Oregonian Editorial named "Straightening out workers' comp"

Author Subject: Oregonian Editorial named "Straightening out workers' comp"
Marty Posted At 12:40:31 06/18/2001
They still show their pro-business slant but as not as bad as previous years. At least they straightened out Gene Derfler.

The Oregonian http://www.oregonlive.com/editorials/oregonian/index.ssf?/editorials/oregonian/ed_71bob616.frame

Straightening out workers' comp

Saturday, June 16, 2001

The Oregon Supreme Court sent employers and legislators into a brief panic last month when it struck down one of the key elements of the state's workers' compensation system. Luckily, everyone seems to be recovering.

The court ruled in the case of Smothers vs. Gresham Transfer that an employee has the right to sue an employer, in some cases, once a workers' comp claim has been turned down. Since avoiding lawsuits is the keystone of the system in Oregon, the decision shook workers' comp to the core.

Since 1990, Oregon's system has been the envy of the nation. Its no-fault, no-lawsuit approach turned around a system with sky-high insurance rates and mediocre benefits. Rates have dropped 64 percent since 1990. Benefits are in the middle of the pack, compared nationally. Critics argued in recent years that too many workers were being turned down because the compensation standard was too high; work had to account for 51 percent of an injury's cause before it would be covered. But a labor-management committee had worked through this and other problems and proposed relatively minor fixes for this Legislature to consider.

The Supreme Court's ruling on the no-lawsuit approach prompted some overreactions and misinformation. Senate President Gene Derfler, for example, thought the court was meddling in the legislature's arena although, if anything, the opposite is probably true. The court's ruling was based on a clear provision of the Oregon Constitution, which the legislature lacks the authority to override. Labor leader Tim Nesbitt argued that the ruling would have no effect on workers' comp insurance rates. That's disingenuous. Businesses must consider the combination of workers' comp and related liability insurance rates. If lawsuits become more common, insurance rates will rise.

To their credit, labor, business, legislative leaders and Gov. John Kitzhaber committed themselves to approaching workers' comp reform rationally. Senate Bill 485, which passed the Senate before the May 10 court ruling, was held up while legislators and the interests involved considered the decision's impact. Now it's moving through the House. The bill makes some of the improvements that labor and business agreed upon and takes a wait-and-see attitude about the Smothers case.

The bill requires that workers go through the administrative process before going to court. It directs the state to monitor the legal impact of the Smothers decision and it allows everyone involved to see what impact all of this has on insurance rates.

None of that is as spectacular as the post-decision calls for ballot measure campaigns and special legislative sessions (though a special session may ultimately be necessary), but it's certainly more effective.

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