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August 10, 2015

Debunking ‘Opt-Out’ Myths (Part 4)

Summary:

Contrary to myth, option programs create competitive pressures that reduce workers’ comp costs and benefit both large and small employers.

Photo Courtesy of Rob.

I’m aware of no logic, facts or data to support the assertion that options increase workers’ compensation premiums. The exact opposite can be easily demonstrated.

Ask yourself, are prices higher or lower when employers have only one product to choose from vs. when they are able to choose among competing products? Texas went from the 10th most expensive workers’ compensation system in the U.S. in 2003 to the 38th most expensive state in 2013 through a combination of workers’ compensation system reforms and competitive pressures from employers electing the Texas “nonsubscriber” option – choosing not to be part of the state’s workers’ compensation system. One-third of all Texas employers have elected the option. Employers representing hundreds of thousands of Texas workers evaluated the impact each system would have on their claim costs, compared insurance premiums and exited the state system between 2003 and 2013.

Likewise, Oklahoma simultaneously enacted workers’ compensation reform and option legislation in 2013. Workers’ compensation premiums have since dropped more than 20%, and Oklahoma option programs are saving even more.

Further debunking the myth option program raise workers’ compensation costs, a 2015 report from the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute studied workers’ compensation claims in 17 states and found that the total average cost per claim for injured workers in Texas was among the lowest. Costs per claim grew in Texas only 2.5% per year from 2008 to 2013, as measured in 2014. In contrast, for National Council on Compliance Insurance (NCCI) states, the average indemnity cost per lost-time claim increased by 4% in 2014, and the average medical cost per lost-time claim increased by 4% in 2014.

Texas workers’ compensation is outperforming national averages because Texas employers have a choice. The option creates a greater sense of urgency among regulators and workers’ compensation insurance carriers to manage claims better so they can reduce premium rates and compete with the alternative system. The option also makes implementation of workers’ compensation reforms more manageable, because they happen across a smaller base of claims.

Further, consider that most employers that implement option programs have some frequency of injury claims. Very few employers with no injury claims are willing to go to the time, effort and expense of adopting and communicating a special injury benefit plan, buying special insurance coverage, contracting a claims handling specialist and satisfying newly applicable state and federal compliance requirements (which may include a state qualification process and filing fee). Because options take many companies that have injury claim losses out of the workers’ compensation system, workers’ compensation insurance carriers suffer fewer losses and can reduce workers’ compensation premiums. The carriers must compete harder for business, and they have no justification for charging higher premiums when their total loss experience improves.

Associations that represent workers’ compensation insurance companies have labeled options an “external threat” to the industry at a time when premium volume and carrier profits are up and losses are at a 17-year low.  Calendar-year 2014 underwriting results, combined with investment gains on insurance transactions, produced a workers’ compensation pretax operating gain of 14%. These insurance companies urge state legislators to protect their monopolistic, one-size-fits-all product and its profits. They also fight to maintain an anti-competitive web of price-setting collaborations that would violate antitrust laws in other industries.

As David DePaolo recently noted on WorkCompCentral, in “the business of workers’ compensation insurance… investors (the business side) want to know whether they are going to make money, and how much, by financing the system; not whether the system is working ‘correctly’ or not.” This is an important insight in the context of workers’ compensation insurance lobbyist objections to an option. The lobbyists promote the idea that workers’ compensation systems are superior and working fine, but that is not their primary motivation in trying to shut down competitive alternatives.

Some insurance association members have defected and embrace free-market competition. More than $150 million in the Texas nonsubscriber option insurance premium was written last year alone. The Oklahoma option insurance market is just starting up. Many “A-rated” insurance companies now oversee the successful resolution of approximately 50,000 injury claims per year under option programs.

An option can be authorized by a state legislature before, after or at the same time as workers’ compensation reforms are adopted. Legislators suffering from “workers’ comp fatigue” find option legislation to be dramatically less voluminous, time-consuming, confusing and contentious than major workers’ compensation reform.  And, as proven in Texas and Oklahoma, the option can slash employer claims costs by 40% or more. A single state (like Tennessee or South Carolina) can see lower government regulatory expense and more than $100 million in annual public and private employer savings. That impact grows exponentially through economic development multipliers. Those are dollars that can be used to create private-sector jobs and invest in education, safety, transportation and other legislative priorities.

In contrast, when standing alone, workers’ compensation system reforms are typically returning single-digit premium rate reductions that do not move the needle on injured employee medical outcomes or economic development. Even the widely referenced Oregon premium ranking study (like many others) questions the ability of traditional workers’ comp reforms to create significant movement in employer costs or employee satisfaction.

Options to workers’ compensation have particularly worked to the advantage of small employers, which pay most of the workers’ compensation industry premiums. Small companies that experience few, if any, on-the-job injuries typically purchase workers’ compensation insurance coverage on a guaranteed-cost (zero-deductible) basis. They get competitive quotes on both workers’ compensation and option insurance products, then typically choose to write the workers’ compensation premium check and be done. However, both big and small businesses can benefit from option programs. There are several Texas nonsubscriber insurance carriers that write policies for hundreds, even thousands, of small employers. In fact, the vast majority of Texas and Oklahoma employers that have elected the option are small, local businesses.

Many reputable insurance providers sell “bundled” programs for small business that supply all option program components, including the insurance policy, injury benefit plan, employee communications, claims administration and legal compliance. It is a simple, turnkey service for insurance agents and employers, delivering better medical outcomes and higher employee satisfaction when the rare injury occurs.

If an employer that has elected the option does not like it (for whatever reason), it can go back into the workers’ compensation system at any time. These facts are all reflected in the migration of small employers back and forth between workers’ compensation and option programs in Texas, choosing the best route for their companies and employees as workers’ compensation premium rates have moved up and down over the past quarter century.

Even if (as seen in Texas) a significant percentage of a state’s employers elect an option, the “pool” of workers’ compensation premiums can still be hundreds of millions of dollars, a figure large enough to spread the risk and absorb catastrophic claims.

Those who say that workers’ compensation premium rates will go up when a state legislature authorizes an option need to back up their fear mongering with similar logic, facts and data or admit their true, anti-competitive motivations.

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About the Author

Bill Minick is the president of PartnerSource, a consulting firm that has helped deliver better benefits and improved outcomes for tens of thousands of injured workers and billions of dollars in economic development through “options” to workers’ compensation over the past 20 years.

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