This week Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner John Doak once again has joined other elected officials and others in the continued assault on Oklahoma’s working families.

In comments issued last Friday Commissioner Doak warned that the recent Oklahoma Supreme Court decision restoring a fraction of the massive benefit cuts Doak has championed under the guise of “reform” may increase workers compensation insurance rates unless the Oklahoma Legislature enacts changes during this session.

Commissioner Doak has been stricken with the same speech disorder that seems to have infected so many reform proponents since legislative changes were enacted in 2013 that resulted in Oklahoma workers having the lowest benefits and the worst worker protections in the United States. The speech affliction has sadly left he and the others unable to utter the phrase “benefit cut”, instead forcing them, Tourette’s style, to blurt out such phrases as “change to an administrative system”, “these legal issues”, “reforms”, “new possibilities”, “freeing up private sector resources”, “revamps the injury benefit system”, “streamlined to better assist workers”, and countless others.

Sadly, the affliction has left the Commissioner unable to state that benefit cuts have been responsible for an overall 37% drop in workers’ compensation insurance rates during the last three years. He attributes the drop to “reforms” or “the change to an administrative system”. Of course he knows there has been no change in rates filed due to moving to an administrative system. The rate decreases enacted each year since passage of the cuts reflected the cut in benefits and, recently, lowered costs the system was seeing before the 2013 workers compensation changes.

What should, but obviously doesn’t, bother Commissioner Doak is the very real evidence that mandated rate decreases are not being fully passed on to employers. Thus this grand larceny removing money from workers pockets isn’t even making it into the economy to assist employers. The rate decrease was not fully adopted by some insurance carriers. In other cases, according to a report issued by the NCCI last October, insurance carriers somewhat predictably scaled back credits they offer to employers. Such decisions are somewhat understandable and predictable. Customers who receive decreases in insurance premiums rarely wonder if the decrease should have been bigger, happy to see some relief. In addition, most insurers, smart enough to understand that some of the more ridiculous provisions in the new law were likely to be challenged and reversed by the Courts, used caution when fully enacting pricing changes. Just as rate decreases are not enacted immediately by insurance carriers, increases in rates caused by law changes, whether by the Legislature or as a result of Court rulings, do not necessarily result in cost increases adopted by insurance companies. The insurance marketplace is much too complex for such a simplistic view. My guess is that most insurance companies anticipated this ruling.

And what exactly is this latest Court ruling that has Commissioner Doak so concerned? Essentially the Supreme Court made the logical conclusion that the Legislature did not intend to provide a benefit of $95,150 for a worker who has an arm amputated (startlingly low to begin with!) but less than half that amount if the worker is fortunate enough to have his arm still attached to his body but an 80% impairment, leaving the arm virtually worthless for tasks that worker would need to continue his or her job. And, if that worker were to be brought back to work in some capacity, the new law gave him $0 because he was able to return to some work for a period of time. Clarifying that giving the worker nothing is exactly what the intent of the law should be is what he is urging our Legislature to accomplish, under penalty of a rate increase.

When that attitude is coupled with his absolute abdication of duty as it relates to reviewing and approving plans allowing employers to “opt out” of workers compensation it becomes clear Doak could care less about Oklahoma’s working families. His office has approved plans to opt out of workers compensation that included a one page plan (in effect for six months) and approved the Dillards plan which included a provision, contrary to Oklahoma law, that allowed Dillards to offer an involuntary settlement to any worker after an injury occurs that allowed Dillards to dismiss the entire case if the worker refuses their settlement offer.

We urge the Oklahoma Legislature to ignore Commissioner Doak’s warning of some pending rate increase and work to restore critical benefits needed by Oklahoma’s working families.

Michael Clingman

Oklahoma Coalition for Workers’ Rights

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