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As the Texas Legislature’s 79th regular session draws to a close, key lawmakers involved in the effort to overhaul the state’s system for treating injured workers are scrambling to reach a compromise. The House and Senate passed competing bills — H.B. 7 and S.B.5 — that appeared earlier to be headed nowhere. Each bill languished for weeks in the opposite chamber from which it originated. On May 13, the Senate passed its version of H.B. 7, which now looks like S.B. 5. Senators stripped the House’s language from H.B. 7 and substituted the Senate’s language. As the Senate was rewriting H.B. 7, the House was doing the same thing with S.B. 5. The unusual maneuver allowed the House to reject the Senate’s amendments to H.B. 7 and the Senate to reject the House’s amendments to S.B. 5. After the two chambers rejected the amended bills, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick appointed five representatives and five senators to try to work out differences in the two bills. Although it’s common to send a bill to a conference committee, the House and Senate typically don’t send two competing bills to such a panel. “It’s real rare,” says Robert Kelly, who served as parliamentarian in the House from 1979-2000 and now works as a lobbyist. It’s so rare, in fact, that Kelly says he can’t remember a specific instance when a conference committee has worked on two different bills. “But I can’t imagine that it hasn’t happened before,” he says. Despite the rarity of the situation, the authors of the two workers’compensation bills say they are confident they can reach an agreement. “I’m very confident that we will reach a good solution that addresses injured workers’ needs, has a more sound system and lowers premium costs,” says state Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, Texas, author of S.B. 5. State Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, Texas, author of H.B. 7, says he’s “100 percent” confident that the conference committee will agree on the various provisions in the bills. According to a Senate Research Center analysis of both bills, Texas has one of the most costly and least effective workers’ compensation systems in the country. “I think workers’ compensation is a top priority for labor, for the business community and for the health of our economy,” Staples says. A key point that the conference committee must resolve involves governance of the system. The House plan would abolish the Texas Workers Compensation Commission (TWCC) and transfer many of its functions to the Texas Department of Insurance (TDI). The bill stems from the Sunset Advisory Commission’s review of TWCC, the state agency that has regulated the workers’ compensation system since 1990. Solomons, of counsel at Bell, Nunnally & Martin in Dallas, says workers’compensation is a health insurance product for injured workers. The Legislature should assign to TDI the regulatory functions involved in setting up proposed new physician networks to treat the workers, he says. Under the Senate plan, TDI would oversee the insurance functions of the workers’ compensation system. The Senate plan also calls for creation of a Texas Department of Workers’ Compensation with a single commissioner, rather than the six commissioners now at TWCC, to deal with other issues, Staples says. As chairman of the Sunset Advisory Commission, Solomons has pushed for enactment of the House bill to maintain the integrity of the sunset process, which requires the Legislature to review every state agency at least once every 12 years. When the House considered H.B. 7 for the first time on March 30, lawmakers approved the bill on a 144-3 vote. Solomons says it’s highly unusual for the House to approve a workers’ compensation bill by that large a vote. The Senate also spent time examining problems in the workers’ compensation system. S.B. 5 is based on recommendations from a special committee that Staples chaired. On March 15, senators approved the bill on a 29-0 vote. While the House and Senate have been at odds over the governance issue, they agree on several provisions in the bill. Both bills propose the creation of an Office of Injured Employee Counsel (OIEC) to assist workers injured on the job. Solomons says the sunset commission originally recommended the OIEC to help injured workers get through the dispute resolution process. The two chambers also agree in principle, although details remain to be worked out by the conference committee, that the workers’compensation system would benefit from the creation of managed-care style networks of physicians that would provide treatment for those who suffer on-the-job injuries. Under current law, injured workers can chose their physicians from TWCC’s list of approved doctors. “You will see workers’ comp insurance handled in a network fashion,” Solomons says. The conferees have little time in which to negotiate agreements on the provisions where differences remain. Under House Rule 8, 13(e) and Senate Rule 7.25, the two chambers must adopt the conference committee report by May 29 for one or both bills to pass.

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