HELENA — A proposed workers' compensation overhaul hammered out by business and labor is going to the full Legislature, despite stiff opposition from the equally powerful trial lawyers and doctors groups.
A legislative committee tasked with fixing an expensive system unanimously approved the plan Thursday, sending it to lawmakers who meet in January. Fixing a worker's comp system that has become one of the most expensive in the nation has been a political quagmire.
The proposal promises to lower costs for businesses and increase worker benefits by a little. But it would do so at the expense of doctors who treat the workers and lawyers who represent them in disputes.
Supporters are hopeful the time is right for an overhaul after more than three years of work by a committee of labor and business representatives, and two years of work by a legislative interim panel to reach Thursday's deal.
Sen. Jim Keane, chairman of the Economic Affairs Committee, lauded the unanimous vote of his panel as proof that Republicans and Democrats alike are working together to fix one of the toughest issues confronting the Legislature.
The Butte Democrat said Montana employers can pay more than 4 percent of a worker's wage for work comp insurance. He said the overhaul should lower that figure close to the national average of below two percent.
The plan would also save the state money for all the workers it insures, a big bonus for lawmakers who will be dealing with a tight budget.
Jason Miller, a labor representative to the Labor-Management Advisory Council, said workers should, overall, see a total of about $13 million in increased benefits by the second full year of implementation. He said the carefully crafted compromise presents the Legislature a unique opportunity.
"This will be an involved process. But if the Legislature does not take advantage of this issue now, it will be the worst workers' comp system in the nation for some time to come," he said.
Trial lawyers and representative for doctors' groups argued the deal was cut without their participation.
The doctors said they will be asked to learn a new system and procedures for handling such cases, while getting paid less. They argued wait times for work comp patients to be seen by a physician would increase.
Lawyers argued that the reform does not force employers to improve workplace safety, another statistic where Montana traditionally lags behind the rest of the nation.
"The reason we have the frequency of injuries is because we have unsafe working conditions," Great Falls attorney Richard Martin told the lawmakers. "It's mischievous to come out and change our entire way of doing business in Montana this way. It doesn't lower costs."