Tennessee may revamp workers' comp laws

12:00 PM, Jan 28, 2013   |    comments
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By Duane Marsteller | The Tennessean

A new, independent state agency would oversee all aspects of Tennessee's workers' compensation system, including appeals now heard by the courts, under proposed reform measures drafted by Gov. Bill Haslam's administration.

Critics contend those and other proposals would unfairly curtail injured workers' rights and compensation, foreshadowing a looming battle over one of Haslam's and Republicans' top legislative priorities this year.

Haslam spokesman David Smith declined to discuss specifics and said details will be released after a final bill is filed, possibly this week.

But a 67-page working draft obtained by The Tennessean indicates Haslam is considering major changes to the 94-year-old system, which was last overhauled nearly a decade ago.

The proposals are similar to those recommended by a Virginia consultant who reviewed Tennessee's workers' comp system last year. The state hired WorkComp Strategies after business owners told Haslam during a statewide series of meetings that the current system is bureaucratic, litigious, inconsistent and costly.

"In recognition of Tennessee's endeavor to reform the workers' compensation law in a manner designed to ensure the health and safety of Tennessee workers and to promote Tennessee as an attractive destination for business, the legislature has determined that the independence of the workers' compensation division is paramount," according to text of the draft bill.

The draft bill would consolidate workers' comp oversight -- which now falls under the state Labor Department, the legislature and the courts -- within a new agency. As proposed, the Tennessee Division of Workers' Compensation would operate independently under an administrator appointed by the governor.

The proposed division would have the power to set, change and enforce workers' comp rules, as well as handle claims and benefits disputes. That includes appeals that now are handled by chancery and circuit courts.

Other possible changes include adopting guidelines for doctors to follow in diagnosing and treating common workers' comp injuries, creating an ombudsman program to provide information to workers who don't have a lawyer, and tweaking the definition of injury and the criteria used to determine whether it is work-related.

State figures show that the number of workers' compensation cases heading to court has fallen over the past decade. There were 2,794 cases filed in chancery or circuit court in 2004; that number was 797 in 2011, the latest year for which figures are available.

'More of the same'

Labor advocates contend the drop stems from repeated weakening of worker protections, which would be further eroded by the latest proposal as well as by changes enacted last year.

"This bill does more of the same," said Bryan Capps, a Knoxville attorney and president of the Tennessee Association for Justice, a trial lawyers group. "It really, quite frankly, would be devastating to workers."

Workers' compensation premiums paid by Tennessee employers averaged $2.02 for every $100 in payroll last year, according to an annual study conducted by the state of Oregon. Tennessee's rate was third-highest in the Southeast and 19th-highest in the country, where the average was $1.88.

The potential changes in Tennessee -- especially shifting cases out of the courthouse -- would address those problems, business groups say.

"We're one of only two states, maybe three, that have court involvement" in workers' comp cases, said Jim Brown, the National Federation of Independent Business's Tennessee director. "It really has led to some court decisions that have been quite adverse to employers."

Contact Duane Marsteller at 615-259-8241 or dmarstelle@tennessean.com. Follow him on Twitter @DuaneMarsteller.

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