, ever-changing workforce and rising medical costs. In response to complaints regarding delays in resolution of claims and the increasing costs of maintaining the current system, the enclosed bill proposes improvements to several areas. A significant change proposed in this bill is the creation of a workers' compensation appeals commission. Currently, appeals from Alaska Workers' Compensation Board decisions are heard on a rotating basis by individual superior court judges. The bill proposes to have appeals heard by a five-member commission. This commission, like the board itself, would consist of both lay members representing workers and employers as well as a chair with legal training and workers' compensation experience. Appeals would be heard by a panel both knowledgeable in workers' compensation matters and available to produce consistent, legally precedential decisions in an expeditious manner. The bill also places increased responsibility for oversight of the system in the hands of the workers' compensation division. The bill would increase the division's ability to investigate fraudulent claims, pursue employers who fail to provide coverage for their employees, and oversee medical costs. Under the current system the division must refer suspected fraudulent claims to other state agencies for investigation. Under this bill, the division would be able to investigate fraudulent claims on its own. The bill would also allow the division to investigate and quickly close down employers who attempt to operate without workers' compensation coverage. The board is then empowered to assess fines for failing to insure and the bill creates a 2005-02-25 House Journal Page 0432 fund to receive those fines and use them to pay benefits to injured workers whose employers failed to insure. In addition, the bill gives the division additional authority to address medical costs that are now approaching 60 percent of every workers' compensation benefit dollar paid in Alaska. Under this bill, the Commissioner of the Department of Labor and Workforce Development is authorized to empanel a medical services committee. The committee will review the medical benefit delivery system including current charges, as well as the causes for the sharp rise in charges and possible solutions, and make recommendations for appropriate improvements. The committee is charged with reporting its findings and recommendations by March 1, 2007; sufficient time for a thorough study of the costs and appropriateness of the delivery system. To address the immediate impacts of the recent premium increases and rising direct costs to self-insured businesses, the bill "rolls back" maximum payments to those under the medical fee schedule in effect on December 15, 1999. The bill also authorizes the division to develop a preferred drug list and establishes a statutory preference for generic drugs unless a worker's physician specifies a name brand drug for medical reasons. The division is assisted in this endeavor by input from employers, insurers, providers, and the use of national, peer-reviewed medical treatment guidelines. Under the current bill, employers, insurers, and providers may agree to charges for services in advance. Workers would be under no obligation to select a physician from this preferred provider list but the rates for these providers' services would be established by contract with the insurer or employer. The bill also provides the division with guidance in overseeing the efficacy of the medical benefits system. The bill would adopt the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine's Occupational Medicine Practice Guidelines as a benchmark for medical treatment. The Guidelines provide for quality care while promoting some standardization of medical services. However, if a condition is not addressed by the Guidelines or the worker's physician 2005-02-25 House Journal Page 0433 recommends alternative treatment, the physician has the opportunity to provide medical justification for treatment outside the Guidelines. In addition, the bill provides workers and employers greater flexibility over certain portions of the worker's claim. Currently, parties may not settle any portion of a worker's claim without board approval. The bill would allow parties represented by legal counsel to more quickly resolve a worker's claim by agreement without board approval, thereby freeing the board to focus on settlements needing more scrutiny such as those involving minors or workers unrepresented by counsel. It would also allow the parties to stipulate to a worker's eligibility for reemployment benefits without the expense and delay of a reemployment eligibility evaluation while also making it easier to exchange unwanted reemployment benefits for a limited cash benefit. This greater flexibility will make the reemployment process more efficient and satisfactory to both parties. The bill further enhances the efficiency of the current system by expanding workers' access to legal counsel and including a limited release of medical information on the report of injury form. The bill allows the division to contract with non-profit organizations to provide legal services to injured workers unable to obtain private legal counsel. It also provides a limited medical release for medical records of treatment for the reported injury on the initial report of injury form. This second change is aimed at reducing unnecessary delays in payment resulting from a lack of supporting medical documentation for an injured worker's claim. The bill also reduces insurers' costs by phasing out contributions to the Second Injury Fund. That Fund represents a limited mechanism for reducing impediments to the hire of workers with certain listed physical limitations. That mechanism has become outmoded due to developments in contemporary employment standards including the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Second Injury Fund will not accept new claims and will be phased out as currently accepted claims are paid. The bill would increase the coordination of benefits between the workers' compensation system and other disability systems. This would minimize the instances where double compensation results in a 2005-02-25 House Journal Page 0434 worker receiving combined disability benefits that exceed their take home pay. Finally, the bill would also cap the compensation rates of workers residing outside the State of Alaska to bring them in line with that paid to Alaska resident workers. This bill represents a major step in bringing the existing system up to date with the current State of Alaska's work force. These changes to specific parts of the existing law are vital to the continuing survival of the workers' compensation system and the availability of a full range of benefits for injured workers in the future. I urge your prompt and favorable action on this matter. Sincerely yours, /s/ Frank H. Murkowski Governor"