JEFFERSON CITY - Gov. Matt Blunt signed a fundamental rewriting of Missouri's workers' compensation system into law Wednesday. The changes will reduce the number of injuries that qualify for benefits and increase the scrutiny on the program's judges.
Blunt trumpeted the new law, which his Democratic opponents say will make life harder for injured workers, as a necessary reform to a program he says is costing Missouri business.
"This will make Missouri a better place to foster economic development," Blunt said. "It restores balance to the system and makes Missouri more competitive with other states."
The laws join a growing list of pro-business measures enacted under the Blunt administration, which took over in January. One of Blunt's first acts as governor was to knock down collective bargaining rights for state workers. Earlier this week he signed new limits on awards in medical malpractice and liability lawsuits. Blunt promised all three during his campaign last fall.
The legislation tightens the definition of what qualifies for workers' compensation. Only those injuries where the job is deemed to be the "prevailing" cause would earn benefits. Heart attacks at the workplace or car accidents while driving a company car would not qualify.
It will also increase the number of judges who decide work comp cases and demand that judges follow a strict interpretation of the law. The new seats on the bench will be filled by Blunt.
Supporters say the changes are necessary to cut down on fraud and reduce the number of cases that end up in costly legislation. They say new laws will make Missouri more attractive to businesses.
"Our economy is a mess," said House Speaker Rod Jetton, (R-Marble Hill). "We have to do something to sort it out."
Opponents have called the bill "gotcha" legislation that puts too much pressure on legitimately injured workers and doesn't address the system's real problems.
"Let's make sure there's no fraud but let's also make sure we're fair to workers," said Rep. Clint Zweifel, a Democrat from Florissant who has works for the Teamsters union.
"I wouldn't sign this bill if I didn't believe it was beneficial to the workers of our state," Blunt said.
In addition to reducing the number of injuries which qualify, the law will:
>Limit the fees lawyers for injured workers can collect.
>Increase the maximum number of workers' comp judges from 30 to 40 and create a review process that would allow for a panel to vote judges off the bench. Workers' comp judges now serve for life.
>Allow an employer to make their workers use vacation or sick days to take time off for treatment.
>Disqualify workers fired for "post-injury misconduct" from receiving compensation.
>Reduce the amount a worker can collect if they are injured while in violation of safety regulations.
>Require complaints of pain be objectively verified by a doctor before they are admissible in court.