Proposed workers' compensation bill ensures occupational disease coverage

Wednesday, March 7, 2012 | 5:36 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Lawmakers gave final approval Wednesday to legislation that would expand the type of ailments covered by the state workers' compensation system, a move that supporters hope will make Missouri more attractive to businesses by lessening their potential litigation costs.

The legislation would include occupational diseases under the workers' compensation program instead of allowing such claims to be battled out in court. It also would restrict employee lawsuits against co-workers for injuries suffered on the job to instances in which the injury was "purposefully and dangerously" caused.

The Republican-led House passed the measure 87-68, sending it to Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. The GOP-led Senate had passed the bill 28-6 last month on a largely party-line vote. The House failed to adopt a provision the Senate had approved that would have put the bill into effect as soon as it is signed by the governor. It is not clear, however, if Nixon actually will sign the bill or will instead veto it.

Nixon spokesman Sam Murphey said the governor is still reviewing the legislation but had expressed concerns with the provisions of the bill that deal with occupational diseases.

The measure was a top priority of Republican legislative leaders and business groups. During debate, several House Republicans said that changes in co-employee liability will more fairly protect workers from having to pay large court judgments for injuries caused in accidents.

Occupational diseases, such as those caused by on-the-job exposure to chemicals and toxins, were removed from the workers' compensation program under a 2005 law. Those cases have since been handled in civil courts.

Republicans say returning work-related diseases to the state program would give businesses a better idea of how much they owe employees.

"We've given more certainty and clarity to the workers compensation system and put it back to where it was supposed to be," said Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff. "We've been in flux now for a long time."

Several Democrats took issue with moving those diseases into a system they say cannot fairly compensate people who suffer life-threatening diseases, such as those caused by asbestos exposure or toxic chemicals.

Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, said the minority party had been open to including curable injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, in the workers' compensation system. But he said those injuries aren't similar to lethal diseases such as mesothelioma, a type of cancer that can be caused by exposure to asbestos.

"Our concern is for people with catastrophic, toxic disease, stuff that kills Missouri workers very savagely in a very short period time," he said. "This bill comes up short on that."

Some Republicans also took issue with the bill because it does not deal with the state's Second Injury Fund, which is separate from the workers' compensation fund. It pays benefits to people with disabilities who sustain additional injuries at their job.

Last year, both chambers approved versions of workers' compensation legislation that included provisions dealing with the Second Injury Fund, but the chambers could not agree on a final bill. Senate leaders said last month that the Second Injury Fund was a primary sticking point in last year's negotiations. This year, the Senate had removed provisions dealing with the Second Injury Fund from the workers' compensation measure before it was sent to the House.

In February, Attorney General Chris Koster said the fund is in danger of becoming insolvent, as it has declined since 2005, when employers' contributions to the fund were capped at 3 percent of their workers' compensation insurance premium.

Both chambers have separately introduced bills to deal with the Second Injury Fund.

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