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Agreement reached on bill to lower workers comp costs

OLYMPIA - Last week, the Senate took a major step forward in addressing the state's workers compensation system with the passage of Engrossed Senate Bill 5566.

The bipartisan agreement, which was negotiated by Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, and Sen. Janéa Holmquist Newbry, the Republican leader on the Senate labor committee, would create a voluntary-settlement option for injured workers.

It would also provide wage subsidies for employers providing light-duty or transitional work options for injured employees.

"As the leader for my caucus on business and labor issues, I am appreciative of the hard work that members of the employer community, workers, the governor and legislators of both parties have put into addressing some of the fundamental problems with our workers compensation system," said Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake, speaking on behalf of the Senate Republican Caucus. "This is yet another step forward in reforming this costly and unsustainable system that is robbing our state of new employers and our workers of new jobs."

Washington's workers compensation system is a state industrial-insurance monopoly and in desperate need of reform, Holmquist Newbry said.

In a December report, the state auditor's office said the state's fund for workers compensation has a 95 percent chance of becoming insolvent within five years. Workers comp taxes increased $117 million in 2010 and $196 million in 2011. Despite these rate increases, there is still a $360 million deficit in the accident fund that is part of the system, and the supplemental pension fund must periodically borrow to meet its obligations.

Holmquist Newbry said a large driver of those costs is the fact that Washington isn't returning workers to the job. The average number of days an injured Washington worker is at home collecting a workers compensation benefit check is more than twice the national average.

ESB 5566 would address this problem by giving workers an option to voluntarily settle their claim by accepting an offer from the state Department of Labor and Industries, which manages the workers comp system. It also includes several protections for those workers choosing to settle. Among them:

Workers will continue to receive payments for medical treatments.

The bill allows for the reopening of claims if a medical condition gets worse.

If a worker does not have an attorney, the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals will provide representation by only approving settlements that are in the worker's best interest.

There is also a 12-week waiting period for claims prior to entering into a settlement.

And it provides a 30-day cooling off period.

"A voluntary settlement is just that - voluntary," explained Holmquist Newbry. "This bill just gives workers the choice to do whatever is in the best interest of themselves and their families."

The bill has been lauded by farm and business groups.

"We finally have something that will actually address one of the big cost-drivers in the system," said Scott Dilley of the Washington Farm Bureau.

Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business, praised the passage of ESB 5566, indicating that it was a step in the right direction.

"The bipartisan passage of Senate Bill 5566 is a good step forward in the long debate over reforming workers comp. Lawmakers in the House should now come together and work quickly to approve this legislation," said Brunell.

The bill now goes to the House for its consideration.

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