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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, March 1, 2005

Workers' comp law in need of cooperation

Tucked in the thicket of workers' compensation proposals in the state Legislature is a bill that deserves to fail.

House Bill 1773 is a partisan response to an important issue facing workers and business in Hawai'i. The bill, dubbed this session's "handcuff bill," is a political pre-emptive strike: It would prohibit the state labor director from implementing administrative rule changes concerning workers' comp.

Conveniently, it would expire in 2011, when Gov. Lingle's second term (if she is re-elected) would end. And it does little to improve the current workers' comp system.

The concern driving this bill among some Democrats and labor leaders is that the administration is trying to make an end-run around the process, citing similarities between proposed rule changes to a package of workers' comp bills proposed last year by the governor, which ultimately failed.

Enough with the partisan sniping. It's time for reasonable business leaders and labor advocates to work together on a plan that would genuinely improve the system. Swinging the pendulum too far in either direction would have dire consequences.

Lax controls over costs would make doing business here untenable. And endless challenges to claims affect the right of injured workers to receive reasonable care in reasonable time.

One option that reflects a joint effort to fix the system, as House Labor and Public Employment Committee Chairman Kirk Caldwell notes, is a bill waiting for a hearing in the House Finance Committee.

House Bill 1636, though limited in its application, is the result of talks between the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce and the ILWU and AFL-CIO. The bill would work out an agreement between the employer and the union to set up a provider network for workers' comp healthcare. This network would include physicians, occupational therapists and so forth. It also would set up a cooperative agreement to promptly resolve disputes.

The goal is to restore the injured worker to health and return the employee to work in a timely manner.

"I think it works because it gets rid of the adversarial nature of the system," Caldwell said. "Anytime you have two diverse groups — that is, labor and management — working together, you need to keep them talking."

He's right. And while the devil is in the details here, and the wording of the bill is being revised, it's a cooperative effort in the right direction.

Let's hope our lawmakers can rise above the partisan politics and move the debate forward by working with a moderate plan such as HB 1636. Rejecting HB 1773 would be an excellent start.