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A Commissioner’s View of Innovation

There’s a thundering herd running through Iowa this year — and not just the herd of presidential candidates. There also is a herd of technological innovators driving considerable change in insurance.

Many people find it intriguing that technology innovators are coming through Iowa, but Iowa is an insurance state and home to some of the largest insurance companies in the U.S. Iowa also is home to niche companies that price out very specific risks to targeted markets.

In my role as Iowa’s insurance commissioner, I’ve met with many entrepreneurs whose ideas will improve, enhance and create value for insurance companies and consumers. In these meetings, I hear a fairly consistent and constant theme: State insurance regulators are a major burden for entrepreneurs and, in turn, for their ideas for innovation.

However, when I walk them through what regulators do and provide them a copy of the Iowa insurance statutes and regulations that empower my office, I’ve found that most haven’t read even one word of insurance law before working on an idea or creating a product or service.

To be clear, I don’t believe I stand in the way of innovation. On the contrary, I am very supportive of innovation.

But my fellow regulators and I do have an important job — consumer protection. Insurance is one of the most regulated industries in the nation because, for the insurance system to work, when things go wrong and a consumer needs to make an insurance claim the funds to pay the claim must be available.

The days on which people file insurance claims may be the worst days in their lives, and they may be very vulnerable. Perhaps a loved one passed away; a home is destroyed; an emergency room visit or major surgery is needed; someone may be entering a long-term care facility; a car is totaled; or injuries are preventing a return to work. Insurance is a product we buy but really hope we never use. However, when we need to use it, we want the company to have the financial resources to pay the claim. It’s our job as regulators to make sure the companies in our states are financially strong enough to pay claims in a timely fashion.

Insurance is regulated at the state and territorial level by 56 commissioners, superintendents or directors. The state-based regulatory system has served consumers well for more than 150 years and demonstrated extreme resilience in the last financial crisis. My fellow commissioners and I are public officials either elected or appointed to our respective posts. We are responsible and accessible to the citizens of our states or territories.

However, I do understand that complying with the laws of all the states, District of Columbia and territories poses challenges to entrepreneurs. In recognition of this, state regulators have worked together to help minimize differences between states through the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, thereby creating a more nationally uniform framework of insurance regulation while recognizing local markets and maintaining power in the hands of the states.

The job of an insurance regulator sounds easy. We exist to enforce the state’s laws, to make sure that companies and agents follow that law and to ensure that companies domiciled in our state are in financial position to pay claims when required. As with many things, the duties of regulators are more difficult than they appear. Regulators need to have great knowledge of multiple lines of insurance, technological advances, financial matters and marketing practices. In reality, the execution of our job duties in enforcing our state’s laws may at times cause friction with some innovative ideas.

As I stated, I don’t believe that I or my fellow regulators stand in the way of innovation. I believe that a robust and competitive market that delivers value to the consumer is one of the best forms of consumer protection. However, our insurance laws are also designed to make sure that insurance companies stay in the market and keep the promises that they have made to their customers when the products were originally sold.

In executing my duties as commissioner, I pay a great deal of attention to innovation and developments. I personally spend time with entrepreneurs, investors and others to learn about new trends and ideas. My commitment to enforcing state laws, combined with the laser focus on protecting consumers, requires keeping abreast of innovation.

My office addresses more than 6,000 consumers’ inquiries and complaints every year. People on my staff address issues quickly and care deeply about their roles in helping Iowans. I’ve learned in my nearly three years as commissioner that many consumers don’t understand the insurance they own. They may have relied on an agent, or purchased insurance coverage on their own, hoping it will suit their needs. However, when life happens and an insurance claim needs to be made, consumers may discover the coverage they purchased did not suit their needs. For instance, some people may discover their health plan network doesn’t have healthcare providers near their home. Others may discover too late that certain items lost in a fire were not covered under their homeowners’ policy. Some consumers may discover that the very complex product that they bought simply did not measure up to their expectations.

