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Proposed legislation may slash benefits for injured workers

A new piece of legislation may drastically alter the way in which workers' compensation claims are processed in Tennessee. The proposed reform, however, which would subject claims related to a workplace accident to the discretion of an ombudsman rather than the current exhaustive process, has also stirred up considerable controversy.

Presently, workers' compensation claims undergo a complex review process involving the court system as well as extensive pre-court administrative procedures that include a review process for potential benefits. Once a claim goes before the court, it is subject to review by one of hundreds of judges, but few claims actually require a trial, according to a Murfreesboro city council member who is also an attorney. The new legislation would remove the court entirely from the equation, and claims would be put before one of a small number of administrative law judges appointed specifically for the task of reviewing such claims, provided that the claim is approved in the first place by the ombudsman who processes it directly from the employee.

While proponents assert that the new, independent process has already been successful in other states and that it will expedite claims, make the state "more competitive" and attract more jobs, according to a Republican senator, opponents argue that the proposed law will slash benefit amounts for employees and overload the administrative system. The handful of administrative law judges would be incapable of effectively handling all of the state's workers' compensation claims, they argue, and the burden of disability and medical benefits would be shifted to Social Security and TennCare, resulting in inadequate care for injured workers.

While the workers' compensation process in Tennessee may be complex, it is also thorough, and it enables workers' compensation attorneys to secure benefits for their injured clients through the court if needed since some workers can come up against opposition from employers reluctant to pay out these much-needed benefits. While the new system could severely limit an injured worker's options for legal recourse, an attorney may still be able to offer valuable counsel and assist the worker with assembling a case to put before an administrative judge in order to better his or her chances of obtaining benefits.

Source: The Daily News Journal, "Corrected: Workers' comp stirs debate," Doug Davis, March 25, 2013

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