Tag Archives: Oklahoma Employee Injury Benefit Act

Key Misunderstanding on Oklahoma Option

Most critics and supporters of the Oklahoma option (OKO) have one thing in common: a misunderstanding about the applicability of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). In part, this misunderstanding is widespread because it hasn’t yet garnered the attention of tax authorities and attorneys, and those of us who aren’t tax attorneys are reluctant to engage this subject because we fear we will be misinterpreted as giving tax advice.

Let me be absolutely clear—nothing in this article should be construed as tax advice, as I am not qualified to offer such advice.

But the ProPublica and NPR journalists who assume ERISA must govern the taxation of OKO benefits simply because it governs the taxation of Texas nonsubscription (TXNS) benefits[1] aren’t qualified, either.

Put simply, ERISA’s governance of OKO workplace injury claims has yet to be demonstrated in any way, and it was certainly not confirmed by rulings in 2015 by two federal judges for the Western District of Oklahoma who considered the jurisdiction of federal courts over OKO-based claims and appeals processes..

There was never any intent in the Oklahoma legislation to have ERISA govern the OKO, and the term “ERISA” never appears—not once!—in the language of the Oklahoma law. Even more importantly, two-and-a-half years after passage, there is zero case law to support any claim that ERISA applies to OKO.

These revelations may be counterintuitive for industry insiders and regulators, but what should be intuitive is that state and federal court systems are in charge of ruling on state and federal laws. Consultants, employers, employees, investigative journalists, insurance carriers, brokers, attorneys, ivory tower experts, doctors and conference debaters don’t get to make such calls. The only ones whose opinions matter are the judges in a position to make these determinations, and the only two judges known to have had the opportunity to consider any issue concerning the relationship between the OKO and ERISA concluded that the judges did not have jurisdiction over cases where the employer sought to have ERISA govern employee appeals of decisions regarding occupational OKO claims.

In April 2015, Judge Joe Heaton of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma issued an order regarding ERISA’s applicability to the occupational accident components of OKO plans in the case of Cavazos v. Harrah Nursing Center (aka Marsh Pointe) that, in part, reads:

“Marsh Pointe alleges … that, pursuant to the Oklahoma [Employee] Injury Benefit Act, it has elected to be exempt from the Administrative Workers’ Compensation Act and become a ‘qualified employer’ by meeting certain requirements including the adoption of a written benefit plan. That well may be. Nonetheless, the case [filed by the plaintiff] arose ‘under the workmen’s compensation laws’ of the State of Oklahoma. As such, it may not be removed to any district court of the United States.”

Judge Heaton’s ruling was a narrow one, aimed only at determining whether the federal court could exercise jurisdiction over the case before it. That case had been removed by the employer to federal court from the Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Commission (OWCC), based on the assertion that ERISA ought to govern the employee’s pursuit of a claim against her employer’s OKO plan. The court held that, regardless of whether ERISA applied to certain aspects of the OKO plan, the employee’s claim arose under Oklahoma’s WC laws and, therefore, a specific federal jurisdictional statute (28 USC §1445(c)) prevented removal of the case to federal court. Judge Heaton sent the matter back to the OWCC, and his order made it crystal clear that such cases cannot be removed to the federal court system.[2] In other words, ERISA (a federal law) does not give federal courts jurisdiction over the occupational accident claims of employees whose injury benefit plans are governed by the OKO (a state law)—no matter how frequently ERISA is referred to in an employer’s benefit plan and regardless of whether ERISA applies to other aspects of that benefit plan.

The Cavazos case was the first real opportunity we had to see whether removal of such claims to the federal courts was possible. Then, in September, Judge Stephen Friot (from the same Western District Court of Oklahoma) followed Heaton’s logic in Vasquez v. Dillards, our second opportunity to see whether federal court involvement in the OKO claims process was available. The decision read:

“The court concludes that the [Oklahoma Employee Injury Benefit Act] is part of Oklahoma’s statutory scheme governing occupational injuries and workplace liability; in other words, the OEIBA is part of Oklahoma’s statutory scheme governing workmen’s compensation.”

The case before Judge Friot was a bit different procedurally, but it came to the same result. In the Vasquez case, the employee received an adverse decision from her employer regarding her claim for benefits under the employer’s OKO plan. She then sought review by the OWCC as provided for in the Oklahoma statute. The employer removed the case to federal court, contending that the company’s plan was governed by ERISA and, therefore, that ERISA pre-empted state law on the issue and that the federal court had exclusive jurisdiction. The employee moved to remand the case to the OWCC. Judge Friot sided with the employee and remanded the case, which was to be expected post-Cavazos. The ruling in Vasquez (which features a more detailed discussion than the one provided by Judge Heaton in Cavazos) concludes that 28 USC §1445(c) (the same jurisdictional statute relied upon by Judge Heaton) barred removal of the case to the federal court, even if, as Judge Friot specifically presumed for purposes of his ruling, the “plan under which [the employee files] claims may be … an ERISA plan.”

