The Oklahoma Option, which went into effect early in 2014, is ramping up. More employers and insurers are electing to participate. And more workers’ compensation professionals around the country want to understand the “opt-out” concept. They are thinking about their assets in Texas or Oklahoma or about the feasibility of introducing opt-out into other states.
Much of the discussion about opt-out is accurate but not complete. It is easy to absorb a part of the story. Consider the following five common ways in which it’s very easy to be half-right.
One: For employers, opt-out is basically about saving money.
Conversations with corporate risk managers have shown me that saving on claims costs is usually not the only, nor even the leading, reason why employers choose to opt out.
Employers appear to have two complementary goals with opt-out. One is to reduce claims costs, with a target in the range of 30% to 50%. The other is to simplify management headaches over a benefit program perceived to be excessively complicated and rife with risk of misbehavior.
Corporate risk managers, while not questioning the need for a separate work injury benefit system, are quick to say that injured employees can easily slack off in recovering from injury. They say doctors may not be motivated to get their patients back to work. Permanent partial disability benefits, in particular, are often cited as subject to gaming. In sum, risk managers see a lot of moral hazard that opt-out appears to them to severely curtail.
Brokers and risk advisers, on the other hand, appear to be more comfortable talking about reducing the cost of risk. It’s interesting to listen and respond to both messages.
Two: Employees of the opting-out employer benefit from better medical care.
Advocates of opt-out often make this claim. (There are NO pro-labor advocates of opt-out, at least yet.) The claim might be justified, were employers to measure quality of medical care and show, perhaps, that care under opt-out adheres more closely to evidence-based care guidelines.
The quality-of-care argument stems from opt-out employers negotiating service terms with well-regarded medical providers and avoiding providers and types of care they consider questionable. The employer might decide to ban chiropractic care, for instance, and use teaching hospital-based surgeons who otherwise may not treat injured workers.
Medical care quality can be in the eye of the beholder. especially along the dimension of doctor skills in listening to and communicating with her patients. What is not measured so judgmentally is the package of disability benefits accorded to opt-out employees. Inspection of the typical package in Texas ERISA plans suggests that the common opt-out benefit is superior to the workers’ compensation system when one compares after-tax income of a cohort of opt-out cases with the same cohort in the conventional system if (a big if) the injuries are well-managed for timely return to work.
Opt-out benefit packages in Texas ERISA plans typically pay indemnity benefits from the first day of disability. They do not impose caps on weekly benefits. The large majority of workers who use at least one day of disability return to work within a brief period. For them, these benefit features amount to real money. This assumes that the median duration of injury for all with at least one shift of lost time is about two weeks, and the median duration for all with disabilities lasting at least a week is about five weeks.
Compensation for injuries with long durations appear to be much less favorable to opt-out workers, if you assume that duration of disability will be the same in each system. However, one does not have to assume that durations will be the same.
Three: Opt-out claims management is a variant of workers’ comp adjusting.
A striking aspect of opt-out claims management is that some leading opt-out claims managers do not hire former workers’ compensation adjusters. Opt-out managers may even decide to not hire people with any claims experience, in any line of insurance. It’s useful to consider whether out-out claims management is more similar to absence or even productivity management than to workers’ compensation.
The opt-out claims adjuster has to have the skills and confidence to use a lot more discretion than that to which workers’ compensation adjusters are acculturated. She needs to understand the employer’s benefit plan, not workers’ compensation. She needs to act quickly and with initiative.
Over time, opt-out claims management may, at least for the larger employer, merge with absence benefit and ADA accommodation management, further removing it from affinity with workers’ compensation in the conventional sense.
Four: Negligence liability is a major stumbling block.
Opt-out employers in Texas are subject to negligence liability. An injured worker can seek economic and non-economic damages from her employer if the employer is found in any way negligent for the injury. As a defense attorney in Dallas told me, one will likely find in every severe injury some degree, however slight, of employer action or non-action that arrives in the courtroom dressed by the plaintiff attorney in negligence clothes.
Large Texas employers usually insure for this exposure and require their employees to sign mandatory arbitration agreements to cover negligence complaints. Some don’t; for instance, Ben E. Keith, a prominent member of the opt-out community incurred in 2012 an $8 million jury award over a severely scarifying injury a worker suffered on one of his first days with the company. The company had not adopted mandatory arbitration.
The Oklahoma Option extends the exclusive remedy protections of the workers’ compensation system. What will happen if the Oklahoma Supreme Court nullifies that protection? The answer depends in part on how one views the Texas experience with negligence liability. Many opt-out employers in Texas who know several jurisdictional systems appear to feel comfortable managing this exposure.
Five: States can mandate minimum benefits for opt-out, as Oklahoma has.
The Oklahoma Option requires the employer to offer same or greater benefits than the workers’ compensation system. A lot of details need to be worked out, but there will remain a fundamental problem with the Oklahoma Option minimum benefit requirement. At first blush, it conflicts with a substantial body of court decisions that have confirmed the exemption of ERISA plans from state interference. At the very heart of ERISA plans is their immunity from state legislatures, regulatory agencies and courts.
Oklahoma law offers a means to opt-out without setting up an ERISA plan, but, given the success of ERISA plans in Texas, it is likely that employers, at least the large ones, will elect to go the ERISA route in Oklahoma.
Not being literate in legal discourse, I am the last person to suggest how this apparent conflict will be resolved, but resolved it must be and in federal court. And I expect to see some interesting arguments in favor of retaining Oklahoma’s requirement in its original or a revised form.
A California case, Golden Gate Restaurant Association v. City and County of San Francisco, offers a clue. As one commentator noted, in San Francisco, a city ordinance requires employers to make certain expenditures toward employee healthcare. Employers have a number of options for compliance, including paying a specified amount to a public insurance program that their uninsured employees can access at discounted premium rates or setting up an ERISA-governed health insurance plan of their own. At the last iteration of litigation, the local government prevailed.
The Oklahoma Option’s chances to withstand a court challenge over its benefit requirements may well depend on how the benefits are construed (this is not clear to me) and the manner in which Oklahoma employers are free to elect opt-out over the conventional system.
Getting the story right
The workers’ compensation community needs to prompt a full, transparent discussion of opt-out to get to a complete story, for which chapters are being written every day.