Having consumers be comfortable with making a purchase and not understanding what they purchased is a culture we need to change. Some consumers desire to simply establish a relationship with an insurance agent or securities agent they feel they can trust, schedule automatic withdrawals from their bank account to be invested or submit their premiums for their insurance products as required so they can ultimately focus their attention on all the other activities that occupy our busy lives. In essence, they forget that they purchased the coverage, and, while it may have been the right purchase at that time, it may not fully suit their needs now or when they need to file a claim.

Insurance regulators and the insurance industry need to encourage consumers to learn more about their coverage needs and the insurance they actually purchase. Innovation that leads to personalizing insurance and better consumer understanding is a good thing. Innovation that increases speed-to-market, enables better policyholder relations through in-force management and provides more value to the consumer is a good thing. However, all that innovation must comply with our state’s laws.

To that end, I’ve met with several entrepreneurs to highlight issues that would arise with certain proposed business models. I enjoy discussing ideas about our industry and sharing Iowa’s perspective. Innovation can help consumers, and it’s my hope that entrepreneurs continue to work with regulators to develop new products and services. This collaboration helps both the regulators and the entrepreneurs and has led to some very positive and healthy dialogue in Iowa.

The Key Choices in Workers’ Comp

Workers’ compensation is a no-fault form of insurance that an employer is legally obligated to secure, providing wage replacement as well as medical, rehabilitation and death (survivor) benefits to employees injured in the course of employment. Workers’ comp is in exchange for mandatory relinquishment of the employee’s right to sue his or her employer for the tort of negligence. The lack of recourse outside the workers’ compensation system is sometimes referred to as “the compensation bargain.” This compromise system also establishes limits on the obligations of employers for these workplace exposures, so that the costs are supposedly more predictable and affordable.

The system is always evolving, and there are key choices in workers’ comp, which I will cover here — and update as the system continues to evolve.

First, some background:

Where did workers’ comp come from?

Workers’ compensation has roots all the way to 2050 B.C., where ancient Sumerian law outlined compensation for injury or impairment involving loss of a worker’s specific body parts. Beginning in the 17th century, most pirate crews, including the one led by English privateer Capt. Henry Morgan, organized fairly sophisticated and favorable benefits for injured crew members. Injured pirates were treated on board and fitted for prosthetics – as popularized in literature and film. Furthermore, they were compensated in pieces of eight depending upon the type and severity of injury. As for modified duty, crew members were oftentimes offered non-physically demanding work on the ship. Such work could include cleaning cannons, cooking meals and washing the ship decks.

In modern times, workers’ comp as we know it today was first modeled in Germany and Prussia in the late 19th century, then adopted in the U.S. in 1908 by the federal government, then in 1911 by Wisconsin. Workers’ comp spread to all states and the District of Columbia by 1948, with Mississippi as the last state to adopt the model.

Why is workers’ comp coverage mandated?

At first, participation in U.S. workers’ compensation programs was voluntary. In 1917, however, after the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of compulsory workers’ comp laws, the majority of states then passed legislation that required employers to purchase workers’ compensation coverage for their employees. Requirements varied — and still vary — from state to state. Currently, Texas and Oklahoma have voluntary “opt-out” or “non-subscription” provisions, which allow employers to provide their own formal injury benefit plan options.

How is workers’ comp different from other insurance?

Workers’ comp is intended to eliminate tort liability litigation arising from employee injuries or work-related diseases by providing wage replacement, vocational rehabilitation and medical benefits to employee injured in the course and scope of their employment. This is intended to minimize worker conflicts and to avoid costly lawsuits. The standard workers’ compensation insurance policy is a unique insurance contract in many respects. Unlike other liability insurance policies, it doesn’t have a dollar amount limit to its primary coverage. The coverage is considered “exclusive remedy,” to deny employees the opportunity to sue their employee. In general, an employee with a work-related illness or injury can get workers’ compensation benefits regardless of who was at fault — the employee, the employer, a coworker, a customer or some other third party.

Why does a workers’ comp policy have two parts?

