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NO. 140. AN ACT RELATING TO REVIEW OF ATTORNEY FEES IN WORKERS' COMPENSATION CLAIMS.

(H.704)

It is hereby enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Vermont:

Sec. 1. 21 V.S.A. § 678 is amended to read:

§ 678. COSTS

(a) Necessary costs of proceedings under this chapter shall be assessed by the commissioner against the employer or its *[workmen's]* workers' compensation carrier when the claimant prevails. The commissioner may allow the claimant to recover reasonable attorney fees when *[he]* the claimant prevails. Costs shall not be taxed or allowed either party except as provided in this section.

(b) In appeals to the superior or supreme courts, the claimant, if he or she prevails, shall be entitled to reasonable attorney's fees as approved by the court, and interest at the rate of 12 percent per annum on that portion of any award the payment of which is contested. Interest shall be computed from the date of the award of the commissioner.

(c) By January 1, 1999, and at least every five years thereafter, the commissioner shall amend existing rules regarding reasonable attorney fees awarded under subsection (a) of this section. In amending these rules, the commissioner shall consider accessibility to legal services, appropriate inflation factors and any other related factors consistent with the purposes of this chapter. In the event the commissioner proposes no change in the rules in any five-year period, the commissioner shall provide a written report to the committee on administrative rules of the general assembly explaining the reasons for not changing the rules.

Sec. 2. 21 V.S.A. § 624(i) is added to read:

(i) The commissioner, by rule, may require workers' compensation carriers to conduct periodic workplace inspections and to provide other safety related advice to their insureds.

Sec. 3. 21 V.S.A. § 641 is amended to read:

§ 641. VOCATIONAL REHABILITATION

(a) *[Vocational rehabilitation.]* When as a result of an injury covered by thischapter, an employee is unable to perform work for which the employee has previous training or experience, the employee shall be entitled to vocational rehabilitation services, including retraining and job placement, as may be reasonably necessary to restore the employee to suitable employment. If these services are not voluntarily offered and accepted by the employee, the commissioner, if necessary through informal hearing, may refer the employee to a qualified physician or appropriate facility for evaluation of the practicability of, need for, and kind of service, treatment, or training necessary and appropriate to render the employee fit for a remunerative occupation. Upon receipt of findings and after affording the parties an opportunity to be heard, the commissioner may order that the services and treatment recommended, or such other rehabilitation treatment or service the commissioner may deem necessary be provided at the expense of the employer. When vocational rehabilitation requires residence at or near a facility or institution, away from the employee's customary residence, the reasonable cost of board, lodging or travel or both shall be paid for by the employer. In addition, the employer shall pay reasonable costs of books, tools or other basic materials required in such rehabilitation process. Refusal to accept vocational rehabilitation pursuant to an order of the commissioner may result in loss of compensation for each week of the refusal, if the commissioner so directs.

(b) Any person offering to provide vocational rehabilitation services to workers' compensation recipients shall register with the department and shall possess appropriate qualification as established by the department by rule.

Sec. 4. VOCATIONAL REHABILITATION; HEALTH BENEFIT

CONTINUATION; SAFETY VIOLATION; REPORT

The commissioner of labor and industry shall undertake a study of the effectiveness of vocational rehabilitation services, the degree and impact of loss of health and other employer-paid benefits to injured workers and the extent to which workplace injuries are related to unsafe conditions and report its findings and any recommendations for legislation to the General Assembly on or beforeJanuary 15, 1999. The report shall include an analysis of:

(1) The rate, frequency and duration of continuation of workers' compensation benefits during the period of vocational rehabilitation.

(2) The effect or appropriateness of providing additional compensation for wage loss upon reemployment, where appropriate.

(3) The appropriateness of calculating employer-paid benefits as a component of lost wages in regard to workers' compensation benefits.

(4) The severity, frequency and duration of injuries resulting from repeated or wanton violations of occupational safety laws.

Approved: April 21, 1998