Tag Archives: medical benefits

How Bureaucracy Drives WC Costs

Workers’ compensation is one of the most highly regulated lines of insurance. Every form filed and every payment transaction is an opportunity for a penalty. Claims can stay open for 30 years or longer, leading to thousands of transactions on a single claim. Each state presents different sets of compliance rules for payers to follow. This bureaucracy is adding significant cost to the workers’ compensation system, but is it improving the delivery of benefits to injured workers?

Lack of Uniformity

Workers’ compensation is regulated at the state level, which means every state has its own set of laws and rules governing the delivery of indemnity and medical benefits to injured workers. This state-by-state variation also exists in the behind-the-scenes reporting of data. Most states now require some level of electronic data interchange (EDI) from the payers (carriers or self-insured employers). There is no common template between the states; therefore carriers must set up separate data feeds for each state. This is made even more complex when you factor in the multiple sources from which payers must gather this data for their EDI reporting. Data sources include employers, bill review and utilization review vendors. The data from all these vendors must be combined into a single data feed to the states. If states change the data reporting fields, each of the vendors in the chain must also make changes to their feeds.

Variation also exists in the forms that must be filed and notices that must be posted in the workplaces. This means that payers must constantly monitor and update the various state requirements to ensure they stay in full compliance with the regulations.

Unnecessary Burden

Much of the workers’ compensation compliance efforts focus on the collection of data, which is ultimately transmitted to the states. The states want this information to monitor the system and ensure it is operating correctly, but is all this data necessary? Some states provide significant analytical reports on their workers’ compensation systems, but many do little with the data that they collect. In a world concerned about cyber risk, collecting and transmitting claims data creates a significant risk of a breach. If the data is not being used by the states, the risk associated with collecting and transmitting it seems unnecessary.

Another complication is that there are multiple regulators involved in the system for oversight in each jurisdiction. Too often, this means payers have to provide the same information to multiple parties because information sent to the state Department of Insurance is not shared with the state Division of Workers’ Compensation and vice versa.

Some regulation is also outdated based on current technology. Certain states require the physical claims files to be handled within that state. However, with many payers now going paperless, there are no physical claims files to provide. Other states require checks to be issued from a bank within those states. Electronic banking makes this requirement obsolete.

How Is This Driving Costs?

All payers have a significant amount of staffing and other resources devoted to compliance efforts. From designing systems to gathering and entering data, this is a very labor-intensive process. There have not been any studies on the actual costs to the system from these compliance efforts, but they easily equate to millions of dollars each year.

States also impose penalties for a variety of things, including late filing of forms and late and improper payment of benefits. The EDI process makes it possible for these penalties to be automated, but that issue raises the question of the purpose of the penalties altogether. These penalties are issued on a strict liability basis. In other words, either the form was filed in a timely manner or it was not. A payer could be 99% compliant on one million records, but they would be automatically penalized for the 1% of records that were incorrect. In this scenario, are the penalties encouraging compliance, or are they simply a source of revenue for the state? A fairer system would acknowledge where compliance efforts are being made. Rather than penalize every payer for every error, use the penalties for those that fall below certain compliance thresholds (say, 80% or 90% compliance).

The laws themselves can be vague and open to interpretation, which leads to unnecessary litigation expenses. Terms such as “reasonable” and “usual and customary” are intentionally vague, and often states will not provide further definition of these terms.

How Can We Improve?

One of the goals of workers’ compensation regulations is to ensure that injured workers are paid benefits in a timely manner at the correct rate and that they have access to appropriate medical treatment. There was a time when payers had offices located in most states, with adjusters handling only that state. Now, with most payers utilizing multi-state adjusters, payers must be constantly training and educating their adjusters to ensure that they understand all of the nuisances of the different states that they handle.

The ability to give input to regulators is also invaluable, and payers should seek opportunities to engage with organizations to create positive change. Groups such as the International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions (IAIABC) and the Southern Association of Workers’ Compensation Administrators (SAWCA) provide the opportunity for workers’ compensation stakeholders to interact with regulators on important issues and also provides the opportunity to seek uniformity where it makes sense (EDI, for example).

There needs to be better transparency and communication between all parties in the rule-making process so that regulators have a better understanding of the impact these rules have on payers and the effort required to achieve compliance.

Developing standards in technology would be helpful for both the payers and the states. If your systems cannot effectively communicate with the other systems, you cannot be efficient. Upgrading technology across the industry, particularly on the regulatory side, has to become a priority.

Finally, we need to give any statutory reforms time to make an impact before changing them again because the constant change adds to confusion and drives costs. In the last 10 years, there have been more than 9,000 bills introduced in various jurisdictions related to workers’ compensation. Of those, about 1,000 have actually been turned into law. People expect that these reforms will produce the desired results immediately, when in reality these things often take time to reach their full impact.

