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It was a tough year for workers’ compensation lawyers who say they and their clients were the ones hurt when the California Legislature took on the job of “reforming” the comp system earlier this year. About 30 attorneys for comp applicants gathered at last week’s annual meeting of the Consumer Attorneys of California, both to commiserate and to come up with a plan for next year. Applicant attorneys “are a little pissed off,” said San Francisco attorney Robert Arns. “This isn’t about the lawyers, it’s about the [injured workers'] families” he said. The law signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger now requires, among other things, that injured workers seek treatment from doctors selected by their employers. Earlier this month, applicant attorneys asked the 3rd District Court of Appeal to rule that the provision doesn’t apply to workers already undergoing treatment. The new system establishing employer medical provider networks doesn’t go into effect until next year. Arns was joined on the panel by Arthur Azevedo, the outgoing president of the California Applicants’ Attorneys Association; Santa Rosa solo Fred Zanotto; San Mateo attorney Michael Gormley McKenna; and CAAA lobbyist Doug Kim. Kim blamed the bill’s success on a “perfect storm” that included the deregulation of workers’ comp insurance rates in the early 1990s, the state’s recession, and Schwarzenegger, who promised in the campaign to rein in rates. Arns said the changes were pushed by the Chamber of Commerce “for one reason — to take away the rights of injured workers.” But the panelists saved some of their harshest criticism for Democratic legislators — Senate President Pro Tem John Burton in particular — who they said rolled over. Kim said Burton was more concerned with winning support for the health insurance measure on the November ballot, Prop 72, and was willing to accept the comp bills to prevent them from landing on the ballot alongside his measure. (Prop 72 lost.) In addition, labor unions, the Democrats’ usual allies, wanted to see some changes in the comp system, Kim said, and “they knew they wouldn’t get it if we were at the table.” The panel did have one piece of good news: CAAA still has a million-dollar war-chest — money it didn’t have to spend on a ballot measure. The cash may come in handy during the legislative session that begins next month. “I don’t think worker compensation is off the table,” warned Kim. “The employers are more emboldened.”

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