House committee discusses future of Court of Existing Claims 

Source: Shawn Ashley, eCapitol

The workers’ compensation Court of Existing Claims is scheduled to be abolished in 2020 but it likely needs to continue to exist, the House Judiciary Committee was told Tuesday. Court of Existing Claims Presiding Judge L. Brad Taylor said a large number of cases will remain open or will be subject to reopening when the deadline established in 2013’s Senate Bill 1062 takes effect. Senate Bill 1062 was the workers’ compensation reform measure approved by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Mary Fallin.

The bill created the Workers’ Compensation Commission and new workers’ compensation laws to be administrated by it. Cases filed prior to Feb. 1, 2014, the day the commission began accepting claims, were subject to the jurisdiction of the Workers’ Compensation Court, which was renamed the Court of Existing Claims.

At that time, said Taylor, the court had 10 judges. Now, through attrition, it only has four, which operate in courtrooms in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. It is down from more than 70 employees to just over 20, Taylor said. When the legislation was passed, Taylor indicated, no one thought the court still would be needed after 2020. Based on current claims before the court, Taylor estimated it would need to operate upwards of 16 more years. 

Taylor noted he heard arguments in a case Monday that began in 1991. Those arguments centered on the continuing medical plan of the claimant. There are thousands of ongoing continuing medical plans, Taylor indicated.

By law, Taylor added, other cases can be reopened up to five years after a final order is issued. 

Additionally, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that the court and the commission must operate completely separately because they belong to different branches of government, the court to the judiciary and the commission to the executive branch. That means its existing cases must be handled by the court system, Taylor said.

“As the law was written, it was hard to take into account all of these moving parts,” Taylor said.

Taylor said he believed the court would need to continue to operate with four judges for at least five more years. Three judges would be needed the following five years, he said, and then two until the final case was closed.

Brandon Burton, a workers’ compensation claimants attorney who also appeared before the committee Tuesday, agreed the court will need to continue to operate beyond 2020. “I don’t know how long we will need the current court…but I know it needs to have four judges possibly indefinitely into the future,” he said.

Meanwhile, there is a funding question. The Court of Existing Claims and the Workers’ Compensation Commission each receive a share of the assessment on workers’ compensation insurance premiums. The court, the committee was told, needs approximately $3 million to $3.1 million to operate annually and its apportionment from that revenue source will decline to $2.5 million in fiscal year 2020. The Workers’ Compensation Commission began its life in 2014 receiving $5.0 million from the revenue, but lawmakers reduced that amount to $3.0 million annually after a series of “missteps,” said Liotta.

The commission spends approximately $7.0 million annually, Workers Compensation Commission Chair Mark Liotta told the committee’s members, including the $3.0 million it is insurance premium assessment, approximately $2.0 million to $2.5 million in fines and fees it generates and the remainder in carry-over money from a fund that was split between the court and the commission as a result of an Oklahoma Supreme Court decision. Eventually, Liotta said, the carry-over money is going to run out.

The assessment generates a bit more than $6.5 million annually, the committee was told.

Rep. Chris Kannady, R-Oklahoma City and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said he supported returning the commission to its $5 million funding level. Kannady noted he previously supported legislation that would have increased the commission’s allocation. HB2424, by Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, and Sen. Kimberly David, R-Porter, updates references to the Workers’ Compensation Commission Revolving Fund. It removes language related to the funding of the Attorney General’s Workers’ Compensation Fraud Investigation Unit being funded by the Workers’ Compensation Commission. It requires $5 million be paid from the tax collected from companies writing workers’ compensation insurance policies and from the assessment on self-insurers into the Workers’ Compensation Commission Revolving Fund. The bill repeals language related to a funding report required to be submitted by the Attorney General to the Workers’ Compensation Commission regarding the Workers’ Compensation Fraud Investigation Unit and the transfer of funds for the unit.

The bill received a do pass recommendation during the 2017 regular session from the House side of the Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget, but it was not taken up by the Senate side.

“Next year if we continue to fund both at this level, we are going to have a funding problem,” said Kannady.

The comments came during the House Judiciary Committee’s consideration of IS H18-032, on transition and funding related to court of existing claims, workers compensation commission and the multi injury trust fund. 

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