The explicit—and antiquated—language from the 1974 ERISA law indicates that ERISA doesn’t apply to “workmen’s compensation.” ERISA’s authors recognized a long tradition of federal deference to individual states on workers’ compensation issues. While the OKO is different from traditional workers’ compensation, in the only cases known to address the issue thus far, the federal court system has concluded that it cannot exercise jurisdiction over the on-the-job injury claims of OKO employees.

Die-hard ERISA champions, as it turns out, can cling just as stubbornly to obsolete ideas as can workers’ compensation stakeholders. But OKO supporters don’t need to win such folks over; the law is already on the side of progress. The OKO clearly seeks to stand on its own, and it doesn’t want ERISA as a crutch. Being free from ERISA has advantages beyond tax implications. The OKO clearly sits much closer to traditional workers’ compensation than does TXNS—and, as such, OKO may be regularly accepted as a replacement in the state’s important oil and gas industry. In both Texas and Oklahoma, the larger energy companies almost always require traditional workers’ comp to be held by contracted companies. That won’t change in Texas, but it very well could in Oklahoma. Moreover, these federal court orders should provide solace to the Sooner State because they suggest the oversight and development of this new creation will be the responsibility of Oklahomans.[3]

[1] See “Inside Corporate America’s Campaign to Ditch Workers’ Comp,” an installment in the Insult to Injury series.

[2] The court remanded the case just two days after it was removed without seeking briefs from either party.

[3] To date, all three branches of the Oklahoma state government have actively or tacitly supported the OKO. At worst, the state has adopted a wait-and-see approach to this new alternative. At best, Oklahomans—sans attorneys—are eager to discover whether the incredibly promising early gains made possible through the OKO are sustainable over the long term.

At WorkersCompensationOptions.com, we’re convinced the gains are sustainable. There’s nothing theoretical about our promise of delivering superior care to employees at reduced costs to employers. We’re already doing it in Oklahoma, and we at WCO are proud to be part of this long overdue transformation.

Debunking ‘Opt-Out’ Myths (Part 5)

Option programs in Texas and Oklahoma produce substantially less litigation than workers’ compensation systems do, which provides a powerful endorsement for states considering such programs.

A look at litigation for workers’ compensation and option programs must consider three main exposures: (1) claims for employer liability, (2) claims that the law violates the particular state’s constitution and (3) claims for wrongful denial of benefits.

Claims for Employer Liability

Public policymakers have long understood that it is not fair to require employers to pay a high level of statutorily mandated injury benefits and also be exposed to legal liability damage claims regarding the cause of injury. There are several approaches available to state legislators in striking that balance in a workers’ compensation system or an option to workers’ compensation, but each approach must reflect this inverse relationship between the extent of an injury benefit mandate and the extent of employer exposure to liability.

Employer exposure to liability has been almost entirely removed from workers’ compensation systems because of extensive benefit mandates that include medical coverage for life. However, the option to Texas workers’ compensation takes the opposite approach. It has no injury benefit mandates but exposes employers to broad liability for negligence.

That formula will be pursued by few, if any, other state legislatures because of the risk that certain irresponsible employers would provide no injury benefit coverage to their workers. However, the Texas option liability exposure does provide an additional incentive for employers to focus on workplace safety. It also provides employers with an incentive to make a strong commitment to take care of the injured employee’s medical and indemnity needs.

Employer liability exposure under the Texas option is real. There have been more than 80 liability settlements or judgments of $1 million or more. This unlimited risk of liability is ever-present.

However, option programs experience less than half as many disputed claims as the Texas workers’ compensation system (which is widely acknowledged as the one of the best-performing systems in the U.S.). The tiny percentage of disputed option claims is, primarily, because of legal requirements to fully communicate all rights and responsibilities (at program inception and continuing) in language that employees can understand — a requirement that is quite hard to find within any workers’ compensation program.

Option programs are also legally required to use claim procedures that ensure a full and fair review of benefit claims, including access to state and federal courts.

Yet only 1.5% of Texas option claims have any attorney involvement, and less than one in 1,000 liability claims actually go through formal litigation. So, this liability exposure has a positive impact on workplace safety, while still proving to be manageable and fully insurable in a highly competitive option marketplace.