Part One is the standard workers’ compensation insurance policy (formerly known as Coverage A) that transfers liability for statutory workers’ compensation benefits of an employer to the insurance company. If a state increases benefit levels during the term of the policy, the employer doesn’t have to make any adjustments to the policy. Instead, the policy automatically makes it the responsibility of the insurance company to pay all claims due for workers’ compensation insurance for the named employer in the particular states covered by the policy.

Part Two (formerly known as Coverage B) addresses employers’ liability coverage. This coverage protects the employer against lawsuits brought by the injured employee or the survivor. If an employer is thought to be grossly negligent, the employer runs the risk of being sued for that negligence. Under Part Two of the workers’ comp policy, the employer would be defended in such a suit. If a judgment were rendered against the employer, that judgment would be paid by the workers’ comp coverage, but no more than the limits provide for in the policy. Part Two also insures an employer in cases such as third-party “over suits,” where an injured worker sues a third party and that third party seeks to hold the employer responsible.

How states differ

Examine your company’s possible exposures to workers’ compensation claims from different states. If you have employees who live and work in or who travel to other states, you need to make sure you are properly covered in each state. In most jurisdictions, employers can meet their workers’ compensation obligations by purchasing an insurance policy.

Five states and two U.S. territories (North Dakota, Ohio, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming) require employers to get coverage exclusively through state-operated (“monopolistic”) funds. If you’re an employer doing business in any of these jurisdictions, you need to obtain coverage from the specified government-run fund unless you’re legally self-insured. A business cannot meet its workers’ compensation obligations in these jurisdictions with private insurance.

Thirteen other states also maintain a state compensation insurance fund, but their state funds compete with private insurance. In these states, an employer has the option (at least theoretically) to use either the state fund or private insurance. Those states that offer employers this option are Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Utah.

FORMS OF FINANCING WORKERS’ COMP

  1. Fully Insured

There are more than 300 workers’ comp insurers writing policies in the U.S., although many will only provide coverage with a high deductible. Most states have a State Fund Insurance Carrier that is the insurer of last resort and provides fully insured (no deductible) workers’ comp coverage to entities operating in their state. State fund programs are also referred to as the residual markets. They are more commonly known as state insurance funds, assigned risk plans or workers’ compensation pool policies. Generally speaking, state insurance funds are non-profit entities that cost more than private companies (10% to 40% higher premiums) but that guarantee availability of coverage as a “last resort” carrier.

Some common reasons that employers fail to obtain competitive quotes from private carriers include: 1) a high frequency of claims or a high cost of claims; (2) the dangerous nature of the risk or industry (based on codes from the National Council on Compensation Insurance, or NCCI); 3) prior bankruptcies or poor financial status of the business; and 4) prior cancellations because of nonpayment of workers’ compensation premiums.

  1. Group or Association Coverage Plans

In various states, there are options for small to medium-sized companies to obtain group coverage through their industry associations. These options include Self-Insured Groups (SIGs), which provide a true self-insured option. Group members make contributions to the self-insured group, and the self-insured group pays expenses and claims for injured workers.

SIGs directly contract for services normally performed by an insurance company. Services secured on behalf of members include: elected Board of trustees, program administration, safety and loss-control services, third-party administration (TPA), independent accountants and actuaries and excess insurance carrier.

Companies must apply for membership and generally indicate adherence to effective risk management and loss control programs.

  1. Large-Deductible Plans

This is a form of self-insurance where the employer is responsible for reimbursing the insurer for claims up to a certain dollar amount and the insurer is responsible for paying claims in excess of that deductible. The insured funds an account (loss fund) to pay losses, and the insured reimburses the fund as losses are paid. The insured must collateralize, usually by letter of credit, an amount approximately equal to the difference between paid and ultimate losses. The actuary is typically one assigned by the carrier.

With the advent of the high-deductible program in the early ‘9Os, actuarial efforts focused principally on pricing issues. Employers are able to save significant premium expenses if they manage their loss-control and return-to-work programs effectively. The “deductible” is a sum that is subtracted from the insurer’s indemnity or defense obligation under the policy. Importantly, the responsibility for the defense and settlement of each claim rests almost entirely with the insurer, and the insurer typically maintains control over the entire claim process.

