February 4, 2016
Debunking ‘Opt-Out’ Myths (Part 6)
by Bill Minick
Although the option industry is new and does not provide all the data that workers' comp does, rapid progress is being made.
“Transparency” demonstrates whether a product or service has real value to society. It also promotes collaboration and process improvement. So, what does transparency mean, and how can the same standards be applied, in the context of workers’ compensation and the Texas and Oklahoma “options” to workers’ compensation? There are lessons all can learn on a path of progress.
Transparency in Workers’ Compensation
Transparency within the workers’ compensation industry has dramatically improved over the past 20 years, but some aspects remain translucent, at best.
From an insurance agent and employer perspective, workers’ compensation is too often viewed as a complex government mandate to be complied with in the easiest manner possible. Most employers do not have the wherewithal to affect significant claims, dissect an experience modifier or otherwise engage with workers’ compensation systems beyond the review of insurance quotes, the payment of premium and the initial filing of a claim. Who can blame them with so little information readily at hand?
For both employers and injured workers, most states provide little clear information on system rights and responsibilities. When was the last time you got on the Internet and reviewed all of an unfamiliar state’s workers’ compensation laws? Or attempted to find or build your own summary of benefits or claim procedures for an unfamiliar state workers’ compensation system? We go to the “For Employers” or “For Injured Workers” tab on the state system website but see only a high-level review of system benefit requirements and information on how to file a claim. But how is each form of benefit computed? When do they start and stop? What are the other exclusions and limitations on benefits? It is no wonder that employers and injured workers with concerns about their rights and responsibilities on a particular claim often engage legal counsel to navigate.
At a workers’ compensation regulatory level, a few states excel at providing meaningful information that is readily accessible. For example, the Texas Department of Insurance has a research and evaluation group that continually generates good information on system performance. But most states provide little (if any) data on actual workers’ compensation system performance. There is no universal standard or consistency in what scant workers’ compensation information on regulatory costs, injury claim costs, employee satisfaction or other outcomes is available from government agencies at no charge to the general public.
Many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) do great work to fill this information void. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI), Workers’ Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) and other high-quality organizations provide helpful summaries of legal differences between state systems, as well as insightful claim data analyses. This information can be very useful to legislators, regulators and large employers, as well as insurance company executives and claim adjusters. It is rarely accessed by small business to affect their cost of workers’ compensation or by injured workers to advance their claim.
The largest workers’ compensation NGO is the National Council on Compensation Insurance. NCCI privatizes the collection and analysis of claims and other statistical data for nearly 40 states and hundreds of insurance companies. NCCI tackles the enormous challenge of making sense of data flowing in disparate fields across different technology platforms, with a talented staff of more than 900 employees. In 2014, NCCI generated $152 million in net sales, with assets of $151 million and total equity of $42 million, for its insurance company members.
Most NCCI data is proprietary and only available at significant expense to member insurance companies and certain state regulators. Only high-level summaries are provided to the general public, and most of that information is macro-focused on premium rate setting and insurance company profitability.
State regulators use NCCI loss-cost projections to help set insurance premium rates. Projected loss-cost reductions are commonly viewed as a direct monetization of recent workers’ compensation law reforms. However, insurance companies are allowed to substantially deviate from those expectations when setting premiums for individual employer policies. Some insurance companies may reduce actual premium rates just enough to maintain credibility in view of recent reforms but maintain premium rates at the highest possible level for the benefit of their shareholders. Workers’ compensation is a highly risky business to underwrite, and shareholders reasonably expect profits. But we should understand that NCCI’s projected loss-cost reductions and premium rate projections may or may not translate to the lower costs employers have been told to expect from reforms.
Transparency in Options to Workers’ Compensation
In comparison to workers’ compensation systems, the option industry is relatively new and does not have a similar, robust infrastructure of NGOs to fill the information voids. But interest in and movement toward option programs is growing daily, and option proponents are committed to transparency.
The states of Texas and Oklahoma begin the process by maintaining employer coverage lists. Texas maintains a searchable database of employers that carry workers’ compensation insurance and a list of employers that do not. Coverage is entirely voluntary in Texas, and employers on this latter list have self-reported (and most likely sponsor) an injury benefit plan. The Texas Department of Insurance indicates that 95% of all Texas workers have either workers’ compensation or injury benefit coverage. Employers on neither Texas list are out of compliance with current legal reporting requirements and may have no workers’ compensation or injury benefit coverage for employees. Those are the companies that truly fit the derisive term “opt-out,” which is unique to Texas. The Oklahoma model and what other states are considering is a more highly regulated “option” to workers’ compensation. For the state of Oklahoma, every employer must have workers’ compensation or be approved as a “qualified employer” (https://www.ok.gov/oid/workerscompreform.html) that sponsors a legally compliant injury benefit plan and satisfies financial security requirements.
