AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Senate voted late Friday to approve a measure that overhauls the state’s workers’ compensation system, which supporters say will cut down fraud but opponents feel will unfairly hurt injured workers.
The 19-16 strict party-line vote followed another spirited debate as the 125th Legislature’s second regular session wound down.
LD 1913 was drafted by the Labor Committee over a period of several weeks but the bill that was reported out sharply divided committee members.
The main elements of the program overhaul include:
• Altered eligibility requirements and the creation of a 10-year cap for employees who are permanently impaired with partial incapacity.
• The elimination of a requirement that employers must continue paying benefits during an appeal.
• A new appeals divisions with authority to create rules of procedure.
• A shortened time period in which a notice of injury must be given, from 90 days to 30 days.
• A changed maximum benefit, from 80 percent of an employee’s net weekly wages to 66 percent of gross weekly wages.
Republicans see the bill as a way to improve a system that hasn’t been significantly altered since the Maine Workers’ Compensation Act was established in 1992.
Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, said three governors in the last 20 years — an independent, a Democrat and a Republican — have identified problems with the program.
“We’re finally trying to address those,” he said.
Rector also pointed out that the bill is prospective, which means that all workers now in the system are exempt from the changes.
Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, sharply opposed the measure as an assault on injured workers, who he said have become “disposable commodities.”
“This addresses none of the real problems in the law,” he said. “It robs workers, creates a windfall for insurance companies and eliminates benefits for the most severely injured workers.”
Patrick also said he believes the system is moving toward stabilization so he didn’t see the need for such an overhaul although he said it fits with Gov. Paul LePage’s insistence that most state assistance programs are rife with fraud.
The bill passed in the Senate only after a late amendment convinced enough Republicans to unite behind the measure. Leadership had put off action on LD 1913 for most of the day Friday to allow things to come together.
The amendment softens the landing for permanently impaired workers who would lose benefits after 10 years and also requires consideration of psychological work capacity in assessing an employee’s earning potential.
Patrick called the amendment a “crumb thrown to workers.”
On Thursday, the House passed the bill in a 75-71 party-line vote after a similar back-and-forth debate among Republicans and Democrats.
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.
She also said the newly created appellate division would better protect workers.
“Currently, workers are not able to appeal a decision by the hearing board,” she said. “They will now have that option.”
Rep. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, argued that 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.
Follow BDN writer Eric Russell on Twitter at @BDNPolitics.