Workers’ compensation debate targets benefit caps

By Matt Wickenheiser, BDN Staff
Posted March 09, 2012, at 2:50 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Republican lawmakers warned Friday there likely would be opposition over a proposed cap on workers’ compensation benefits paid for some injuries as the legislative committee continued its work on a proposal to revamp the system.

The proposal would cap the amount of time benefits can be collected by people who are partially but permanently injured to 11.8 years (618 weeks). Now some of those types of injuries are capped at 10 years (520 weeks), depending on their severity. The most severe are not capped.

So the proposal imposes a cap that hadn’t existed for some injuries, while it raises the cap on others. Any changes would not affect those who already are collecting workers’ comp benefits.

Democrats on the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee have, in the past, expressed displeasure over imposing a new cap for some injuries.

But Republican lawmakers on Friday raised their own red flag over concerns about the 618 weeks, which they said was more generous than other states.

“The 618 weeks — colleagues on my side of the aisle will have a huge problem with that,” said committee co-chairwoman Rep. Kerri Prescott, R-Topsham. “The 520 weeks we currently have — more people will push for that.”

She asked Workers’ Compensation Board Executive Director Paul Sighinolfi where that cap would place Maine in respect to other states, and he answered it would be the fifth- or sixth-highest cap for those types of injuries in the country.

“That’s where the heartburn is,” she responded.

Rep. Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, said he would not support the cap of 618 weeks.

“It puts everything out of whack with everything else,” he said.

Sighinolfi, who drafted the proposal, said his thinking was that because the plan would impose a new cap, it also should extend benefits for others — sort of a give and take.

“My hope was to put in a system where we were taking something away, but putting something back in,” Sighinolfi said.

The committee didn’t vote on the proposal. It’s the second work session it has held on the plan, with another tentatively scheduled for next week.

The proposal makes other changes. Those collecting workers’ comp now get 80 percent of their weekly benefits, capped at $634, which is 90 percent of the statewide weekly average wage after taxes. The proposal would increase the cap to 100 percent of the average wage, raising the weekly payout by $70.

On Friday, lawmakers also asked Sighinolfi about efforts being made to transition workers receiving compensation benefits back to employment of some sort. He said the board isn’t proactive and waits for workers or their representatives to ask about vocational rehabilitation services.

He did note that the board has a fund to help with that aspect. Funded with fees paid by companies that are penalized for not following various rules, that account has a balance of $800,000, Sighinolfi said.

Sighinolfi said he hoped in a revamped system there would be more emphasis on getting injured workers back to the workplace. In sessions around the state held by Gov. Paul LePage, employers consistently said they have job openings but no workers to fill them, Sighinolfi said.

“My thinking is to change the benefits structure and get people back to work,” he said. “11.8 years gives people ample time to get into jobs.”

He said one thing other states do that Maine does not is explore on-the-job training opportunities as vocational rehabilitation. For example, the state may underwrite the cost of employing an injured worker who is learning new skills at a workplace for a time.

“You have to be creative,” he said.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/03/09/business/workers-compensation-debate-targets-benefit-caps/ printed on August 30, 2014