FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — The Kentucky House voted Wednesday to make the biggest changes to workers' compensation in decades, including putting time limits on benefits for some injured workers.
A key part of the measure would place a 15-year cap from the date of injury. It would apply to workers filing claims for permanent, partial disability because of on-the-job injuries. Currently, they are entitled to medical benefits for the duration of the disability.
Many of those workers eventually return to the labor force, but opponents of the cap say those injuries can result in nagging medical problems that need attention far beyond 15 years.
Before passing the bill, the House amended it to allow those injured workers to make recertification filings that, if approved, would let them continue receiving medical benefits.
The bill passed the Republican-led House on a 55-39 vote. Several GOP members, mostly from eastern Kentucky, voted against the measure, while a couple of Democrats supported it.
The bill, which now heads to the Senate, provoked a long and sometimes testy House debate. Supporters said the measure would enhance Kentucky's business competitiveness. Opponents said there's no justification for the changes because workers' compensation insurance premiums paid by the state employers have been dropping.
"This bill is about greed," Rep. Al Gentry said.
Gentry, who lost an arm in an injury years ago, said the 15-year cap on medical benefits was unfair to injured workers. He said some will need medical treatment years after that.
"And at that time, the burden of this medical liability will have been shifted directly back to them," the Louisville Democrat said. "And if they're on Medicare or Medicaid at the time, it's directly shifted back to the taxpayer."
They'll also shoulder the costs of trying to win the extended medical benefits through the recertification process, Gentry said.
Rep. Adam Koenig, the bill's lead sponsor, said workers still receiving treatment or having a reasonable expectation of needing future treatment would be eligible for the extended benefits.
Supporters said the bill offers welcome relief for smaller businesses paying workers' comp insurance. The bill is backed by business groups but opposed by organized labor groups.
"I feel like that we have to do things to allow us to be more competitive with surrounding states," Republican Rep. Matt Castlen of Maceo said.
"Without Kentucky businesses, we don't have Kentucky jobs," he added.
Republican Rep. Diane St. Onge of Fort Wright said prospective employers considering a move to Kentucky "look to see what the workers' comp laws are."
Under the bill, the most severely injured workers — considered permanently, totally disabled — would still receive lifetime medical benefits, said Koenig, a Republican from Erlanger.
Koenig said the change would not apply to people now receiving workers' comp benefits. It would affect future cases stemming from workplace injuries.
An attempt to rewrite the bill failed. Republican Rep. Jill York said her amendment included no caps on medical and disability benefits and increased benefits for injured workers.
It also would have allowed police officers, firefighters and other first responders to receive medical and disability benefits for psychological problems caused by on-the-job stress.
Other parts of the bill that passed would:
— Increase the state average weekly wage.
— Put a time limit on the ability of injured workers to reopen a claim.
— Terminate indemnity benefits at age 67 or two years after an injury, whichever is later.
— Increase the cap on attorneys' fees from $12,000 to $18,000.