Wednesday, February 29, 2012

HB 555 and the attack on Mississippi workers

There's a bill in the Mississippi House that I'm sure Republicans will try to paint as a "jobs creation" bill.  Well, considering their utter failure to create jobs over the last 8 years, anything they promise regarding jobs needs a thorough going over.  HB 555 is an effort by Rep. Mark Formby (R - Picayune) and Rep. Gary Chism (R - Columbus) to radically overhaul the Mississippi Workers' Compensation system.  (Y'all remember insurance salesman Gary Chism, don't you?  He's the author of another notorious bill and an ALEC member. The Clarion-Ledger has a great article on him today, written by Jeff Amy of the Associated Press.)

Here are the very troubling aspects of HB 555 that I have uncovered thus far:

First, the bill could possibly prevent a workers' comp judge from taking judicial notice of an injury.  Instead, Formby and Chism have curiously added the words "in the record" to Section 71-3-1.  In practice, this may well require claimants to hire expert witnesses to put on the stand, which would be cost prohibitive for most workers.  (Which is probably the goal for Formby and Chism.)

Next, Formby and Chism seek to amend Section 71-3-7.  In doing so, they add language that appears to increase the burden of proof for a worker and require the filing of "medical proof of the direct causal connection between the work performed according to his employment" and the injury.  On its surface, it appears to raise the burden from mere evidence of the connection between the work and the injury to a higher "medical proof" standard.  In addition, it appears to create a defense for employers that the employee was doing a certain task incorrectly.  For example, I can foresee the chicken plants defending workers' comp cases by saying that the employee was hurt by repetitive motion because they were not using proper technique.  So in that scenario, the worker is just out of luck.

Then Formby and Chism try to sneak one past unsuspecting injured workers by amending Section 71-3-15.  Under their proposed new language, a worker would be forced to use the employer's choice of physician if the employer's physician performs surgery on the injured worker or the worker treats with that physician for 6 months.  Under current law, the injured worker is entitled to his choice of physician.  This requirement exists to make sure the workers' comp judge gets to hear from a physician who isn't drawing his paycheck from the employer.  It exists to make sure the system doesn't get corrupted.  Formby and Chism would seek to do away with this safeguard.

Formby and Chism then move on to doing their best to preventing workers from forcing scofflaw insurance companies to pay.  By amending the language of Section 71-3-63 to prevent attorneys from collecting fees off of "voluntary" payments by insurance companies, they effectively stop workers from being able to hire attorneys to fight for them.  By law, attorneys may not charge workers' compensation claimants an hourly fee.  Instead, attorneys fees in workers' comp cases are capped at 25% of the recovery.  This bill would prevent the payment of attorneys fees when the insurance company "voluntarily" pays.  That means that if an insurance company decides to pay after a worker's attorney has contacted the insurance company, the attorney cannot be paid for his work.  Formby's and Chism's goal is to make it economically impossible for attorneys to represent injured workers, which would mean that insurance companies wouldn't be punished for refusing to pay claims.

Next, Formby and Chism amend Section 71-3-121, which would require drug testing of anyone an employer suspects of using drugs or alcohol while injured, and would prevent a drunk or high employee from recovering workers' compensation payments for that injury.  On the surface it sounds like a way to prevent alcohol and drug abuse in the workplace.  In reality, it will create situations in which an injured worker must submit to a drug test before being treated, even if the worker has a serious, life-threatening injury.  Otherwise, the worker will be denied workers' compensation benefits.  And what happens if the worker is legally on a medication?  After the positive test for that legally prescribed medication, the burden of proof shifts to the worker to prove that he was prescribed the medication, or else no medical treatment will be provided by the employer.

This bill ought to be called out for what it is: an attack on Mississippi workers.  After 8 years of promising jobs and not delivering, it seems that now Republicans are trying to make life difficult for the few folks lucky enough to have jobs.

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