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The REAL Objection to Opt Out

I have never really understood why the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America has been so vehemently against opt out.

While it seems that opt out returned to the back burner for this year with constitutional defeats in Oklahoma and political stalemate in other states, PCI has reignited the debate with an inflammatory paper.

The basic arguments, which PCI supports with some data, is that opt out results in costs shifting to other systems and that a lack of standards and transparency is detrimental to consumers (i.e. injured workers).

PCI also argues that opt out is all about saving employers money to the detriment of consumers by denying more claims earlier and paying less with capitations and restrictions not found in traditional comp.

I get that alternative work injury systems must meet certain standards and need to be more transparent to consumers — to me, that’s a no-brainer.

But the objections that PCI raises are exactly the same complaints made against traditional workers’ comp: inadequate benefits, unnecessary delays, cost shifting, etc.

See also: Debunking ‘Opt-Out’ Myths (Part 6)  

Each statistic cited by PCI against opt out can be asserted against traditional workers’ comp — just use another study or data source.

For instance, just a couple of years ago, Paul Leigh of University of California at Davis and lead author of the study, Workers’ Compensation Benefits and Shifting Costs for Occupational Injury and Illness, told WorkCompCentral, “We’re all paying higher Medicare and income taxes to help cover [the costs not paid by workers’ compensation].”

That study, published in the April 2012 edition of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found that almost 80% of workers’ compensation costs are being covered outside of workers’ compensation claims systems. That amounts to roughly $198 billion of the estimated $250 billion in annual costs for work-related injuries and illnesses in 2007. Just $51.7 billion, or 21%, of those costs were covered by workers’ compensation, the study said.

Of the $250 billion price tag for work-related injury costs, the Leigh study found $67.09 billion of that came from medical care costs, while $182.54 billion was related to lost productivity.

In terms of the medical costs, $29.86 billion was paid by workers’ compensation, $14.22 billion was picked up by other health insurance, $10.38 billion was covered by the injured workers and their families, $7.16 billion was picked up by Medicare and $5.47 billion was covered by Medicaid.

The study drew criticism from the workers’ comp crowd, which defended its practices, challenged the data and anecdotally attempted to counter argue, with limited success.

If one digs deep enough in the PCI study, I’m sure one could likewise find fault with the data and the reporting on cost shifting — because the truth is that absolutely no one has a fix on that topic.

My good friend Trey Gillespie, PCI assistant vice president of workers’ compensation, told WorkCompCentral that “the fundamental tenets of workers’ compensation [are] protecting injured workers and their families and protecting taxpayers. The general consensus is that the way programs should work is to protect injured workers and taxpayers and avoid cost-shifting.”

Of course! All work injury protection systems should do that.

But they don’t.

See also: What Schrodinger Says on Opt-Out

That’s what the ProPublica and Reveal series of critical articles about workers’ compensation programs across the country tell us, both anecdotally and statistically: Injured workers aren’t protected, costs are shifted onto other programs, and taxpayers are paying an unfair portion of what workers’ comp should be paying.

Indeed, in October, 10 federal lawmakers asked the U.S. Department of Labor for greater oversight of the state-run workers’ compensation system, to counteract “a pattern of detrimental changes to state workers’ compensation laws and the resulting cost shift to public programs.”

I started thinking about the one truism that governs human behavior nearly universally: Every person protects their own interests first. And I thought of PCI’s name: Property and Casualty Insurers Association of America. “Property and casualty.” Ay, there’s the rub!

There’s no room for P&C in opt out! ERISA-based opt out uses only health insurance and disability insurance.

Workers’ comp is the mainstay of the P&C industry, the single biggest commercial line and the gateway to a whole host of much more profitable lines.

If opt out spreads beyond Texas, it is hugely threatening to the interests of the PCI members because they stand to lose considerable business, particularly if opt out migrates to the bigger P&C states.

PCI is protecting its own interests (or those of its members) by objecting to opt out.

And I don’t blame them. Their impression of this threat is real.

Michael Duff, a professor of workers’ compensation law at the University of Wyoming, told WorkCompCentral, “These are interested observers. They’re going to have an agenda. They represent insurers who are in the workers’ comp business.”

Bingo.

“Every commercial actor that participates in traditional workers’ compensation has an interest in seeing traditional workers’ compensation continue,” Duff went on. “But that traditional workers’ compensation imposes costs on employers. There is now a group of employers who would like to pay less, and Bill Minick has developed a commercial product that is in competition with this other conceptual approach to handling things.”

Here’s THE fact: Traditional workers’ compensation and ANY alternative work injury protection plan require vendors pitching wares and services to make the systems work.

Insurance companies are as much a vendor in either scenario as physicians, bill review companies, utilization review companies, attorneys, vocational counselors, etc.

Each and every single one makes a buck off workers’ comp, and each and every one has an interest in maintaining the status quo.

