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October 8 2007

Lawmakers Ponder Power Shift in Workers' Compensation

West Virginia - "Legislators have learned that they have no one to blame but themselves for the loss of power over the rules that govern workers' compensation claims and benefits."

Legislators have learned that they have no one to blame but themselves for the loss of power over the rules that govern workers' compensation claims and benefits.

Lawmakers first ceded the rule-making powers in 1993, during one of several overhauls meant to staunch the program's cost, Insurance Commission officials reminded a joint interim subcommittee studying the issue Sunday.

Lawmakers continued to exempt program rules from legislative oversight during the 2003 overhaul, and then again in 2005 when it spun it off as the now-private BrickStreet Insurance Co.

"The Legislature said, very clearly, that we're going to have a different rule-making process for workers' compensation,'' said Mary Jane Pickens, commission general counsel. "That's been happening for many, many years at this point.''

But that may change after the subcommittee endorsed draft legislation for the regular session that begins in January. It would create an oversight panel of lawmakers to review rules governing this form of insurance, similar to special committees that already monitor higher education and welfare reform.

Sunday's vote, to send the draft bill to the Joint Judiciary Committee, was not unanimous. Senate Minority Leader Don Caruth said such a measure will spook the private insurers poised to compete with BrickStreet in the state's compensation market next year.

"This is the antithesis of everything we've done to privatize workers' compensation in this state,'' said Caruth, R-Mercer.

Supporters of the bill said they've fielded complaints from injured workers and the lawyers representing them about the recent handling of their claims.

Lawmakers also cited last year's tumult over BrickStreet's move to cut off benefits to widows and widowers when their deceased spouses would have reached retirement age.

Pickens noted that the issue did not involve a rule, and has since been rescinded.

"That was an internal policy made by BrickStreet,'' she said. "We agreed that it was an incorrect interpretation and believed that it would not hold up if subjected to judicial appeal.''

See also:
Panel seeks committee on workers’ comp
By Mannix Porterfield
REGISTER-HERALD REPORTER CHARLESTON — "Over the objections of Senate Minority Leader Don Caruth, an interims panel agreed Sunday to seek creation of a special oversight committee to govern rules that apply to workers compensation in West Virginia.

In a related vein, Judiciary Subcommittee A also learned that health care providers are hard to come by in certain pockets of the state to handle injured claimants, notably in Beckley.

For the past 16 years, the committee learned, the Legislature has systematically been surrendering its voice in the rule-making process on compensation matters. . . . .

Ever since the Legislature agreed to privatize the troubled system, however, critics have found much fault with the new private firm handling claims, BrickStreet, including Delegate Mel Kessler, D-Raleigh. . . .

Claimants have told Kessler their cases are dragging on without progress and that health care providers willing to accept them are difficult to find. . . .

Dr. Jim Becker, medical director for the state Insurance Commission, in response to questioning by Delegate Virginia Mahan, D-Summers, described Beckley as one of the “difficult pockets” in trying to get physicians willing to accept workers compensation cases.

Orthopedic surgeons, for example, now are only agreeing to serve as consultants, rather than accept cases handled earlier by another physician, he said.

Becker told the legislator this shortage becomes especially critical in deference to the number of foot injuries that occur in the southern coalfields.

In general, he said, physicians are reluctant to get involved in workers compensation cases because of the red tape they incur.

“They just don’t want the hassles,” he added.

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