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Iowa House passes amended workers’ compensation overhaul

Published: Friday, March 17, 2017 10:57 a.m. CDT

DES MOINES (AP) — Republicans in the Iowa House passed a bill Thursday to overhaul how workers in the state are compensated for on-the-job injuries, though they backed off some key proposals amid internal concern over the extent of the changes.

The GOP-majority chamber voted 55-38 for the bill, which would revamp standards for hurt workers, including reductions to shoulder injury benefits and decreased coverage for injuries tied to a pre-existing condition. The Republican-led Senate will now consider the legislation.

The bill is the culmination of days of private meetings between Republicans, who appeared stuck on final details of the proposal. Democrats have argued the measure benefits corporations while penalizing injured workers.

Republicans said the legislation will rebalance a system that is overly litigated while addressing rising premiums for some business sectors.

“Iowa employers want their people to come to work and go home as they came,” said GOP Rep. Gary Carlson on the House floor. “Many of those great employers also want to see the changes in this legislation.”

But some initial provisions — a plan that changed the definition of a workplace injury and a measure to end permanent total disability benefits at age 67 — were ultimately scrapped from the bill.

Carlson said the revisions came after public hearings and concerns within the party about “unanticipated consequences” that could have penalized older workers.

Despite tweaks, Democrats remained unimpressed. Rep. Mary Wolfe of Clinton pointed to the various Republican changes as an indication the bill wasn’t well-thought-out.

“It is not a product of a responsible, informed review of our current system,” she said.

Data from the National Council on Compensation Insurance, a nonpartisan group that analyzes and sets workers’ compensation rates in several states, indicates the overall system is fair for employers. NCCI said overall premium costs for Iowa businesses decreased in 2017 by an average of 4.7 percent. Those rates have slightly fluctuated in previous years, but when analyzing premiums, loss ratios and lost-time claims, NCCI said most companies benefit in Iowa.

But that number is the average for all Iowa industries, and some sectors could have seen increases. Republican Rep. Gary Worthan of Storm Lake said his local trucking company is one such business.

“Iowa manufacturers, trucking companies, are at a disadvantage to our neighbors,” he said. “We’re putting Iowa businesses at a disadvantage every day. This legislation is long past due.”

Rep. Marti Anderson, a Des Moines Democrat, said the restrictions to injury coverage will only deter workers from Iowa.

“The businesses pushing this bill stand to gain substantially from the passing of his bill,” she said. “Their gain will be directly off the back of the folks doing the work.”

There were 713 workers’ compensation case decisions in all of 2016, according to the Iowa Workforce Development. Meatpacking business Tyson Foods accounted for 5.6 percent of those decisions, and agricultural machinery manufacturer John Deere accounted for 2.8 percent. Both companies are registered in favor of the bill.

The nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency found that many insured and self-insured employers would benefit from decreased worker compensation payments if the legislation is enacted.

Another GOP amendment created a vocational rehabilitation program through the IWD for some workers with shoulder injuries. The employer would pay up to $15,000 toward a retraining program for qualified workers.

“This program can give them a new career path,” Carlson said. “The goal is for those people who need that training the most to be able to resume their careers productively.”

Democrats criticized Republicans for introducing a new program through an amendment, saying they did not have time to analyze the fiscal impact.

If passed by the Senate and signed into law by the governor, changes to the workers’ compensation law would go into effect July 1.

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