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Maine House Gives First Nod to Workers' Comp Reforms
06/14/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

The Maine House today gave initial approval to a measure that targets reforms made to Maine's Workers' Compensation Act enacted last year. Democrats are hoping to undo changes made by the previous Republican-controlled Legislature. Patty Wight reports on the partisan battle over how much compensation injured workers should receive.

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It was 1992 when Maine's Workers' Compensation Act was enacted into law, and it didn't happen without a fight. Republican John McKernan was governor, and when he tied workers comp reforms to the state budget, the partisan standoff led to a government shutdown.

When the dust settled, the government was up and running, and so was a new Workers Comp Act, which Republican Rep. Amy Volk says was a good law - save for one aspect: "The part of the law that deals with partial incapacity."

Last year, the Legislature gave that section an overhaul. It increased the weekly benefit by about $80, which is not presently being challenged. But it also imposed a 10-year limit on workers' comp benefits, with certain exceptions allowed, which Volk says is designed as a motivator.

"This current law helps people with serious - but partial - incapacity, and puts the motivation in the right place: to encourage return to meaningful work," Volk said.

It's the 10-year cap that is the source of the most contention, and the part that Democrats and labor interests want to undo.

"Last year's bill was a huge win for insurance companies and large employers," says Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO. He says last year's law technically includes a safety valve for injured workers who need more than 10 years of benefits.

But for all intents and purposes, he says, that valve is permanently shut-off because there are so many hurdles to turn it on.  The bill before lawmakers this session would allow more injured employees to continue to receive workers' comp benefits.

"If someone has a horrendous injury at age 35, that injury doesn't disappear when they hit 45," Schlobohm says. "And workers' comp was created as a system to see to it that injured workers have some means of wage replacement and have medical care. And last year's bill really fundamentally undermined that core purpose of the system."

On the House floor, Democrat Andrew Mason told colleagues that, based on the financial performance of the system, the 10-year cap was unnecessary. "Since 1992, the cost for Maine workers' compensation has declined 59 percent," he said. "So the reforms were working."

But Republican Rep. Lawrence Lockman says removing the cap would hurt the small mom and pop businesses that are the backbone of the Maine economy.

"And I can tell you that they are overhwelmingly opposed to this attempt to undo the workers' comp reforms," he said. "This is a bad bill. It's nothing more than a full employment act for workers' comp lawyers."

And though the bill passed in the House, its fate may ultimately be decided by the governor.


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