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Mississippi workers compensation changes go into effect

A sign reading “Zero Injuries” hangs inside of Enersteel as a worker welds Friday morning. Cory Chambliss, below, welds a piece of steel. Companies with safety programs in place are eligible for lower rates through some insurance companies. (Photo by Lauren Wood / The Natchez Democrat)

NATCHEZ — Revisions to Mississippi worker’s compensation laws that took effect July 1 could be the key to cutting down high numbers of frivolous insurance claims, local experts say.

Benefits to employers in the new law include a change in how drug and alcohol tests after an accident are used.

A post-accident drug and alcohol test is required for any worker’s compensation proceeding. But, previously, even

Cory Chambliss, left, welds a piece of steel Friday morning while working at Enersteel. (Photo by Lauren Wood / The Natchez Democrat)

if an employee tested positive for drugs or alcohol in a post-accident screening, the employer or third-party insurance agency handling the claim still had to prove that the worker was intoxicated during the accident.

In the new worker’s compensation laws, if an employee tests positive for drugs or alcohol in a post-accident screening, it is assumed that the employee was intoxicated during his or her accident.

Tate Hobdy, insurance broker at Stephens and Hobdy Insurance in Natchez, said the change is a good one for local companies.

“Before it was the employer’s responsibility to prove the alcohol or drugs were responsible for the accident and that can be difficult to prove,” Hobdy said. “These new laws put the burden of proof on the employee and assumes the drugs and alcohol were the cause of the injury.

“I think that’s the way it should be, because it will help cut down on a lot of frivolous claims.”

David Peak, senior underwriter for Stone Trust Insurance in Baton Rouge handles policies for several Natchez businesses and said some of the new laws can allow insurance companies to offer lower rates to industries that have certain programs in place.

“If we have an account and they have a drug testing program or certain safety programs in place, we can price their rates more competitively,” Peak said. “I think these laws are more fair and equitable to the employers, insurance companies and everyone involved.”

For John Ball, a Natchez attorney who represents claimants in workman compensation cases, some of the new laws go above and beyond what insurance companies can prove about an accident at the workplace.

“Marijuana, for instance, can stay in your system for 30 days, so that could still be in someone’s system weeks after when they have an accident,” Ball said. “The new law just makes the assumption that you were under the influence during the accident.”

Ball said a change that will affect a significant number of employees deals with the apportionment, or distribution of benefits, of pre-existing conditions.

Under the new law, employers hiring employees with previous injuries are only responsible for the permanent effects of a new injury, and not their pre-existing condition, unless they can be proven related by medical evidence.

Ball said that portion of the new law discriminates against older workers, who are generally prone to have more pre-existing conditions at no fault of their own.

“You can have someone who has worked hard their whole life and has some kind of back condition that didn’t cause them any problems at all, but if they’re injured that’s not considered in their claim,” Ball said. “Mississippi already has some of the lowest benefit payments in the country, so that’s just taking more away from a family to live on if that person is injured.”

But Peak said the pre-existing apportionment allows employers to get a better feel for an employees potential health risks.

“If you hire somebody who has had three back surgeries, you’d like to know that if they injure themselves again, that they can’t go back and collect full benefits for all those injuries they had previously,” Peak said. “If people are trying to gain the system in some way, that needs to be brought out.”

Other portions of the new worker’s compensation laws also include:

4 An increase in employee benefits for funeral costs, from $2,000 to $5,000.

Establishing an employee’s physician once treatment is given for six months, preventing the employees from seeking a review from another doctor.

Ball said he believes portions of the new laws will be challenged in court, but others will stand — leaving employers and insurance companies benefiting in the long run.

“The pendulum is always swinging, and now it just happens to be swinging more toward the employers and insurance companies and away from injured workers,” Ball said. “I do think some of these will be challenged, but for the most part you just have to learn the new laws and deal with them.”