Governor signs 'historic' workers' comp bill

Washington employers who provide temporary work that allows an injured worker to “Stay at Work” while recovering from an injury will be eligible to be reimbursed for half of the worker’s wages.

This new program is part of the workers’ compensation reform bill signed by Governor Chris Gregoire on June 15. “The Stay-at-Work Program is so important because it helps employers keep their valuable, experienced workers,” said Judy Schurke, director of the Department of Labor & Industries. “And workers don’t lose the income they would if they were off the job collecting partial wage-replacement benefits.”

Keeping an injured worker in a light-duty job while they recover also helps employers avoid significant increases in their L&I premium rates, added Schurke.

Schurke said settlement agreements may be a good option for older workers who need financial help for a short time after an injury and don’t want to retrain for a new career.

L&I also will expand its fraud-fighting efforts by participating in a national insurance information exchange with other workers’ comp insurers. By cross-matching claim information with workers’ comp insurers in other states, L&I hopes to more easily identify duplicate claims. The bill also requires L&I to address fraudulent billing practices by medical providers.

Other features in the new legislation include dedicating a portion of L&I’s safety grants for projects that encourage innovative return-to-work programs for injured workers and focus on the needs of small business; a one-year freeze to the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for time-loss and pension benefits; recovering prior disability awards if workers are approved for a new total disability pension, starting in July 2011; an independent study on occupational disease claims in Washington; a performance audit of the workers’ compensation claims management system, including self-insured claims; and creating a Rainy Day Fund to stabilize rate changes during tough economic recessions.

Another bill, passed earlier this session, focuses on ensuring injured workers get the highest quality care. That bill created a statewide medical provider network to treat injured workers and expanded the Centers of Occupational Health and Education throughout the state.

Together, these changes to the workers’ compensation system will save more than $1 billion over the next four years, according to Schurke.

In addition to keeping workers on the job and reducing disability, Schurke said the legislation will reduce the need for double-digit rate increases and put the state workers’ comp system on a sound financial footing.