Maine House passes workers’ compensation overhaul

Posted April 12, 2012, at 5:10 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill to overhaul Maine’s workers’ compensation system that has been in the works for months became the latest measure to divide Republicans and Democrats in Augusta.

The majority report of LD 1913 passed 75-71 along sharp party lines after considerable debate on Thursday in the Maine House. It was scheduled to be taken up by the Senate later in the day.

Among other things, the bill:

• Changes the maximum benefit from 80 percent of an employee’s net weekly wages to 66 percent of gross weekly wages.

• Eliminates a requirement that employers must continue paying benefits during an appeal.

• Creates a new appeals divisions and gives it authority to create rules of procedure.

• Shortens the time in which a notice of injury must be given from 90 days to 30 days.

• Alters eligibility requirements and creates a 10-year cap for employees who are permanently impaired with partial incapacity.

Because the majority report passed, the minority report on the bill, which contained a resolve to study the system more closely and bring back recommendations for possible legislation next year, was not taken up in the House on Thursday.

Republicans said the bill is a way to improve a system that hasn’t been significantly altered since the Maine Workers’ Compensation Act was established in 1992.

Rep. Kerri Prescott, R-Topsham, House chairwoman of the Labor Committee, said the bill contains a lot of good reforms that put Maine in line with many other states.

“We keep hearing that workers will fall through the cracks, but [10 years of benefits] isn’t falling through the cracks,” she said.

Rep. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, said Maine’s current system has resulted in a decrease in the number of claims and in the average length of claims.

“I can’t identify the problem,” she said.

Rep. Robert Hunt, D-Buxton, said the bill is a windfall to insurance companies because they will pay out less money if the changes are approved.

Hunt also said he doesn’t mind that Maine is more generous than the bordering states of Massachusetts and New Hampshire when it comes to programs such as workers’ compensation.

“In Maine, we take care of each other,” he said.

Rep. Dale Crafts, R-Lisbon, however, said he thinks the workers’ compensation system encourages the “entitlement mentality.” He said he’s tired of seeing people who are “supposedly disabled” collect benefits.

“The problem with our society today is we look for a way not to work,” he said.

Rep. Herbert Clark, D-Millinocket, said he was offended by the constant claims of fraud by some.

“None of you have the guts to stand up and defend the worker,” he said.

The bill was opposed heavily by labor groups and others during a recent public hearing. Many turned out Thursday at the State House in an effort to sway lawmakers.

Maine AFL-CIO President Don Barry said he was disappointed with the vote.

“Gov. LePage and his legislative allies did the bidding of the insurance industry today at the expense of Maine working families. This bill will take money out of the pockets of injured workers and hand it over to the insurance companies,” he said in a statement. “Where will injured workers go when they stop receiving benefits and are unable to work? Many will be forced to general assistance, Social Security disability, or other taxpayer-funded programs. Workplace injuries are fundamentally the responsibility of employers and these costs should not be shifted to the public.”

Follow BDN writer Eric Russell on Twitter at @BDNPolitics.

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