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March 5, 2015

Absence Management: Work Comp’s Future?

Summary:

As workers' comp claims dwindle, providers should offer "absence management" -- handling loss of work time for any reason, not just injury.

Photo Courtesy of Ted Eytan

American employers will dispatch hundreds of staff members to an April gathering in Washington, DC, on corporate compliance issues. In all likelihood, hardly any CEOs in the workers’ comp industry are fluent in these issues, even though by the end of this decade they may change the direction of the workers’ comp businesses, separating the successful from the laggards.

A change for workers’ comp leaders hides in plain sight.  Claims have been declining in frequency by about 3.5% a year. It’s prudent to expect continued decline, as jobs become safer every year. Average claims costs, which used to bump up by more than 5% a year, aren’t growing beyond a few percent.

Meanwhile, the typical employer’s agendas of employee leave, disability management and wellness have been surging in scope and complexity. A few workers’ comp companies have already repositioned themselves to provide a broad array of solutions for these agendas.

Most workers’ comp CEOs appear to think these burgeoning workplace concerns have little to do with their company’s future. They may be right. Or they may be whistling past the graveyard.

Since the beginning of the Great Recession, demographic, technology and legal trends visible in recent decades began to accelerate in the direction of smaller work injury risk and larger non-occupational employee risks. Frank Neuhauser of the University of California at Berkeley estimated that for most workers it is more dangerous to drive to work than to be at work.

And notice the rise in employee leave benefits and the greater emphasis on wellness (despite deserved criticism of overselling that concept). Perhaps this is how Occupy Wall Street ends: not in a revolutionary bang, but a paid parental leave benefit and a worksite yoga studio.

The Disability Management Employer Coalition puts on the April conference as its annual problem-solving exercise for the Family and Medical Leave Act and Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition to these federal mandates, states and localities have been promulgating leave-related mandates by the dozens. In January, for instance, Tacoma, WA, enacted a law requiring employers to offer at least three days of paid sick leave come January 2015.

ClaimVantage, which sells absence management software, reports there are about 140 federal and state family leaves across the nation. When adding ancillary leaves like jury duty and blood donor leaves, the numbers rise to about 400. Paid family leave is gaining momentum to become a mandated benefit. The U.S. is the only high-earning country that does not offer paid leave after the birth of a child and only one of eight countries in the world that doesn’t mandate paid leave for new mothers.

According to the Integrated Benefits Institute, workers’ comp accounts for a mere 11% of all work absences involving a medical condition.

Legally mandated and voluntary benefits, disability accommodation, wellness and other employee-centric programs have by intertwining themselves raised their visibility in corporate C-Suites. No single, memorable descriptor today captures them successfully. Phrases such as “health and productivity management” and “total health” are bandied about. I suggest a simple term, “absence management,” in a report I wrote called “Seismic Shifts: An Essential Guide for Practitioners and CEOs in Workers’ Comp,” which WorkCompCentral published in February.

The absence business beckons

Although the labels will evolve, the need of employers for expert outside assistance to address their agendas is bound to grow. Will workers’ comp companies deliver solutions?

The employers most ready to ask for help include those with relatively large workers’ comp costs to begin with: middle- to large-sized employers. Workers’ comp claims payers today will process about $65 billion in workers’ comp benefits this year. Perhaps 15% of these benefits involve very large employers. A further 25% involve employers that are not that large yet incur workers’ comp losses of about $200,000 a year or more. Combined, these employers account for 45% of workers’ comp benefits. In other words, about half of the workers’ comp business today is with employers big enough to know they have a complicated absence management problem on their hands.

Their human resource executives and legal counsel have been telling CEOs that the compliance risks of government mandates can’t be ignored. The mandates have grown into an elephantine mass so thick that without expert outside assistance an employer has a high probability – say, 100% — of violating some law or other.

The more alert and early-adapting segment of employers tends to affiliate with the San Francisco-based Integrate Benefits Institute. Their individual staff members join the San Diego-based Disability Management Employer Coalition. These membership organizations feed the demand for training, resource networking and applied research.