Large-deductible programs were slow to find favor in the U.S. In 1990, only six states approved of such deductibles. Currently, at least 45 states utilize large-deductible programs for workers’ compensation.

Deductibles are based on a per claim or per occurrence basis, with self-insured retentions of $100,000 to $1 million. The insurer sets the minimum deductible allowed. Insurers initially developed this program to provide both themselves and insureds certain advantages, including:

  • price flexibility, by passing risk back to the insured
  • reduced residual market charges and premium taxes in some states
  • better cash flow
  • coverage options for aggregate limits
  • broadest choice of insurance carriers
  • the possibility that a separate TPA may be allowed as an option to the carrier
  • that certificates of insurance issued to the employer’s key business partners show full coverage and policy limits

With a well-designed and -managed, loss-sensitive product, companies can potentially lower costs by assuming a greater proportion of their risk. You get increased cash flow and lower costs and improve claims outcomes for the business and its employees. What’s important with a loss-sensitive program is that the organization is committed to fully leveraging the insurer’s loss control, claims, medical and pharmacy management programs.

Additionally, it is critical to choose the right risk-financing structure. That involves having the business itself, you, the agent and the carrier carefully examining the organization’s current financial situation and short- and long-term goals.

Because the carrier is legally responsible for the employer’s claims, the carrier will require collateralization of existing and future claims covered by the policy period. Collateral is usually a letter of credit, surety bond or cash.

Keep in mind, however, that choosing a high retention is all about the frequency and severity of your workers’ comp claims as well as the responsiveness and quality of your claims administrator. In essence, the employer is giving the insurance company an open checkbook with respect to the handling and disposition of claims.

  1. Retrospective (Deferred) Premium Options

Retro programs are written through an endorsement on your large-deductible workers’ comp policy. It is the ultimate amount of money you will owe your carrier for the contract period. It can be broken down into installment payments. It consists of basic premium and converted losses, both of which get adjusted by the tax multiplier, which are the taxes and assessments due to the state. The insurer provides you a written agreement that defines the terms of your contract. It will show the basic and maximum and minimum premium, how the premium will be paid during the policy year, how the retrospective premium will be calculated and, most importantly, when you will be eligible for a premium refund. The agreement also defines any penalties associated with a midterm cancellation of the contract.

The two major retro payment plan options:

A.   Incurred Loss Retro:

You’ll pay the same up front as with a guaranteed-cost program, but you’ll be refunded money if your loss experience is favorable. The risk, however, is having to pay additional premium if your loss experience is unfavorable. The cost of the insurance program is determined by the actual incurred loss experience for a specific policy period. Incurred costs include paid costs as well as future expected costs (reserves). The premium is adjusted annually until all claims are paid and closed.

B.     Paid Loss Retro:

Premiums are determined using paid only loss amounts rather than incurred (reserved amounts). Timing of premium and loss payments are negotiated before inception, and disbursements are made as costs are realized and billed. Because this option is typically the favorite of insureds, this option is typically only offered to large entities paying in excess of $1 million in premium.

How is the basic premium determined?

Basic premium is basically the insurer’s cost of doing business plus expected profitability. The amount is determined by multiplying the standard premium by a percentage called the basic premium factor. This factor varies based on your actual premium size and the amount of risk you are assuming. In general, if you take on more risk for your claims, the amount you will pay for the basic premium decreases.

What are converted losses?

 Converted losses are the total claims, also called incurred losses, adjusted by the tax multiplier (see below) and multiplied by the loss conversion factor (LCF), which is negotiated with you prior to the inception of the coverage. As the loss conversion factor increases, you assume more risk, so the basic premium decreases.

What is the tax multiplier?

This is a factor that is applied to the basic premium and converted losses to cover state taxes and assessments that must be paid by your insurance carrier.

What is the maximum premium?

Maximum premium is the most you will have to pay under a retro plan. It helps protect you by placing a limit on the impact of any substantial losses you could have. It can range from 100% up to 150% of audited standard premium. For example, if the audited standard premium was $100,000, and you selected a 125% max, the most you could pay for the total of all retro charges under the specific contract period is $125,000.

