Former workers comp head says new system shortchanges those injured on the job

Former workers comp head says new system shortchanges those injured on the job By RANDY KREHBIEL

A former chief administrator of the state Workers Compensation Court says the new system  adopted last year is among the worst in the country for injured workers. “My bottom line is simple,” said Michael Clingman, who ran the Workers Compensation Court from 2011 to 2014 and was head of the Arkansas Workers Compensation system in the mid-1990s.

“They said they wanted a simpler system without lawyers that would benefit workers. So why the benefit cut?” Last year, Oklahoma began phasing out its existing workers compensation system and courts in favor of a commission whose members are more closely tied to the Republican administration. At the same time, workers compensation laws were rewritten so that some benefits were reduced as much as 90 percent. Cash compensation payments were eliminated altogether for some disabled workers who later return to the job.

In her February State of the State address, Gov. Mary Fallin said efficiencies in the new system saved employers $200 million in its first year of operation. Clingman, though, says the savings had nothing to do with the new commission. “That was based on the benefit changes, not the system,” he said. “The new system probably will play a part in reducing some inefficiencies over the long run, but for the first few years, it’s all about the benefit reductions.” Clingman previously worked for the Workers Compensation Court from 1985 to 1991. He was Senate and Election Board secretary under Democratic leadership from 2001-2008 and was director of state finance in the final years of Gov. Brad Henry’s administration. For most of 2014, Clingman worked for the Workers Compensation Research Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but he resigned in January to form the Oklahoma Coalition for Workers Rights. Clingman said his predecessor at the Workers Compensation Court, Marcia Davis, is also involved in the organization.

“I went to other states while I was working for the Workers Compensation Research Institute, and when I came back here I just couldn’t stand what was happening,” he said. “I began talking to people and trying to build a broad coalition.” Clingman has been operating somewhat under the radar for the past six weeks but became more visible last week after a ProPublica/NPR report included Oklahoma among states that have most drastically reduced workers compensation benefits in recent years. That report found that in the past 20 years, workers compensation insurance rates have fallen by more than half nationally when adjusted for inflation and by a little less than half in Oklahoma.

“I agree we were high compared to states like Texas and Arkansas, but that was because they cut their benefits,” Clingman said. “But even those states would never dream of doing what we’re doing.”

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