See also: States of Confusion: Workers Comp Extraterritorial Issues

Arguing that one system is better than the other without admitting one’s own special interest is simply hypocrisy.

Workers’ compensation is going through some soul searching right now. Employers leading the debate are asking, “Why stay in a system that facilitates vendors’ interests ahead of employers or workers?”

THAT’s the question that BOTH the P&C industry and the opt out movement need to answer. Further debate about the merits of one over the other is simply sophistry.

This article first appeared at WorkCompCentral.

Insurers Are Turning to Dubious Securities

The latest California Department of Insurance market share report said that workers’ compensation carriers combined to write $11.43 billion in premium in 2014, up 11% from 2013, the fourth consecutive double-digit increase. Premium growth lately is more a reflection of increasing payrolls rather than rates, as those have held rather steady in the last few years. But there is another, more insidious reason for premium growth lately: low interest rates. Chief financial officers are able to lock in only pathetic returns using traditionally safe investments because of the moribund interest rate environment.

So they are looking to alternative investment vehicles — and history doesn’t look kindly to that kind of activity involving dubious securities. The last time “interesting” financial assistance came into the California (and subsequently national) market was in the mid-1990s, when the Unicover/Craigwood reinsurance scheme was being pitched to minimize carrier risk … and dozens of carriers folded.

Now we have a new investment vehicle that is picking up steam, and I think it portends trouble if not kept in check. It’s called ILS.

In aviation, ILS is Instrument Landing System – a way for aircraft to find the runway under a layer of clouds and fog. In insurance, ILS is insurance-linked securities.

The most common ILS, and what brought this alternative to note, are CAT bonds. Catastrophe bonds are risk-linked securities that transfer a specified set of risks to investors. They were first used in the mid-1990s in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew and the Northridge earthquake.

Wikipedia has a good explanation: “An insurance company issues bonds through an investment bank, which are then sold to investors. These bonds are inherently risky … and usually have maturities less than three years. If no catastrophe occurred, the insurance company would pay a coupon to the investors, who made a healthy return. On the contrary, if a catastrophe did occur, then the principal would be forgiven, and the insurance company would use this money to pay their claim-holders. Investors include hedge funds, catastrophe-oriented funds and asset managers.”

At least one insurance investment observer indicates alarm at the “convergence” of the insurance and capital markets. Michael Moody, MBA, ARM, in the April edition of Rough Notes magazine writes about “Capital Market Convergence” and describes how the money behind the capital structure of the insurance industry is increasingly being collateralized and sold off to investors with the single intent of increasing yield on capital invested: “With interest rates continuing at historically low levels, most institutional investors are looking for better yields. Currently, many of the ILS products are producing results that are 5% to 6% higher than traditional investments.”

Here’s the issue: There will be many investment people who know nothing about the insurance product providing the capital. Financial instruments such as credit default swaps (CDS) and collateral debt obligations (CDOs) and others created by Wall Street will move capital out of the insurance industry to the detriment of the insured public, and this includes workers’ compensation.

Moody understatedly writes: “Agents and brokers who have accounts that utilize significant amounts of reinsurance need to be aware of the advancements that are being made in the ILS market. The old days of competing on price are disappearing. Capital market professionals believe it is only a matter of time before reinsurance and ILS will be used in the same manner that reinsurance is purchased in layers today. It will not be uncommon to find excess limit programs that are made up of a combination of reinsurance and ILS. The genie is out of the bottle, and the capital markets appear to be willing to embrace the convergence with the insurance/reinsurance concept. As a result, agents and brokers who are interested in a long-term view of the insurance industry would be well advised to monitor this situation closely, as it will remain extremely fluid for some time.”

Certainly, departments of insurance will protect us from dubious securities, right? After all it is their job to regulate the insurance market and ensure a safe, healthy industry.

Well, that didn’t happen when Unicover/Craigwood came around, and there’s no reason to believe that any regulating agency is going to be proactive; traditionally, regulators are reactive. By the time they are alerted and take action, it’s too late – carriers disappear, guarantee associations are swamped and state funds take up the slack (as in 2000, when the State Fund covered 50% of the California market).

California, and the nation’s work comp market, is one bad ILS away from disaster. Carriers won’t be looking for the runway under the clouds – rather, they’ll be looking for insolvency relief.

Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid on Opt-Out

Former President George W. Bush infamously said in 2005, “See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.”

Opt-out supporters and proponents repeat over and over again that opt-out is better for employees.

They forgot to tell that to Rachel Jenkins.

Jenkins, a 32-year-old single mother of four, was injured while working a double shift at a disabled care center in northwest Oklahoma City owned by ResCare, the nation’s largest privately owned home healthcare agency. Jenkins was injured on March 31 attempting to break up an assault of her disabled client by another patient. The incident was witnessed by Jenkins’ supervisor.