These issues were discussed in depth during an “Out Front Ideas With Kimberly and Mark” webinar on Feb. 9, 2016. View the archived webinar at http://www.outfrontideas.com/archives/.

3 Signals It’s Time to Close the Claim

Some workers’ compensation claims seem to have a life of their own. Before you know it, years have passed since the date of injury. Here are three signals telling you to take a hard look at settling now.

The Injured Workers Is 61 Years Old

Once an injured worker reaches age 62½, any buyout of future medical care must include a Medicare Set-Aside. (Buyout of medical benefits for an injured worker already on Medicare also requires a Medicare Set-Aside.) This adds work and delay. Sometimes, the MSA evaluation changes the parties’ view of the case. Stories abound about how the MSA process has torpedoed a settlement. Check your case inventory. If the injured worker is 61 years old, take steps now to close the claim before Medicare becomes a party to the proceedings.

Litigation Has Become a Way of Life

You’re in court every month. The number of claimed body parts keeps increasing; every treatment request is denied. Everyone mistrusts everyone else, including their own lawyers. Take a deep breath. Step back. This claim has a settlement value. The parties just need help figuring out what it is.

Trial Is Imminent

Nothing makes people think about settlement more than an upcoming trial date. You’ve lived with these facts for a long time; how can you be sure the judge will see things your way in the limited time available to put on the case?  Often, a judge’s order is just the gateway to even more litigation.

Going to trial is a risk. Most people are uncomfortable with the lack of control. They are happier with a negotiated settlement reached through compromise. You won’t get everything your way, but you won’t lose on every issue either. Most importantly, litigation can end.

Take the First Step

Approach the other side about scheduling a mediation. If communication has broken down, contact the mediator first, and let her work on bringing the parties together.

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.

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.

After a Century, Is Work Comp Obsolete?

Avoiding the ever-growing early 20th century fear of the growth of socialism in the U.S., fueled by author Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the federal government was eager to shift the passionate, muckraker sentiment for a Marxist-designed social insurance system (aka workers comp) to the states — only federal and certain interstate commerce employees are covered by federal statutes. Workers’ comp relinquished an employee’s right to sue an employer for tort negligence and provided, in return, medical benefits and a wage replacement benefit.

Dubbed “the grand bargain,” in the early 1900s, this tradeoff scheme has resulted in an ever-changing seesaw struggle between employers and employees that has wide disparity from state to state. The uneven playing field of each state and the District of Columbia has resulted in a pendulum effect fueled by work comp reform measures and case law that tends to only widen disparities among states as special interests battle for changes in state laws.

Meanwhile, the insidious growth of work comp fraud fuels the call for additional reform measures, and some feel they have gone too far. Yesterday, ProPublica published with NPR a major article making just that case. Some facts from the article: In the past 10 years, 33 states have passed workers’ comp laws that restrict or reduce benefits or benefit eligibility. Severely injured workers are the most likely to experience diminished benefits, as states like Florida have cut such benefits by 65% or more during the past 20 years. In California, insurers are able to re-open old cases and deny medical care based upon physicians who have never seen the patient.

The percentage of workers’ comp premium or self-insured dollars destined for injured workers has gradually diminished to where the majority of costs go to medical providers, drug companies and attorneys. Keep in mind: Workers’ comp was touted and designed as a no-fault, lawyerless system. Workers’ comp administrative law judges in California used to called “referees.”

In August, a Florida circuit judge ruled that the state’s workers’ comp law is unconstitutional, saying that benefits had been “decimated” and that the law “fails miserably” as to health, safety, welfare and morals. If the ruling is upheld, it is quite possible that workers in Florida may be able to sue their employers to force the legislature to enact new workers’ comp laws. These issues have drawn the attention of Sen. Bob Casey, D-PA, who introduced the Payroll Fraud Prevention Act, aimed at reducing employee workers’ comp misclassifications ,and is now working to have Congress make laws for basic protections for injured workers.

Adding more fuel to the fire, the states of Texas and Oklahoma have workers’ comp “opt-out” provisions for employers, with Tennessee and other state pondering this option, as well. Is this abandonment of the 1911 workers’ comp model a sign that disruption is a likely outcome for this century old system?

The burning question is whether the U.S. workers’ comp system should be rebuilt from scratch. Should Medicare and workers’ comp be woven into a federal system of benefits that doesn’t distinguish between injured workers from one jurisdiction to another? Is federalization of workers’ comp an inevitable outcome of these events?

Join the conversation…