Salem Statesman Journal

Picked up by Associated Press 10/16/99

Kitzhaber wants to revisit workers' compensation reforms

    SALEM (AP) -- Gov. John Kitzhaber said a new law to reform workers compensation has cut accidents and employer costs, but could deprive many injured workers of benefits.

    The Democratic governor wants to rethink parts of those reforms, and to push for changes, has dismissed his entire labor management advisory committee.

    Kitzhaber wants to get the right members there to check the system's "fairness thermostat", Mark Gibson, Kitzhaber's health policy advisor, said.

    Senate Majority Leader Gene Derfler, R-Salem, said he doesn't oppose tinkering with the state's workers compensation laws, but Kitzhaber is trying to go beyond simple changes.

    The pressure for relief is not just coming from the governors office, however. A potential ballot initiative seeks to shake up the system.

    If a state Supreme Court decision swings in favor of an injured worker, the Legislature may be forced into special session to preserve workers comp, one lobbyist contends.

    Oregon's landmark 1990 reforms slashed employer premiums by beefing up workplace safety and screening out some injury claims. Workers whose claims were accepted scored vastly improved benefits.

    Kitzhaber heartily backed the 1990 reforms and signed a business-backed bill in 1995 that sustained and strengthened them.

    As a result, employer insurance rates have dropped nine years in a row, saving them $3.8 billion in premiums. During this year's Legislature, one of the bills Kitzhaber signed, amid much fanfare, was an extension of the reforms.

    A growing number of critics, though say the quest to cut costs is leaving some injured workers out in the cold.

    Dale Key hasn't been able to work since an accident more than four years ago at a Stayton car dealership where he was employed. The 61-year old Mehama man said he destroyed his lower back when he had to jump off a 3-foot-high rack used to elevate cars on display.

    About a year earlier, he had back surgery after a car wreck. The workplace accident forced him to have surgery again, resulting in a steel plate bolted to his spine.

    Though Key blamed the dealership for not having steps, his claim was denied.

    I got absolutely nothing, didn't even get my bills paid. We went without getting any income at all," he said.

    The reason: a rule that the major contributing cause of the injury must be the workplace accident - not pre-existing conditions.

    The insurer concluded Key's injury was primarily due to the prior auto wreck.

    The major-contributing-cause rule requires doctors to determine that 51 percent or more of an injury is due to the recent accident.

    That's caused more claims denials for older workers, who frequently have some history of back or other ailments. The rule is provoking charges of age discrimination.

    The 51 percent rule is one of the chief areas Kitzhaber wants his new committee to review.

    Derfler, a central player in 1995 and 1999 workers comp reforms, complained the governor is moving ahead without consulting lawmakers. He said doctors often err on the side of the injured worker when there is any doubt.