After her shift, Jenkins went to the emergency room, where she was administered medication and sent home to rest. Her employer sent her to a company doctor the next day. He provided medication and ordered physical therapy.

But ResCare’s opt-out contract with its employees requires claimants to call a designated toll free number to report accidents within 24 hours, and Jenkins did not call until the 27th hour. Her claim was denied.

Three hours late on a phone call, and Jenkins is on her own.

Bob Burke, her attorney, just filed a case in the District Court of Southern Oklahoma seeking declaratory judgment, saying the state insurance commissioner has obviated his responsibilities by approving ResCare’s opt-out plan and others that don’t give workers at least a one-year statute of limitations to report their injury, as required by Oklahoma law.

“Every opt-out plan I have seen so far has a 24-hour requirement that bars benefits if notice is not given,” Burke wrote in an op-ed published Monday in the Journal-Record newspaper. “Even though state law requires opt-out plans to have the same one-year statute of limitations as regular workers’ comp, the insurance commissioner continues to approve the plans, and the legislature, in House Bill 2205, is trying to remove the plans from public inspection under the Open Records Act.”

This case demonstrates the true intent of at least THIS opt-out participant: to stick it to the worker.

The employer cannot claim lack of notice – the injury was witnessed by her supervisor, and Jenkins was sent by the company to its doctor!

Burke says the insurance commissioner approves the 24-hour limitation because it is a notice requirement only. Apparently that translation got lost in practice, because ResCare and its administrators clearly are using the provision as a statute of limitations.

I’m sure there’s another side to the story. Opt-out proponents will have to spin that other side to preserve credibility. In the meantime, the wheel in the opt-out PR repetition machine has a broken cog.

Opt-out had me semi-convinced that it was a valid alternative to traditional workers’ compensation with its promises of less bureaucracy, better injured worker care, greater efficiency, competition and improved outcomes.

Proponents kept repeating the benefits over and over and over again…

The propaganda almost got catapulted, and I nearly drank the Kool-Aid.

Not now. It smells poisoned.

Workers’ Comp Is Under Attack

This is the Year of Awareness — awareness by the general public about workers’ compensation issues.

There is the series by ProPublica, with three installments so far and more to come. You might not like it, but Michael Grabell and his team are accurately portraying pain points in workers’ compensation.

The Federal Occupation Safety and Health Administration’s review of the literature over the past couple of decades also fuels the fire about the inadequacy of workers’ compensation, and the spill of employer obligations onto the general taxpaying population.

Last year, the Texas Tribune ran a series, “Hurting for Work,” that criticized that state’s work injury protection system (or lack of it).

And a Florida trial judge has taken the position that workers’ comp is no longer of constitutional grade.

Now, Mother Jones has published an article it says exposes the true intent of the opt-out movement: to diminish benefits across the nation. Opt-out supporters contest that conclusion and say they only want employers (in this case, only big business can afford the resources to opt out) to be able to provide better benefits in a more consolidated manner to their workers. Proponents are not, however, shy about confirming that their intent is to take opt-out nationwide, to all states.

The latest test case is Tennessee, where Sen. Mark Green’s SB 721 has gone through several amendments in an attempt to address critics — albeit, in my opinion, these amendments fall far short.

There are two major problems with opt-out, and in particular with SB 721 if it is to be used as a model: 1) the cap on lifetime medical benefits; and 2) the lack of accountability to public regulators.

Most state workers’ compensation systems have a limitation on both temporary disability indemnity and permanent disability indemnity. There has been for a long time a debate as to the adequacy of indemnity benefits to keep the paycheck-to-paycheck worker sustained during recovery, and those benefits differ greatly from state to state. This debate is sure to continue regardless of what “reform” ever gets passed.

This debate also applies to the adequacy of permanent disability indemnity– whether it adequately compensates for the loss of an eye, etc. Again, where one gets hurt makes a huge difference in how much money a disability is “worth,” and the debate about this will never settle.

The provision of medical benefits for the lifetime of an injured worker, however, has never been on the table — that is a topic that is simply sacrosanct, for the very simple reason that it was part of the original grand bargain.

State reforms have, however, over the past two decades done as much as possible to eviscerate lifetime medical by requiring adherence to guidelines, by scaling based on co-morbidities, by forcing third-party reviews and by trimming reimbursement or rebalancing fee schedules, among other tactics.

These efforts have been in reaction to perceptions that employers are unfairly paying for someone else’s problem, or to abuses by unscrupulous providers. Broad-brush attempts to correct these problems reel in unsuspecting victims, just as tuna nets capture innocent dolphins.

The Mother Jones article is critical of the lobbying efforts of the Association for Responsible Alternatives to Workers’ Compensation, implying that its big-company sponsorships and spending is sinful.

