The state legislature has passed a bill meant to cover two issues regarding workers hurt in the workplace.
The bill seeks to right the state’s Second Injury Fund, from which settlements are paid out to workers who have a disability and then sustain a work-related injury. Legislation passed and signed in 2005 capped at 3 percent the surcharge that supported the fund, paid by all businesses on their workers’ compensation insurance. Since then the fund had become insolvent by more than $20 million dollars, with more than 30,000 claims against it still pending.
The legislation proposes doubling that surcharge from 2014 to 2021, long enough to pay down pending and outstanding claims. It would also restrict the fund to cover only the most serious claims.
The House handler of the bill, Representative Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) says that should keep the Fund from becoming unbalanced again.
“By limiting the number of claims that go into the Second Injury Fund, everybody that looks at it believes that current surcharge will be sufficient to cover the ongoing liability.”
Richardson says if the bill is signed, the first step will be for the increased surcharge collections to begin after January 1, 2014. Then the backlog of claims will begin to be paid down.
“It’ll start with the permanent total disability benefit cases first. Those are the people that have the most extensive injury. They’ll pay that money out as it becomes available.”
The bill also moves coverage for occupational disease back into the state’s workers’ compensation system. A court interpretation of a 2005 law had led to those cases being handled in the courts.
Richardson says the House and Senate recognized the need to include an enhanced benefit for specific diseases, and one specific to mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.
“We’ve included what amounts to a $500,000 enhancement for mesothelioma cases, but we’ve also given employers the ability to choose to avail themselves of the workers’ comp system and that $500,000 remedy or continue to operate under the status quo and have those cases tried in civil court.”
Richardson says another mechanism guarantees a benefit to workers suffering diseases due to toxic exposure including berylliosis, coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, brochiolitis obliterans, silicosis, silicotuberculosis, manganism, acute myelogenous leukemia, and myelodysplastic syndrome.
House Minority Leader Jake Hummel (D-St. Louis) spoke against the legislation. Hummel has said on the House floor before that his grandfather died of poisoning due to exposure to asbestos.
“I don’t believe that when someone is suffering, that someone who is dying a slow, painful death should have a price tag put on their life. I think that needs to be done in the courts.”
House Speaker Tim Jones (R-Eureka) called the bill’s passage “historic,” and noted it passed out of the House with 135 votes.
“My entire caucus. I think the Governor’s going to sign that, for all indications, but if he does not for any reason I think we have an easy override on that.”
The proposal on Tuesday cleared the Senate 32-1.
Jones says Attorney General Chris Koster also sent him a text message on Thursday to thank him for the work he did on the Second Injury Fund issue. Koster has joined other politicians in saying the fund needed to be addressed.