Bill will allow higher insurance reimbursements for injured commercial fishermen

the Homer Harbor
Vessels at the Homer Harbor. (Sean McDermott/KBBI)

Injured commercial fishermen and boat owners in Alaska will now be able to access higher insurance reimbursements, thanks to Senate Bill 93, which was signed into law last month.

The bill was sponsored by the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee, which Nikiski Republican Sen. Jesse Bjorkman chairs. It concerns the fishermen’s fund, which was established pre-statehood as a service to commercial fishermen who are injured while fishing. It’s funded by fees from commercial fishing licenses.

“The Alaska fishermen’s fund reimburses licensed fishermen and boat owners for their out-of-pocket medical costs if they have been injured or have a qualified illness while fishing off-shore, or doing fishing-related work on-shore,” Bjorkman explained in a hearing.

In 2023, the council that oversees the fund requested the maximum payout be raised from $5,000 to $10,000 to better match the insurance deductibles of many vessel owners. Fishermen requested raising that number to $15,000, which Senate Labor & Commerce adopted.

“Even with the $15,000 maximum, the projected disbursements from the fund leave the balance still very stable,” Bjorkman’s staffer Laura Achee explained at a March 2023 hearing. “And so it becomes a philosophical question in a situation in which a fund is created to serve a population, finding that balance between keeping the fund itself healthy, but not allowing disbursements from the fund to serve the balance of the fund more than they serve the population the fund was intended to serve.”

The bill was also designed to incentivise boat owners to get Protection and Indemnity, or P&I, insurance policies.

Representatives from the state’s division of workers compensation, which oversees the fishermen’s fund, testified that the rate of reimbursements over the past several years shows it would be sustainable to increase the maximum payout.

During public testimony, Tracy Welch with trade group United Fishermen of Alaska expressed support for the bill.

“As you’ve heard from staff, the fund is very healthy. It’s paid for by fishermen, for fishermen. And this is a great chance for us to be able to help those fishermen who are seeing a high increase in their deductibles,” Welch said. “Some of us loaners are seeing 10, 15 thousand for deductibles. So this is a way to help them, and provide a little bit of incentive for them to hold P&I insurance for them and their crew.”

In addition to raising the reimbursement ceiling, the bill also adds viral illnesses to the list of issues eligible for payouts.

The bill had another hearing in Labor and Commerce, and in the corresponding house committee. It passed the Senate unanimously in May 2023, then reached the House floor this session, where it passed 39-1. Gov. Mike Dunleavy signed the bill April 23, and it took effect immediately.

In a press release last month, Bjorkman said he was grateful the bill had been signed into law.

“As policies have risen in price, operating costs have appreciated, and labor shortages have impacted bottom lines, many owners have purchased policies with a higher deductible to control costs,” the release reads. “This bill provides support to vessel owners by establishing equity for crew across the industry, potential cost savings, and protection of loss that enables owners to provide for injury or illness without risking their entire operation.”

He reiterated it should have no financial impact on the state.

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