JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri’s workers’ compensation program could be in for some major reconstructive surgery.
A bill sponsored by Sen. John Loudon, R-St. Louis County, would rewrite the state law and narrow the definition of a work-related injury. The changes are something that members of the Republican-controlled legislature and Gov. Matt Blunt say are necessary to fix a system that is scaring jobs away from Missouri.
“I’m hearing all the time from (business people who) say, ‘I was run out of Missouri,’” Loudon said. “Not Mexico. I’m talking about people who are going to the Southwest.”
The committee that Loudon chairs approved the bill Wednesday and sent it on to the full Senate for debate. The 6-3 vote broke along party lines.
Workers’ compensation benefits are supposed to cover medical bills and lost wages when workers are hurt on the job. Larger payouts are sometimes made in cases of permanent injury. The state created the system in 1926 after it was approved by a statewide popular vote.
Supporters of the bill say the number of undeserving claims and lawsuits today are driving up costs. State records show that the total number of worker claims dropped 19 percent between 1999 and 2003, while the average cost per case rose from $9,110 to $11,636.
Loudon said his bill would reduce the number of injury claims and lawsuits filed by tightening the law’s language and specifying that only those whose job was the “prevailing” cause of their injury qualify.
“This is a major fix,” Loudon said. “By closing those holes, we are going to have more money for those who are legitimately injured.”
The new wording would eliminate coverage for workers injured in car accidents while driving to work, even if they’re driving a company car. And it would reject claims on injuries that are caused by the “ordinary, gradual deterioration of the body,” like a heart attack or a joint injury deemed to be caused by aging.
Opponents call the bill an unnecessary measure that fails to address the system’s real troubles.
“Once again we’re blaming the increase in workers’ comp rates on the injured worker,” said Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis County. “We’re doing a lot of sprucing up, but we’re not solving the problem.”
When Loudon’s committee held a public hearing on the bill, it heard testimony from workers who said the system had failed to provide for those with legitimate job-related injuries.
“I hired an attorney because they wouldn’t pay my medical bills,” said Kevin Laytham, a truck driver would said he was severely injured after being forced to drive a poorly serviced truck called a yard dog. “I tried the work comp system, and it failed. They turned their back on me.”