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Sunday: Workers' comp payouts increase 26 percent in five years [Tulsa World, Okla.]

Dec. 22-- The total amount of money injured workers received increased 26 percent over the past five years in cases reaching Oklahoma's Workers' Compensation Court, a Tulsa World review has found. That increase cost employers and their insurers $76.6 million more last year than they paid in 2007, the World's analysis shows. The state Attorney General's Office...

By Ziva Barnstetter and Curtis Killman, Tulsa World, Okla.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Dec. 22-- The total amount of money injured workers received increased 26 percent over the past five years in cases reaching Oklahoma's Workers' Compensation Court, a Tulsa World review has found.

That increase cost employers and their insurers $76.6 million more last year than they paid in 2007, the World's analysis shows.

But figuring out the reason behind the costly increase is a challenge.

Depending on whom you ask, the increase in total awards is variously the fault of state lawmakers, judges, employers, attorneys, insurance companies or escalating medical costs.

Injured workers often also get the blame for an allegedly broken system. Some critics believe that most workers who file claims are feigning injury to collect fat paychecks and sit at home.

Thomas Layon, a Tulsa attorney who has represented injured workers for more than three decades, called such tales "apocryphal" but not a fair representation of the system. Records back up his assertion.

The state Attorney General's Office filed about 60 cases over the past three years against workers for compensation fraud. That's far less than 1 percent of all cases filed by employees with the court during that time, records show.

The state's Workers' Compensation Court system handles only a fraction of all claims, about two in 10, although they are often the most serious and expensive. The rest are handled privately, between workers and their employers.

Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman said the Legislature has made reform of the workers' comp system its No. 1 priority again. Reforms passed last year aren't working, and the state's high workers' comp insurance rates are driving business away from the state, he said.

Others who are part of the system, including a judge, questioned Bingman's conclusion that the 2011 reforms aren't working.

"Nothing works in a year completely," said Vice Presiding Judge Eric Quandt, one of three judges assigned to Tulsa. "We haven't even heard a fraction of the cases under the new changes."

Read More in Sunday's Tulsa World

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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