AUSTIN — Signaling a new issue for the Legislature’s 2017 session, members of a House committee are calling for major reforms in the state workers’ compensation program that would change coverage rules that now leave thousands of workers uninsured.

In a Tuesday meeting, the House Committee on Business and Industry questioned state Insurance Department officials at length about employers who are now failing to provide coverage and continuing complaints about the state’s designated-doctor program.

Texas does not require most private employers to have workers’ compensation insurance coverage, and state Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, said these non-subscribers — especially those in the construction industry who do not pay taxes — get medical care treatment through indigent-care and state health care programs that cost taxpayers.

“What happens is that some good corporate citizens of Texas want to protect their workers, but we still have some unscrupulous groups that are getting away with this,” Olivera told the committee.

Ryan Brannan, Texas’ workers compensation commissioner, said the Texas program has the highest rate of subscribers since 1993 and is making sure the system is balanced and transparent along with compliance on state holders.

“We are doing our best to be more efficient and transparent,” he said.

Facing increasing complaints, testimony indicated that participation by physicians in the Designated Doctor Program — in which state-approved doctors examine injured workers to decide claims in disputed cases — has dropped precipitously.

Stephen Norwood, from the Texas Orthopedic Association, said participation is down 67 percent, mostly because the state does not reimburse physicians enough for expenses to travel to remote locations.

“All this time away and expense often unexpectedly to remote locations doesn’t make it feasible for physicians to participate,” he testified. “If you allowed proper specialists to evaluate several workers during same travel, you increase access of workers to more appropriate exams and more efficiency to physicians.”

He called for the Legislature to provide funding to reinstate no-show fees and compensate physicians.

Rene Lara, legislative political director of the Texas AFL-CIO, told the committee that the current workers’ compensation law not only limits benefits to survivors but takes away death benefits from most widows or widowers if they remarry.

“A small amount of benefit coming into the household can be a huge loss to them in their perspective if they’re not high-income earners, which is the situation of most families,” he said.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court has already declared unconstitutional that state’s new law that eliminated mandatory workers’ compensation.

This story was published in the Houston Chronicle on March 23, 2016. 

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