The bill is part of Gov. Bill Haslam’s legislative agenda for the year. The legislation was given to Brooks to shepherd through the House committee and floor process by House Leader Gerald McCormick, R–Chattanooga.
Workers’ Compensation is an insurance program that compensates employees for injuries they suffer on the job.
Employers are required to carry workers’ compensation insurance to cover the costs of medical expenses and lost wages of employees when they suffer work-related injuries.
As passed, the Workers’ Compensation Reform Act reforms the workers’ compensation system in Tennessee to provide more certainty for businesses while also protecting interests of employees across the state.
“This bill is a well-thought out piece of legislation that meets our overall goal of ensuring the most efficient and fair workers’ compensation system for both employers and employees,” Brooks said. “Overall, we believe our new system can be a model of excellence that will help our state become and even more attractive place to work and do business.”
According to Brooks, H.B. 194 will reduce the time it takes to receive permanent workers’ compensation benefits and improve injury medical treatment once the bill is signed by Haslam.
The process for resolving workers’ comp disputes will be streamlined, allowing injured workers to receive compensation and return to work quicker, Brooks stated in a press release.
According to The Associated Press, the chamber voted 68-24.
All of the votes in favor of the bill came from Republicans, plus Democratic Rep. Charles Curtiss of Sparta. All of the votes against the measure were cast by Democrats, who were joined by independent Rep. Kent Williams of Elizabethton, the wire service reported.
The Senate will have to agree to minor changes before the measure can head for the governor’s signature.
According to the AP, a major feature of the measure is that it would remove workers’ compensation cases from the state’s trial courts and instead create special panels appointed by the governor to hear claims and appeals.
Democrats noted that the bill would grant all the power over the system to the executive branch without input or oversight from the Legislature, according to the AP story.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville questioned the new system and offered a symbolic amendment to simply do away with the state’s workers’ compensation program altogether. It failed overwhelmingly.
Brooks said the changes will jump-start workers’ claims, removing uncertainty from both them and their employers.
“The process for resolving any disputes that they have will be streamlined, allowing these injured workers to receive compensation and return back to work or the classroom quicker,” Brooks said. “The employee will no longer have to go for such a long time without salary replacement while his or her case works its way through the court system.”
House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, argued that the maximum allowable compensation under the bill would fall below the average benefits under the current law. And fellow Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville questioned whether speeding up the process would be beneficial to injured workers.
“If the money is not enough to live on, (even) if you get it quicker, I don’t understand how that’s going to benefit the family,” she said.
Republican Rep. Jon Lundberg of Bristol said that the changes would bring the state into line with most of the states bordering Tennessee.
“We have a disincentive for businesses to come to Tennessee,” Lundberg said. “This helps level that playing field. Frankly, I think this will put more workers to work.”
Brooks said changes are projected to cause a reduction in workers’ compensation insurance premiums for companies, though he acknowledged the bill doesn’t address the costs of medical care.
Democrats said that proves the savings will be derived from the decreased benefits.
“There’s only two ways to stop the costs of things going up and saving money for small-business people,” Turner said. “That’s cutting the medical or taking the money away from the worker.”