JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri's Senate gave a second-round nod and sent to the House Thursday a bill to tighten eligibility for the state worker's compensation program.
The language of the bill passed Thursday morning puts on the onus on workers in proving their work was the direct cause of their injuries. Under current law, workers must prove that work was a substantial cause of their injury. The bill also would increase the employee's burden of proof for repetitive use injuries and allows for deductions in benefits for "misconduct" that occurs after the injury.
Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis County, who participated with a handful of senators in informal negotiations before the floor debate, said the Senate measure passed Thursday morning was "not a good bill" but was improved by a lot of the language stripped during the informal talks.
"It was a good compromise, but it's not a great bill for employers, for employees or for the state," Green said.
"The biggest difference it makes is making it more difficult for the injured to receive benefits," he said.
Gov. Matt Blunt and Republican leaders in the General Assembly have made the changes one of the top priorities for the session, and several senators who voted against the bill said the system needed to be addressed but not how the bill would do it.
"We do need to address some things in the current worker's compensation system, and I think this bill will be helpful," Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, said. "It's a lot better than the version that was first filed."
Green said one his biggest problems with the measure was its felony provisions for the employer and employee in instances of fraud, but no mention of insurance companies that deny payment.
"We have continued to blame the injured worker for the system's increase in premiums and failed to deal with the insurance industry and regulations of them to address the increased costs," he said.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. John Loudon, R-St. Louis County, said insurance fraud is addressed in the bill and under existing Missouri law.
Because the bill was designed to save money, Loudon said one of the most important aspects of the bill is a provision that would prohibit workers from receiving unemployment and worker's compensation. He characterized the practice as "double dipping," and while he said its prohibition would lead to a significant savings, he did not have specifics as to how often this occurs.
"The worker's are able to go home, and in some cases, are able to be receiving temporary disability payments and filing for unemployment," he said. "Sometimes there getting both. Now that's a moral hazard that's leading otherwise good people to behave in immoral ways."
Green said the argument is flawed because current law allows for injured workers to begin receiving two-thirds of their wage after the second week, but if payments do not begin, workers may file for unemployment compensation. Current law requires the worker to return money received for unemployment after worker's compensation begins.
The bill would prohibit any workers' compensation. benefits, even retroactively, for periods a worker was getting unemployment benefits.
In addition to disputes over eligibility for both unemployment and worker's compensation, a clause that would exempt independent contractors from worker's compensation has been a point of contention.
The provision does allow some trucking companies to designate their employees as independent operators and would thus avoid obligations to worker's compensation.
"You're going to create this, and many more businesses are going to follow suit, and it will completely disrupt the system," Green said.
Loudon acknowledged Green had a "fair point" on the issue but said that the trucking companies that do make such designations are still controlled by laws governing subcontractors and employees take these jobs knowing they cannot receive worker's compensation.
With the exception of Sen. Victor Callahan, D-Jackson County, none of the Senate's 10 Democrats voted in favor of the bill.
The bill now goes to the House, where the Republican leadership previously said it would be a priority issue.