Today’s WSI story

BISMARCK – North Dakota Workforce Safety and Insurance would receive performance evaluations less often under a bill draft approved Wednesday by state lawmakers.

The legislative Workers’ Compensation Review Committee decided four years was often enough for the state agency to be reviewed instead of every two years. The proposal needs approval from the Legislature to take effect.

Committee Chairman Rep. Dan Ruby, R-Minot, said the two-year cycle doesn’t allow enough time for recommendations to be implemented and to know the results.

“I understand we don’t want less transparency. We don’t want less oversight,” he said. “Sometimes it just seems like we’re doing one on top of another, and I’m wondering if we’re being as efficient and prudent as possible.”

Dave Kemnitz of the North Dakota AFL-CIO said the legislative process should be based on current information. Sylvan Loegering of the North Dakota Injured Workers Support Group said each evaluation brings up significant points and suggested reducing the scope instead of the frequency.

WSI Director Bryan Klipfel clarified the agency does have a financial audit every year.

“It’s not that we’re saying that we’re not being evaluated,” he said. “There is some oversight of the organization.”

Rep. Bill Amerman, D-Forman, said he isn’t against the four-year proposal, but he would like WSI to come before legislators at a midway point to update where it’s at with the prior evaluation’s recommendations.

After much discussion, the committee also agreed to approve a bill that would have WSI follow the sixth edition of the American Medical Association’s Guides to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment instead of the fifth edition.

The sixth edition introduces a new approach to rating impairment, improves internal consistency and simplifies the rating process, according to the association. It also puts more focus on mental health disabilities and has a rating system for pain.

However, choosing this edition also means a tougher standard for permanent impairment.

Right now, North Dakota injured workers are eligible for awards if the impairment is rated at 16 percent or more of the worker’s body. Consultants recommend changing the state’s rate to 10 percent with the move to the sixth edition.

However, the bill approved Wednesday would change the threshold for awarding permanent partial disability awards to 14 percent.

Consultants said the change to 10 percent and the sixth edition would be cost-neutral, but Tim Wahlin of WSI said the way the expense estimate was created “is not nearly as good as we would like.”

Since the state doesn’t issue awards below 16 percent, there isn’t data on how many cases fall below that, he said.

Ruby said he didn’t want to cut off workers who would qualify under the current rules but wouldn’t under the new edition. However, he said he wasn’t comfortable the data used justified a change to 10 percent.

Loegering suggested staying with the current rules until there was more information about what the sixth edition would mean or sticking with the 10 percent the consultants suggested.

By choosing 14 percent, Loegering said he worries some injured workers will go without benefits until lawmakers determine what percentage they should have used.

As with the other legislation discussed Wednesday, the bill would need to be approved by the Legislature to take effect.

The committee also approved a bill draft related to workers’ compensation benefits upon reaching retirement age.

Right now, a worker injured less than one year prior to his or her presumptive retirement date is not eligible for additional benefits payable because the minimum disability duration to qualify is one year.

The bill would change the law to say that an employee injured within two years before retirement can receive disability benefits, rehabilitation benefits or a combination for no more than two years.

If the duration of benefits extends beyond the retirement date, the benefit will be converted to an additional benefit payable at the date the disability ends or when two years of benefits are paid, whichever occurs first.

Jodi Bjornson, WSI’s general counsel, said the change would have minimal fiscal impact.

A bill to repeal the workers’ compensation aggravation law did not advance Wednesday after lengthy discussion. Wednesday’s meeting was the last for the committee this interim.