Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, March 4, 2005

Workers' comp change unlikely

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

More than a dozen bills that would have retooled Hawai'i's workers' compensation system appear all but dead for this legislative session.

One that could have streamlined medical treatment and disputes and gotten injured employees back to work faster — while saving employers money — ended up restricted only to the construction industry. But that bill, too, has little hope of staying alive.

As the House and Senate prepare to exchange bills nearly midway through the session, only two relating to workers' compensation have a clear chance of survival.

Both would prohibit the state labor director from implementing workers' comp administrative rule changes that lawmakers said were a thinly disguised end run around the Legislature. Legislators said the administrative rules were remarkably similar to bills, sponsored last session by Gov. Linda Lingle's administration, that ultimately were killed.

Workers' compensation legislation this session "is not all dead," said Christine Camp Friedman, chairwoman of the Chamber of Commerce of Hawai'i. "But what is surviving is not very helpful."

Bev Harbin, president of the Employers' Chamber of Commerce, said, "Workers' compensation was held hostage and became a pawn between the policy-makers and the administration. There was absolutely no plan to do anything except stop these (administrative) rules from going forward. As a personal, taxpaying citizen, I'm enraged. They just played us for fools again because they knew exactly what they were going to do, just blow us off this session and get into this separation-of-powers issue."

The original House and Senate bills would have restricted the powers of Nelson Befitel, director of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, until 2011 — when a presumptive second term for Lingle would expire. Under criticism, the Legislature later amended the restrictions until 2007.

"It kind of seemed foolish, a knee-jerk reaction," said Rep. Kirk Caldwell, D-24th, (Manoa), chairman of the House Labor Committee. "I would have not put that date, even assuming she's re-elected. You just want to be able to freeze the actions for now to come back and look at it next session."

Among other things, the labor department's proposed administrative rules would require hearings for workers' comp disputes within 60 days; record the hearings to help resolve further disputes; institute "evidence-based medical treatment guidelines;" standardize attorney fees; and impose a cap of 104 weeks on vocational rehabilitation.

Refocusing on 2006

None of the rules "are set yet," said labor department spokes-man James Hardway. "The director is literally looking page through page at the 215 pages of testimony, trying to map out exactly what the concerns are. It seems premature to have legislation based on what they think the director might do."

After weeks of pushing for compromise, Caldwell said he believes it's best to back off on workers' compensation changes for this session and instead focus on next year.

When the session adjourns, Caldwell plans to bring unions, employers, insurance companies, healthcare providers and others together for further talks to prepare more collaborative bills for next year.

The discussions will continue productive talks that began in the fall, which included the first face-to-face meetings between the Chamber of Commerce and Harold Dias Jr., president of the state AFL-CIO, which represents 65 unions and 90,000 workers.

"It's been beneficial and fruitful," Dias said. "We got to hear their concerns and we certainly got to express that we're not anti-business. The business side knows that premiums are going up, and they don't like that. We can sympathize. From our side, the system is not perfect, as well. ... We always take the black eye for this and are perceived as the roadblock to change. We're not against change. But our job is to protect and defend the workers."

Some progress made

Ron Taketa, financial secretary and business representative of the Hawai'i Carpenters Union, said the time between legislative sessions can be used to investigate what are said to be successful workers' comp systems in California and Oregon.

"We ought to take a look at what's going on elsewhere and learn from their improvements as well as their mistakes," Taketa said. "We don't want to reinvent the wheel. Realistically, implementing any process like that is probably at least a year away. Sometimes it's difficult to make changes to a system that's been in place for a long time."

Hawai'i businesses are likely to be frustrated by lack of significant workers' comp legislation this session.

But Camp Friedman of the Chamber of Commerce plans to tell them that progress nevertheless was made.

"What you heard before was businesses screaming, 'We need reform,' " Camp Friedman said. "Now we're hearing that labor hears our concerns. They're at the table. The hard part is getting all parties to agree. We're trying to get everyone to the well. Whether they all drink from that well is something else."

Reach Dan Nakaso at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com or at 525-8085.