When will my money be returned if losses are low?

After completing the full contract period, the first adjustment for a possible refund is usually calculated six months after the policy expiration date. The premium is adjusted according to the retro formula, using the basic premium, converted incurred losses and taxes. If your claim losses are better than expected, you will get as much as 50% of the total estimated refund. Another adjustment is usually made in 12 months, with as much as 25% of the total estimated refund. The final adjustment is at least 12 months after that, with the final 25%. If, however, you have complex indemnity (lost-time) claims that are unresolved, the adjustments may drag out for years.

  1. Captive Insurance

A captive insurance company is an insurance company formed by a business owner to insure the risks of related or affiliated businesses. A captive permits a business to manage its risks while potentially providing substantial benefits to that related business. More than 75% of the Fortune 500 now utilize some form of captive insurance, but captives are usually not a viable alternative for most small to medium-sized companies.

Is a captive still a viable alternative?

The number of captive insurance entities is growing worldwide. Today, nearly 10,000 businesses in the world employ some form of captive insurance coverage. Those totals are expected to triple over the next 10 years as more companies further examine comprehensive and well-targeted risk-management plans. More than 5,750 large companies have their wholly owned captive insurance entities that were formed to insure the risks of the parent company and its subsidiaries.

What risks does a captive typically underwrite?

Captives are formed in 30 domestic locations (state) or in foreign (“off-shore”) domiciles like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. Vermont is the most popular state. Each domicile has its own set of laws and regulations. To be successful, captives usually cover disparate types of risk, with a good geographical or industry spread. Captives are intended to build financial strength over time and help insulate the parent company from price fluctuations in the traditional insurance market. Increasingly, captives’ owners are also looking to their captive to provide broader coverage, including unusual or emerging risks, where risk transfer is either expensive or unavailable.

The type of risks that captives cover is expanding rapidly, from the more common property damage and casualty coverage, to employee benefits, environmental, cyber, business interruption and other non-traditional covers like operational risk and supply chain. Captives typically provide large companies an opportunity to insure against risks that are generally uninsurable or exotic.

Are there different types of captives?

There are at least 10 types of legal insurance captives, including:

  • Pure captives (single parent)
  • Industry group captives
  • Agency captives
  • Association captives
  • Risk-retention groups (RRGs)
  • Rent-a-Captives
  • Segregated and protected cell captives
  • Special-purpose reinsurance captives
  • Series LLC captives
  • Internal Revenue Code 831b captives.

How is workers’ comp coverage provided in each state?

A commercial insurance company (“fronting company”), licensed in the state where a risk to be insured is located, issues its policy to the insured. That risk is then fully transferred from the fronting company back to the captive insurance company through a reinsurance agreement, known as a fronting agreement. Thus, the insured obtains a policy issued on the paper of the commercial insurance company.

The cost varies for a fronting carrier, which legally assumes the workers’ comp risk it fronts, in the event of default by the captive. The fronting company will almost always require collateral to secure the captive’s obligations to the fronting company under the fronting agreement, in addition to a 4% to 10% fee.

Is there a tax advantage to using captives?

While the tax advantages from captive arrangements should never be at the top of any company’s list, captives can offer accelerated premium deductions, unlike most self-insurance programs. However, if the IRS believes that a captive has been established purely for tax purposes, the agency may challenge the captive status of the company. Comprehensive documentation of the objectives of the captive structure is important.

  1. Self- Insurance

A self-insured workers’ comp program is one where the employer sets aside an amount to provide for any workers’ comp claims and associated expenses—losses that could ordinarily be covered under an insurance program. Self-insurance is a means of capturing the cash flow benefits of unpaid loss reserves and offers the possibility of reducing expenses typically incorporated within a traditional insurance program. It involves a formal decision to retain risk rather than transfer (insure) and allows the employer to pay workers’ comp associated expenses as incurred.

