By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
The Associated Press
COLUMBUS, Ohio - Business groups are pushing changes to the state workers' compensation system they say are needed to cut employers' costs.
Many of the proposals are similar to those voters defeated in November 1997 following a multimillion-dollar campaign over workers' comp issues.
Labor groups are upset by what they fear are new attempts to limit workers' rights.
One business-backed proposal would shorten from 10 to five years the life of a workers' comp claim, reducing a company's potential liability for a worker's injury.
Another proposal would eliminate factors such as educational background from decisions over long-term benefits for injured workers. A recent Ohio Supreme Court decision said numerous factors could be considered, which businesses say slows the process for awarding benefits and creates uncertainty for companies trying to determine what claims will cost them.
The ideas are expected to take the form of proposed legislation later this year.
The changes are needed now that the Bureau of Workers' Compensation has ended rebates to businesses and public employers because of the sluggish economy, Andy Doehrel, president of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, said Monday.
The loss of those rebates will cost businesses hundreds of millions of dollars this year alone.
With those rebates gone, the business community thinks the time is right "to make sure we're paying the right people and doing it in an cost-effective manner to keep the system under control," Doehrel said.
The chamber and other business groups have been holding preliminary discussions this summer with labor groups, who are not happy with the proposals.
"We've told them we would not entertain any benefit reductions," said Bill Burga, president of the AFL-CIO of Ohio. "If they were unjustified in 1997, they're doubly unjustified today."
Many of the same issues - such as reducing the life of a claim - were part of a business-backed workers' comp bill that then Gov. George Voinovich signed into law in April 1997.
Labor groups, which strongly opposed the bill, gathered enough signatures to place it on the November ballot.
Voinovich, a Republican, and other proponents said the changes would cut abuses of the workers' comp system and speed up claims processing.
Opponents contended that the reforms favored businesses and punished workers who filed legitimate claims.
Voters rejected the proposal - Issue 2 on the ballot - by a vote of 57 percent to 43 percent. The two sides spent a record total $10.23 million, with the losers - business groups - far outspending the winners.
In May, the Ohio Workers' Compensation Oversight Commission ended a seven-year run of rebates to businesses and public employers.
The workers' compensation bureau said it could no longer cover increased medical expenses and needed to raise the rate and stop rebates to keep the workers' comp system funded.
Because businesses received the rebates in the form of reduced premiums, the change means that businesses will pay about $600 million more in premiums from July through December.
Public employers such as schools will pay $200 million more after January.
Over the years the bureau returned $9.3 billion in rebates.
Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, is working with both sides to find common objectives.
"The governor believes there are reforms that could be implemented that could result in a modernized Bureau of Workers' Comp without compromising benefits to injured workers," said Taft spokesman Orest Holubec.
On the Net
Bureau of Workers' Compensation: http://www.ohiobwc.com
Ohio Chamber of Commerce: http://www.ohiochamber.com
Ohio AFL-CIO: http://www.ohaflcio.org
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