It took more than a decade for the insurance industry and case law development to create the current balance that is delivering injury benefits to more than 95% of Texas workers through either workers’ compensation or option injury benefit plans. The existing Oklahoma option and the proposed Tennessee and South Carolina options all mandate some level of injury benefits and reduce employer exposure to liability to simplify the public policy debate and avoid this long period of industry maturation.

Constitutional Challenges

In existence for more than 100 years, the Texas option has never faced a challenge on constitutional grounds. Texas courts have long respected an employee’s right to work, employer rights to tailor employee compensation and benefits and the legislature’s right to determine an appropriate balance between mandated injury benefits and employer liability exposures.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court has now twice rejected lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the Oklahoma option in 2013 and 2015. Oklahoma trial lawyers have filed more than a dozen lawsuits at the Oklahoma Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the 2013 workers’ compensation reforms. Oklahoma courts may further consider different provisions of the option law, but attorneys from the claimant and defense bar now agree that the Oklahoma Employee Injury Benefit Act is here to stay.

Oklahoma and Texas employers can freely move into and out of the workers’ compensation system at any time. So, even if the Oklahoma option is ever stricken down on constitutionality grounds (as unlikely as that prospect is), the law provides a 90-day grace period for employers to move back into workers’ compensation, without penalty. Similar provisions are in the pending Tennessee and South Carolina legislation.

Claims for Wrongful Denial of Benefits

Day-to-day legal challenges by injured workers regarding their rights to benefit payments are a normal feature of all workers’ compensation systems, and the same is true of option injury benefit systems. It is an unfortunate fact of life that, as with any line of insurance business, not every claim will be handled well. But as we have seen in Oklahoma over the past year and in Texas for more than two decades, dramatically fewer claims are disputed by injured workers under option programs.

Twice as many Texas workers’ compensation claims for benefits are disputed as compared with Texas option claims. This is true even when combining all injury benefit plan disputes and employer liability disputes under the Texas option.

Option opponents love to allege these programs only save money by failing to fully compensate injured workers. But, if this were true, why do we see fewer disputes in option programs?

Option program savings are achieved through more employee accountability for injury reporting, earlier diagnosis, persistent medical care from the best providers and more efficient resolution of fewer disputes. Option programs help ensure that employers and injured workers are communicating, engaged at the table (with or without legal counsel) and working together for better medical outcomes and return-to-work. This model must be contrasted with employers and injured workers routinely fighting through the complexity contained in thousands of pages of workers’ compensation statutes, regulations and case law that necessitate attorney involvement for basic system navigation.

A large cadre of workers’ compensation claimants and lawyers can be found in the hallways and hearing rooms of the Oklahoma and other state workers’ compensation commissions and courts on any given day. But there have been few day-to-day Oklahoma option benefit challenges. Oklahoma option programs now cover more than 22,000 workers, and almost every claim that has arisen over the past year has been fairly and efficiently resolved through the injury benefit plan’s claim procedures — essentially the same claim procedures that have applied to private employer group health and retirement plans across the U.S. for more than 40 years.

Over the span of 26 years in Texas and the past year in Oklahoma, not one state or federal employee has ever been hired to specialize in the oversight or administration of the approximately 50,000 option injury program claims that are successfully resolved every year. In contrast, tens of millions in taxpayer dollars are spent in many states every year to oversee and administer day-to-day workers’ compensation claims.

As further testimony to employee appreciation for the full disclosure of their rights and responsibilities under option injury benefit plans and the customer service they receive, not a single workforce in the past 26 years has organized a union as a result of the employer electing an option to workers’ compensation in Texas or Oklahoma. For workforces that are already unionized, their members and leadership appreciate the fact that option programs routinely pay a higher percentage of disability benefits, with no waiting period and no (or a higher) weekly dollar maximum.

Plus, disability benefits are paid on the employer’s normal payroll system, which allows employers and injured workers to seamlessly continue deductions for group health, retirement, child support and union dues. Successful Texas option programs have been in place for many, many years that cover textile, communications, food and commercial workers, teamsters and other collective bargaining units.

Conclusion

With liability exposures clarified and injured workers clearly more satisfied and getting better, faster under option programs in Texas and Oklahoma, legislators and employers in other states no longer need to “wait and see.” Single-digit annual cost savings can still be achieved through traditional workers’ compensation reforms, but option-qualified employers are seeing strong, double-digit cost reductions. Option programs support tremendous productivity, reinvestment and economic development gains for injured workers, employers and communities.

So, in spite of rhetoric from trial lawyers trying to survive and from their allies in the workers’ compensation insurance industry who fear free-market competition, there is no reason why workers’ compensation option legislation and program implementation should not be pursued by state legislators and employers as fast as their other priorities permit.