A self-insured workers’ comp plan is one in which the employer has legal approval from the one or more states to assume the financial risk for providing workers’ comp benefits to its employees. In practical terms, self-insured employers pay the cost of each claim “out of pocket” as necessary. The employer maintains its ability to settle or adjudicate each claim within its self-insured retention – assuming it has excess insurance.

Importantly, key decisions, including which vendors to use to treat injured workers and to administer claims, remain with the employer and not an insurer.

How many employers currently operate a self-insured workers’ comp program? 

It is estimated that more than 6,000 corporations and their subsidiaries nationwide operate self-insured workers’ comp programs. Many other smaller employers participate in Self-Insured Groups (SIGs), where they pool their risks with other companies.

How large do you have to be to self-insure?

Each state sets its own minimum standards for eligibility. For example, in California, you only need to have at least $5 million in shareholder equity and a net profit of $500,000 per year for the last five years. Eligibility is not based on the number of claims.

Keep in mind that each state is a distinct entity, so a company might be self-insured in one state where it has a high concentration of employees and have a large-deductible policy in another state with fewer employees.

Does the state require collateralization?

Every state, except California and North Carolina, has mandatory minimum security deposits that consist of: letters of credit, surety bonds, securities or cash. In many states, the amount posted by the self-insured is less that that required by an insurer or captive.

Can self-insured employers protect themselves against unpredicted or catastrophic claims?

Most states, except California, require self-insureds to purchase statutory (no limit) excess insurance from a state-licensed workers’ comp insurer. Where available, a negotiated, aggregate stop-loss (“attachment point”) endorsement protects an employer to a specific policy period dollar cap regardless of the per-claim self-insured retention or number of claims incurred.

Is self-insurance typically only used by large entities?

No. Employers of all sizes typically choose to self-insure because it gives them the greatest opportunity of any workers’ comp funding alternative to manage their own destiny. A self-insured can control its costs by choosing and managing various program vendors and by implementing a wide variety of loss-prevention and return-to-work programs that serve to greatly reduce workers’ comp claims. Self-insureds choose program components that they feel are the most cost-effective and responsive.

Who administers claims for self-insured workers’ compensation programs?

Self-insured employers can either administer the claims in-house (if allowed by the state) or subcontract to a TPA. Other medical treatment or claim-related services can be “unbundled,” or obtained through TPA contractual services.

  1. Opting Out of Workers Comp

The opt-out concept is appealing to those who believe that statutory workers’ comp systems are hopelessly complicated, burdensome to both employers and their injured employees and out of touch. Privatized opt-out programs are intended to better integrate into the matrix of existing employee health plans and benefits.

Just two states have laws that allow employers to opt out of the state-regulated system: Texas and Oklahoma.  Texas has always had this law, with 114,000 employers (about 1/3 of the total employers) choosing to forgo workers’ comp coverage. Oklahoma recently adopted a variation where employers can choose an alternative to workers’ comp coverage.

Practically speaking, “Opt-Out” (“non-subscription”) gives employers enormous discretion to decide under what circumstances to compensate an injured worker under the employer’s own benefit plan. To protect the employer from most negligence lawsuits, as a condition of employment the employer can force the employee to sign a contract so all cases are resolved through an employer-designed, secret arbitration system rather than in court.

One crucial aspect is the adoption of federal standards under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) for administering work-injury benefits. A state insurance or self-insured guarantee fund would not back up an opt-out employer that defaults.

With continuing legal challenges to workers’ compensation, including recent lawsuits against Uber and Lyft seeking court approval to mandate workers’ compensation benefits for “app assigned” work, traditional workers’ comp may give way to modern versions of the opt-out programs. The goal would be to create a more seamless benefit program that participants hope will take out the litigation components that have haunted the “no-fault compensation bargain” that began just more than 100 years ago.

Same-Sex Marriage: An Update on Handling Claims

The pace of legislative and judicial activity surrounding same-sex marriage has quickened.

Currently, 17 states plus the District of Columbia allow same-sex couples to marry. Several states have expanded the legal rights available to spouses in same-sex relationships through civil unions and domestic partnerships. On June 26, 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in  Windsor v. United States, No. 12-307 that section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage, is unconstitutional. Since this decision, several state attorneys general have announced that they will no longer defend their state’s same-sex marriage bans.