It’s not — it’s just political reality. Just because a bunch of people with resources get together on a specific mission is not a reason to castigate either the people or the mission. It’s done on both sides of nearly any debate. That’s how we do things in America.

Painful as it is for this industry, though, the fact is that workers’ compensation is under attack — from all sides.

Employers are sick and tired of the cost of the system and how little control they have over it. They’re paying for it and don’t see much if any value or return on investment.

And guess what? Workers who go through workers’ compensation are likewise sick and tired over the cost of the system and how little control they have over it.

Is this the fault of us, the professionals who have the task of administering benefits?

In part, yes.

But the larger issue is what society wants, and what all this attention lately is telling me is that society wants a way to provide security to both business and workers — in a manner that is better than what workers’ compensation has devolved into.

I don’t view opt-out as evil. I do view it as a necessary element in the debate about the adequacy of workers’ compensation to deliver on its original promise: protect employers from economic ruin when someone gets hurt, and protect the worker who got hurt.

If you take ARAWC’s mission at face value, what the group wants to do is laudable. It is saying that state workers’ comp systems no longer are a viable piece of the social contract, that private industry can do it better.

Maybe it can, if there are reasonable protections that meet the essential elements of work injury protection — and that means taking care of an injury for life and not stacking dispute resolution in favor of one party or the other.

But this column isn’t about ARAWC, or opt-out; it’s about an awareness that is developing.

Workers’ compensation used to hide in the shadows of healthcare and disability. Ask anyone just a few years ago about work injuries and you’d get an earful about “workman’s compensation” and how a neighbor is cheating the system.

Now the public is beginning to ask: What are all these businesses doing for their pay when there’s all these people who are being thrown to the curb for trash pick-up day? Why are businesses paying for services that don’t seem to be delivered on time or in enough quantity? How is it that an insurance company that agreed to take care of an injured person for life can delegate that obligation to public welfare?

As I see it, the public assault on workers’ compensation, the trend that is developing toward opt-out systems and the overall malaise that seems to have settled over work comp portends a much-needed, long-deserved debate.

The public is asking questions. Hard questions. Because the public isn’t seeing the value in work comp that had been promised (and delivered) for so long.

We’re entering into a whole new era of business vs. labor dispute. The haves and the have-nots are drawing lines in the sand.

The last time this happened, the federal government threatened imposition. It could happen again.

What we rely on for work injury protection systems will be vastly different in 10 years than what exists now. It’s clear to me this is what’s happening.

Less clear is what will actually exist in 10 years.

This article first appeared at WorkCompCentral.

Should Bad Faith Matter in Work Comp?

Here’s a sensitive question for the workers’ compensation community: Should workers’ compensation insurance companies and third-party administrators be subject to civil “bad faith” lawsuits?

Or should a state’s workers’ compensation system remain an exclusive remedy, even if a claims payer intentionally commits egregious acts such as denying benefits that it knows are due?

WorkCompCentral Legal Editor Sherri Okamoto reports that about half of the states have done away with any civil bad faith remedy either through legislative or judicial actions, and that the other half retain that remedy.

The contrasts are stark.

Okamoto cites an Iowa jury award an earlier this month of $25 million in punitive damages, along with $284,000 in damages, payable by the former employer’s workers’ compensation carrier for its bad-faith handling of his claim. The offense was failure to pay permanent total disability benefits after a 2009 accident left the worker with catastrophic injuries.

Other states where there is no civil remedy rely on administrative penalties and administrative judicial enforcement, but those policies, in states such as California, have been criticized for not sufficiently deterring bad behavior such as wrongfully denying medical care to the critically injured.

Okamoto notes that the states that do allow for civil remedies vary widely in the standards and definitions for reprehensible conduct.

Alaska and Arizona, for example, define “bad faith” as a refusal to pay a claim without any arguably reasonable basis. In contrast, Arkansas requires a showing of “affirmative misconduct” or “dishonest purpose” to avoid liability.

Colorado, Maine and Michigan make a carrier’s failure to act in good faith a breach-of-contract claim. Hawaii and Mississippi make carrier misconduct redressable in tort.

Texas used to permit bad faith actions until the Supreme Court’s decision in Texas Mutual Insurance Co. v. Ruttiger, which held there was no common-law bad-faith action in the Lone Star State for workers’ compensation claims handling.

Likewise, two months after Ruttiger came out, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that the state’s injured workers do not have a common-law right of action for pain and suffering caused by an insurer’s administration of a workers’ compensation claim in Stancil v. Ace USA.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled recently that an injured worker cannot bring a tort action to recover damages from an insurance carrier for its alleged bad-faith claims handling.

The split surely raises the passions in people: Civil remedies fly in the face of the concept of administrative expediency that underlies workers’ compensation; yet, administrative enforcement needs sufficient “teeth” to encourage compliance and deter bad behavior.

What do you think?