JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri House members advanced legislation Thursday that seeks to replenish an insolvent fund for disabled workers while also preventing people who experience job-related illnesses from filing civil lawsuits.
Both elements are designed to address consequences from a 2005 overhaul to Missouri's workers' compensation system, which resolves claims of job-related injuries through an administrative process instead of lawsuits in circuit court.
The state House approved this year's legislation by a 109-51 vote after the Senate passed a different version earlier this year. Ultimately, lawmakers must approve an identical bill and have until May 17 to pass new legislation before their mandatory adjournment. Senators have requested a formal negotiation with the House, and Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said he is encouraged about the prospects of reaching an agreement.
Back in 2005, Missouri capped at 3 percent a surcharge that employers pay on their workers' compensation insurance premiums for the state's Second Injury Fund. Partly as a result of that cap, the Second Injury Fund now has a shortfall. The fund was created 70 years ago and compensates disabled workers who experience additional job-related injuries.
Under the measure approved Thursday by the House, the total charge employers pay could go to as high as 6 percent each year from 2014 through 2020. The legislation also seeks to control the cost of the fund by limiting future coverage to people who are permanently and totally disabled.
"It's not going to resolve it overnight, but over time, this solution will resolve the Second Injury Fund and hopefully put the crisis to rest," said sponsoring Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff.
Legislators have discussed the Second Injury Fund for years. Most recently, state Auditor Tom Schweich released a report in January that showed the fund had a balance of $3.2 million at the end of 2012 with unpaid obligations of $28.1 million.
In addition to dealing with the Second Injury Fund, the legislation also addresses the handling of claims of workers who have occupational diseases. The 2005 law made it harder for employees to prove an injury was work-related and required that its provisions be strictly interpreted. Since then, judges have ruled that occupational diseases no longer are covered under the definition of an "accident" and are not required to be handled through workers' compensation.
Business organizations have raised concerns that employers could end up facing lawsuits over work-related illnesses. The House legislation clarifies that occupational diseases are to be covered through the workers' compensation system. Workers whose disease stems from exposure to a toxin while on-the-job would be entitled to a guaranteed benefit.