From an insurance agent or employer perspective, insurance companies writing option policies have long insisted on a higher level of engagement than is common in workers’ compensation. Such agent and employer engagement requires transparency and understanding. Transparency is emphasized through simple requirements for active, pre- and post-injury communication between employers and employees, particularly on the need for immediate injury reporting, use of approved medical providers and following doctor’s orders. Safety program integrity is also commonly verified, particularly in the Texas Option environment, where both injury benefit and simple negligence liability exposures are insured.
Option injury benefit plan documents and claim procedures have been widely available in the public domain since the early 1990s. These benefit plans are the functional equivalent of a state workers’ compensation statute, describing the plan’s funding, benefit payment and administration processes.
Insurance companies have brought transparency to, exercise substantial control over and bring consistency across a large number of option programs by requiring most employers to use standardized injury benefit plan documents. In Texas and Oklahoma, option insurance companies freely distribute to independent agents their template plan documents and policy forms that vary because of competition on the breadth of coverage. Insurance agents then review these documents (often on a checklist), along with claim procedures and safety requirements with employers interested in implementing or renewing an option program. Employer implementation of the standardized program, including communication to all covered workers, is a condition of the insurance coverage. All injury claims must then be managed by the insurance company’s owned or contracted claims unit. Only large employers are allowed more flexibility to unbundle claims administration and make pre-approved customizations to their benefit plan.
Hundreds of papers, articles, interviews and presentations that provide good information on options to workers’ compensation have been available over the past two decades. For example, http://www.partnersource.com/media/35242/partnersource_media_compilation_for_publication_1-21-2016.pdf. An abundance of information is available now, and this library is growing.
For injured workers, Option plans provide substantially greater transparency than workers’ compensation. Every employee covered by an option plan sponsored by a private employer must be provided a detailed summary plan description (SPD) in accordance with the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. In plain language, the SPD must explain how the plan works, what benefits are available, how those benefits are provided, any exclusions and limitations applying to those benefits and the employee’s rights and obligations under the plan. A highlights section is commonly included at the front of the SPD.
The SPD must be provided within 90 days of an employee becoming covered by an option plan but is routinely provided at the time of hire. Any material change to the plan must also be communicated. All of this information must be provided to each employee in a hard copy or electronically in a manner that satisfies regulatory standards. Another copy of the SPD is also available at any time upon request. Interpretive assistance is required for non-English reading employees.
This transparency fosters employee appreciation for the program, as well as compliance with the accountability requirements found in option benefit plans. Open communication from employers promotes faster accident reporting, earlier medical diagnosis and treatment, a reduction in the number of disputes and less dependence on regulators and lawyers for basic information and claims support.
Every covered employee and beneficiary also has access to the official injury benefit plan document and their claims information. Employers that fail to provide requested information face monetary penalties. Plan participants can include information in and otherwise affect their claim file, and have access to state and federal courts for benefit disputes.
Though available to plan participants, publication of option benefit plans for review by the general public is not required by law. Oklahoma Option benefit plans were publicly available until the 2015 Oklahoma legislature decided to provide broad confidentiality of qualified employer application files in an effort to mirror the application file confidentiality of self-insured employers under workers’ compensation. The idea of establishing a public database of SPDs has also historically proven impractical. For decades, the federal government required employers to file a copy of the SPD for every employee benefit plan. That filing requirement was eliminated in 1997 because the government could not efficiently store the documents, such documents were rarely requested by the public and the related employer and taxpayer expense was deemed wasteful. Perhaps this subject should be revisited in the electronic age.
At a system performance level, most option employers are small companies, with owners relying on their independent insurance agent for periodic updates on their own program performance. But there are also thousands of other workers’ compensation industry professionals who understand and support option programs. Many sophisticated, Fortune 500 risk managers, who are very aware of their brand value and most important asset manage option programs that cover billions of dollars in payroll. Many “A”-rated insurance companies support the option insurance marketplace and write approximately $150 million in annual premiums. Employers, insurance companies and many nationally recognized third party administrators and brokers successfully support resolution of tens of thousands of option injury claims every year. And several nationally respected actuarial firms have confirmed option program success for their clients.
Self-interested opponents of option programs like to theorize about bad things that might happen under an option program, and falsely proclaim that option program savings only occur at the expense of injured workers. But what option industry professionals know from actual experience is that savings come from fewer employees being taken off work, faster return to work for employees who have been disabled and fewer disputes. This all speaks to better outcomes for injured workers and less cost-shifting to state or federal government programs. Those are the facts that truly deserve more transparency and study by policymakers. These facts are already reflected in many studies and reports recently summarized and released as Part 2 of a “Resource Guide” from the Association for Responsible Alternatives to Workers’ Compensation.