Here is an update on the issue of same-sex marriage and claims handling considerations:

Same-Sex Marriage Overview

In the states that recognize these unions, the legal status of same-sex marriages is identical to opposite-sex marriages.

The first states that allowed same-sex marriage did so as a result of court decisions—Massachusetts in 2004, Connecticut in 2008 and Iowa in 2009. However, most states and the District of Columbia provided for same-sex marriage through legislation. Below is a summary of changes in the states over the past two years on this fast-moving issue:

2012

Washington

Legislation establishing same-sex marriage was approved February 2012, but opponents gathered enough signatures to put the issue on the November 2012 ballot. Voters upheld the law, and same-sex marriages began on Dec. 6, 2012.

Maryland

Gov. Martin O’Malley signed same-sex marriage legislation into law on March 1, 2012. However, opponents of the legislation obtained enough signatures to file a referendum challenging the law during the November 2012 election. The law was upheld by the voters and became effective on Jan. 1, 2013.

Maine

During the November 2012 election, voters approved a ballot measure legalizing same-sex marriage. The measure became effective Dec. 29, 2012.

New Jersey

The legislature passed a same-sex marriage bill in February 2012, but the measure was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie. A legal challenge was raised to the state’s law that only provided civil unions for same-sex couples, and a lower court ruled that the state had to allow same-sex couples to marry beginning Oct. 21, 2013. After the New Jersey Supreme Court denied an appeal for delay, Gov. Christie announced that the state would drop its appeal, making same-sex marriage legal in New Jersey.

2013

Rhode Island

Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed legislation that legalized same-sex marriage, eliminated the availability of civil union and recognized civil unions and same sex marriage from other states on May 2, 2013. This bill became effective Aug. 1, 2013.

Delaware

Gov. Jack Markell signed into law on May 7, 2013, same-sex marriage legislation that also recognized civil unions and same-sex marriage from other jurisdictions. The law became effective July 1, 2013.

Minnesota

Following the defeat of a constitutional prohibition of same-sex marriage during the November 2012 election, the legislation passed a bill allowing same-sex marriage May 2013. The law went into effect on Aug. 1, 2013.

California

On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to decide the California challenge to Proposition 8, concluding that it had no authority to consider the question in the case. The effect of that decision was to reinstate the federal district court decision overturning Proposition 8, thus allowing same-sex marriage in California.

Hawaii

During a special session held in October and November 2013, same-sex marriage was passed after both houses agreed to the addition of an amendment that strengthened the exemption of religious organization from being required to provide facilities, goods or services for the marriage or celebration of the marriage if it violates their religious beliefs. Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed the bill on Nov. 13, 2013, and it became effective on Dec. 2, 2013.

Illinois

Gov. Pat Quinn signed Senate Bill 10 into law on Nov. 20, 2013, and same-sex marriages will be available beginning June 1, 2014. A ruling by a U.S. district judge allowed residents of Cook County, Ill., to begin marrying on Feb. 21, 2014.

New Mexico

The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled on Dec. 19, 2013, that same-sex couples are allowed to marry. The ruling went into effect immediately.

Of the 33 states that still prohibit same-sex marriage, 29 have done so through constitutional provisions. Efforts to overturn state constitutional prohibitions have been initiated in the federal courts and have moved, or are about to move, into four federal appellate courts.

  • The Virginia case, Bostic v. Rainey, is expected to be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Va.
  • The Oklahoma case, Bishop v. U.S., 04-cv-848, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Oklahoma (Tulsa) is to be heard before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver, Colo., along with the Utah case, Kitchen v. Herbert, 13-cv-00217, U.S. District Court, District of Utah (Salt Lake City). Oral arguments are scheduled to be heard separately for these two cases in April 2014.
  • The Nevada case, Sevcik v. Sandoval, 12-17668, will be heard before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco, Ca.

In all four cases, the rulings are stayed pending appeal, meaning marriages cannot occur at this time. It is anticipated that the U.S. Supreme Court will be again asked to review this issue in 2015 or soon thereafter. Meanwhile, more action through legislation and ballot initiatives is expected to occur this year.