Broadspire, ESIS, Sedgwick, York and perhaps other third-party administrators already market services to manage at least some aspect of non-occupational absences.

Workers’ comp claims payers can manage non-occupational absences because they already possess the needed core competencies. Pared down to the essentials, the workers’ comp claims payer does six things:

  • It processes claims.
  • It assists at some level of intensity in reducing the rate of incidents that end in claims.
  • It coordinates medical treatment and vocational recovery
  • It understands return to work.
  • It prices its product.
  • It complies with pertinent laws.

Absence management does basically the same things.

Further tying together workers’ comp and non-occupational absences in a workforce is the vital role of health behaviors of employees. The workers’ comp claims executive is acutely aware that health behaviors of injured workers often drive up claims costs. It is increasingly clear that smoking can be a more costly unsafe act than, say, distraction. Not that smoking precipitates an occupational or non-occupational injury (there’s scanty evidence of that), but that smokers are at more sharply higher risk to heal slowly and to become dependent on opioids in treatment.

The Integrated Benefits Institute has for years carefully analyzed patterns in non-occupational absences. It says that employers can and should use a coherent master plan for absences of all kinds, wellness initiatives and claims management.

In a phone and email exchange, IBI President Tom Parry suggests that workers’ comp claims payers think through their strengths in medical care, disability management and return to work. “These all are key parts to an employer’s strategy in taking a comprehensive approach to lost work time management,” he says.

Also, he advises, be prepared to benchmark and compare. Get hold of industry-specific benchmarking data across lost time programs, workers’ comp, FMLA and short and long-term disability. Become fluent in plan design terminology on the non-occupational side. Review the research literature on the cross-program impacts of health and a total absence management approach. IBI just published research on claims migration across programs, “Crossing Over — Do Benefits and Risk Managers Have Anything to Talk About?”

Why companies may hold back

A workers’ comp claims payer might enter the absence business because it does not believe that the workers’ comp industry is shrinking. For instance, the average cost of claims may, as it has in the past, grow faster than the reduction in injuries, leaving claims payers with an ever-larger pie. But in recent years average indemnity and medical costs have greatly slowed their growth and in some jurisdictions declined. And the incidence of lost time compensable claims continues to decline, the one clear exception being the island of all exceptions, Southern California.

Also, workers’ comp executives might say there is no apparent demand from their clients for non-occupational services. This sort of flies in the face of the experience of TPAs that have launched non-occupational service units. (True, they focus on the higher end of the employer market.) But the observation also doesn’t jibe with the workers’ comp industry’s experience with emerging services in the past. In instances of innovation, from medical bill review to pharmacy management to Medicare set-asides, large-scale and profitable services emerged after initial years of puzzlement. The fog banks eventually lift.

Then there are impediments in the broker community. It’s almost inevitable that absence management involves insurance products sold through benefits brokers and products sold through property and casualty brokers. They don’t talk a lot, even when working under the same roof. This complicates the work of product design and marketing.

Another reason to say no to opportunity is the challenging learning curve that absence management brings. But look at how the TPAs handled that. Those that have expanded their service offerings beyond workers’ comp claims all appear to forge alliances with, or acquire, servicing partners already steeped in some aspect of absence management.

It may be too harsh to equate workers’ comp claims payers with the railroad industry, which 60 years ago asserted that it was in the railroad, not the transportation, business. Perhaps too harsh, but there may be a lesson in that story.

The decline of work injuries

Injuries requiring at least 31 days away from work

year 1993 2015 2022 (projected)
injuries 450,000 250,000 175,000
Total employment 110 million 133 million 148 million

 

 

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About the Author

Peter Rousmaniere is a journalist and consultant in the field of risk management, with a special focus on work injury risk. He has written 200 articles on many aspects of prevention, injury management and insurance. He was lead author of “Workers’ Compensation Opt-out: Can Privatization Work?” (2012).

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