Data on tens of thousands of Texas option claims is now in the hands of many insurance companies, third-party administrators and others. For example, PartnerSource prepares statistically credible claim analyses for many individual employers annually and conducts biennial benchmarking studies of Texas option claims across six different industries, covering billions of payroll and hundreds of thousands of workers. These benchmarking studies include sub-industry segmentation and data on the types of benefits, dollar/duration/percentage limits and other injury benefit plan terms most commonly used among option employers, as well as the insurance types, limits and retention levels.
Consider this good-faith snapshot of Texas option industry aggregate data: [http://www.partnersource.com/media/34154/texas_option_data_review_for_publication_1-22-16.pdf]. Similar, expanded data reports, reviewed by independent actuaries, are expected in 2016.
Better-established processes within private industry for aggregating claims data and collective insurance premium price setting seen in the workers’ compensation environment are simply not present today and have not been urgently needed in the option environment. For example, employers that sponsor option programs have focused on the results of their own individual programs. Option insurance companies individually set their own premium rates in a competitive environment, unsupported by the exemptions to antitrust laws and other protections enjoyed by the workers’ compensation insurance industry. Unlike in days of old, insurance companies and individual employers are able to collect and analyze a significant volume of data from their own experience, as well as other publicly available information, to chart their own destiny – something some option opponents fear most.
Undoubtedly, more option industry aggregate data would be instructive and helpful to employers, insurance companies, legislators, regulators and other policymakers. But there is nothing nefarious in the lack of publicly available option data today, and option programs should not be held to a standard higher than workers’ compensation. All of the above-named NGOs that generate workers’ compensation system data have had decades to organize, refine, obtain many millions of dollars in funding for and publish industry aggregate and state-specific information. Data collection and reporting efforts in the option environment are in an early stage of development but can be expected to steadily advance.
This process of gaining additional option industry transparency must be about more than satisfying voyeuristic curiosity. We must also distinguish between what is needed “for the public good” and the self-interest of certain option opponents. Even with approximately 50,000 injuries occurring outside of the Texas and Oklahoma workers’ compensation systems every year, we’ve seen no credible evidence to indicate that workers’ compensation systems generally perform better than option programs in any respect, and option opponents remain unable to muster more than a few anecdotes about option claims that have gone awry. Perhaps this will change as more option claims data becomes publicly available, but it will require independent verification through access to workers’ compensation system data that should also become more publicly available.
Lastly, this process of gaining more option industry transparency must be about more than collecting data at unnecessary taxpayer expense for the sake of saying it has been collected. Note that substantial reporting of option program information has been reported to the state of Texas (on Forms DWC-5 and DWC-7) and the federal government (on Form 5500) at significant employer and taxpayer expense for decades but has not been used for any purpose. So, it should come as no surprise when employers, insurance companies and service providers are unable to support new data reporting mandates without a clear articulation of both the need and value, including regulatory commitment and funding to collect, sort, analyze and report such data.
The Texas Alliance of Nonsubscribers took a neutral position on bills that would have added new option program claims reporting requirements in the 2015 Texas Legislative Session. The alliance is actively working with the Texas Division of Workers’ Compensation to improve employer compliance with and the usefulness of current reporting requirements and to extend workers’ compensation or injury benefit plan coverage to more Texas workers.
Accepting the Call for Option Program Improvements and More Transparency
Employers and industry supporters of options to workers’ compensation support more public disclosure of program terms, claims data and other information and are actively working to achieve it. For example, option program improvements will likely be seen in 2016 as both Texas and Oklahoma employers and insurance companies positively respond to the past year’s dialogue and claims experience by broadening injury benefits coverage for hundreds of thousands of injured workers. Option programs are able to respond to important needs much faster than hyper-regulated systems that only change after protracted legislative and rulemaking processes. New option legislation introduced in other states will also reflect significant enhancements over prior proposals.
Industry conferences are also responding to the need for more information on options to workers’ compensation. This topic has been featured at many professional and regulatory conferences in the past year, and more are scheduled in 2016. In view of widespread interest and the fact that option programs today cover more workers than 23 individual state workers’ compensation systems, these and other national workers’ compensation events should consider going beyond the one-hour session overview or debate. They can include an entire educational track that allows attendees to become truly knowledgeable about option program design, implementation, administration and regulatory requirements.
Investigations of options to workers ‘compensation by the National Conference of Insurance Legislators, International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions and the U.S. Department of Labor will also be welcomed.
More transparency and transformative change can result when option opponents and supporters simply sit down to work together. Whether discussing injury reporting requirements, compensability, medical expense coverage, financial security or other important public policy issues, civil dialogue matters. Those who are willing to have a reasoned discussion and information exchange will find ready partners on the current path of progress. Because sooner or later, all industries tend to change for the better, and we should be prepared to lead that change or adapt.