Civil Unions

A civil union is a category of law created to extend rights to same-sex couples. These rights are recognized only in the state where the couple resides, and no federal protection is included.

In 2013, the Colorado legislature passed a bill to establish civil unions for same-sex couples. The bill also provides recognition of civil unions from other jurisdictions. Gov. John Hickenlooper signed  SB 11 into law on March 21, 2013, and it became effective on May 1, 2013.

Delaware and Rhode Island replaced their civil union provisions with same-sex marriage, as previously occurred in Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont.

In Hawaii, civil unions remain available to same-sex and opposite-sex couples alike. The status of civil unions in Illinois and New Jersey are not yet clear with the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Domestic Partnerships

Domestic partnership is a civil contract between same-sex or opposite-sex, unmarried, adult partners who meet statutory requirements. Laws vary among states, cities and counties for domestic partnerships. Several states register these partnerships.

Washington has recently announced that registered domestic partnerships for same-sex partners will be converted to marriages on June 30, 2014, if marriage has not occurred or the partnership has not been dissolved by that time. The conversion will not apply to the domestic partnerships of heterosexual couples.

Reciprocal Beneficiaries

A reciprocal beneficiary agreement is a consensual and signed declaration of relationship for two adults unable to marry each other. Reciprocal beneficiary laws in Colorado, Hawaii and Maryland allow some benefits of marriage such as workers’ compensation survivor and health-related benefits.

Claim-Handling Considerations and Suggestions

The definitions of “spouse,” “dependent” and “marriage” are changing, and these changes affect the handling of casualty claims as we determine who is an eligible dependent or has legal standing to file certain causes of action. It is important that we are mindful of the state laws and any case law in the particular jurisdiction relating to same-sex unions.

Some state insurance departments have issued bulletins regarding their compliance expectations. For example, the Minnesota Departments of Commerce and Health issued  Administrative Bulletin # 2013-3 to advise property and casualty insurers that any policy issued in Minnesota on or after Aug. 1, 2013, providing dependent coverage for spouses must make that coverage available on the same terms and conditions regardless of the sex of the spouse. The bulletin reminds insurers that defining a spouse in a way that limits coverage to an opposite-sex spouse would be discriminatory and unfair and a violation of Minnesota Statutes section 72A.20, subdivision 16.

When evaluating the eligibility of dependents, one area of uncertainty involves same-sex couples that have a valid marriage but move to a state that does not recognize their marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Windsor did not address Section 2 of DOMA, which does not require states to give effect to same-sex marriages performed under the laws of other states. In the past, most federal laws looked to the state of residence at the time benefits are sought, rather than where the marriage occurred.

In response to the U.S. Supreme Court DOMA decision, the U.S. Department of Labor published  Technical Release  2013-4 on Sept. 18, 2013. This release indicates that the rule of recognition to be applied is based on the state where the marriage was celebrated, regardless of the married couple’s state of domicile. Guidance is also provided on the meaning of “spouse” and “marriage,” as these terms appear in the provisions of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), and the Internal Revenue Code that the department interprets.

This release likely also applies to the following four major disability programs administered by the Department of Labor's Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP):

  • Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Program and its extensions, including the Defense Base Act
  • Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program
  • Black Lung Benefits Program
  • Federal Employees' Compensation Program

Additional recommendations include:

  1. Ascertain whom the employer shows as the spouse.
  2. In addition to determining marriage or civil union, domestic-partnership registration should be confirmed.
  3. If interviewing a claimant in a jurisdiction that recognizes same-sex unions, in addition to “spouse” add the terms “domestic partner or designated beneficiary” to the questions.
  4. It might be necessary to find out when and in what state the marriage occurred.
  5. Any questions or concerns should be discussed with your supervisor, team leader, manager or defense attorney.

Sometimes, our duties as claims examiners are affected by laws seemingly unrelated to insurance. It is important that we consider the impact of headlines and changes in the law on our handling of workers’ compensation claims.