Sunday, March 19, 2000

Workers' comp. bill under fire




BY PATRICK CROWLEY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FRANKFORT — One of the most-watched bills in this session of the Kentucky General Assembly lands this week in the lap — and the committee — of a Northern Kentucky lawmaker.

        The Senate Economic Development and Labor Committee, chaired by Sen. Katie Stine, R-Fort Thomas, will begin hearing testimony Wednesday on legislation that would change the workers' compensation reforms lawmakers instituted four years ago.

        The bill, which has already passed the House, puts Mrs. Stine and her committee in the middle of a battle involving labor unions, businesses, lawmakers from both parties, injured workers and the attorneys who thrive on workers' compensation cases.

        “Sure, there's some pressure,” Mrs. Stine said last week about her role in the process of changing the workers' compensation law. “It's a real important, high-profile bill, and we're getting to the end of the session, which adds a little more pressure.

        “But the key to dealing with that is being ready to handle just about anything, and that's what I'm trying to do,” she said.

        Mrs. Stine and her committee members have actually gone through some recent training sessions to prepare themselves for what might come up during testimony on the bill, which is scheduled to be voted on by the Senate before the session ends at the end of the month.

        The training was necessary, Mrs. Stine said, because the committee expects to be lobbied and even badgered by interests on several fronts.

        Democrats and labor unions want some of the reforms rolled back and benefits to workers increased. But Republicans and business interests want the legislature to hold the line on the reforms and make only minor changes.

        Meanwhile, attorneys who represent injured workers are pushing for changes, including more compensation for taking workers' compensation cases. And injured workers want it to be easier to collect benefits, which they claim has been more difficult to do since the reforms were instituted.

        “I haven't even been able to get an attorney to take my case,” said Paul Harris of Taylor Mill, who filed a workers' compensation claim after being injured three years ago while working on a drug store loading dock in Covington.

        “They tell me they can't make any money taking workers' comp cases anymore because the benefits and the compensation to them has been reduced so much, and now it's so much harder to prove an injury,” he said.

        “But I think the system has been changed to look out for everybody but the people who are truly hurt.”

        Several lawmakers, including Mrs. Stine, have said one of the main intentions of changing the law is to make sure the truly injured workers are receiving fair and timely compensation.

        But she also wants to make sure that the reform law is not gutted and the system returned to its pre-reform days, when businesses complained about high insurance premiums.

        “One of the major things I'll be looking out for in the committee is how much the changes will increase premiums,” Mrs. Stine said. “That is something businesses look at before they relocate to an area, so high premiums will hurt economic development.”

        Supporters of the legislation have said the changes will add about 8 percent in costs to the workers' compensation system. Opponents are concerned that the increases will be as high as 40 percent.

        “That's something we need to determine in committee,” Mrs. Stine said, “exactly how much costs and premiums will go up if we make these changes.”

        Gov. Paul Patton was the original advocate of changing the state's workers' compensation laws, which are designed to provide money and benefits to workers hurt on the job.

        Over the objections of organized labor — one of his strongest political bases — Mr. Patton won approval of a massive overhaul of the system during a 1996 special legislative session. He said the changes were needed because it was too easy for workers to collect benefits.

        Mr. Patton said that helped drive up the costs of the premiums businesses paid for workers' compensation insurance. Since the reform though, claims and other costs to the state's workers compensation system have dropped by 41 percent, Mr. Patton has said.

        Premiums that businesses pay also have fallen, said Steve Stevens, the chief lobbyist for the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, one of the original proponents of the '96 reforms.

        The major revisions under consideration include:

        • Increasing benefits for workers who are permanently, partially disabled.

        • Expanding training programs for injured workers unable to return to their previous jobs or professions.

        • Doubling benefits to $50,000 for survivors of workers who are killed on the job.

        • Changing the way black-lung case benefits are determined.

        • Increasing fees for attorneys, so workers have an easier time finding legal representation.

        As committee chairman, Mrs. Stine will have a key role in controlling testimony, including who testifies and for how long they can address the committee. She said two of her primary goals will be to focus on the pragmatic effects of the law and to stay away from the emotion that often accompanies the issue.

        “It's going to be a delicated balance,” she said.

        “We don't have a lot of time left in this session, so we need to dig right into this bill and find out how it is going to affect workers, businesses, attorneys and the workers' comp system.”

        Mrs. Stine also will be matched against the bill's sponsor, House Floor Leader Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, an attorney who handles workers' compensation cases in private life and is one of the most powerful members of the General Assembly.

        But Mrs. Stine is used to opposition in the spotlight in Frankfort.

        During her two terms in the House — she was elected to the Senate in 1998 — Mrs. Stine sponsored and oversaw passage of the “informed consent” abortion bill. The bill, which requires a 24-hour waiting period before a woman can receive an abortion, was opposed by Democratic leadership, who fought Mrs. Stine for two sessions before the bill finally passed in 1998.

        “I look at that bill as something God wanted because it dealt with abortion,” she said. “I was merely his instrument in getting that passed.

        “On workers comp, it's more of a complicated issue with a whole lot of sides. But I've been preparing, and I'm ready.”

       



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