Tag Archives: ncci

Florida’s Mess on Workers’ Comp

Sometimes stories in the news are simply that: stories. You read them; you ponder the significance for those strangers who are affected by the news; and then you move on. Other times, you find yourself directly affected by the news of the day, and it leaves you with a slightly greater awareness as to the potential impact the story might have. Such is the case here in Florida with our most recent twist in the winding tale of workers’ compensation reform.

My company has used the services of a professional employer organization (PEO) for much of its 17-year existence. However, due to growth and multi-state employment needs, we are extricating ourselves from that relationship and taking payroll, benefits and HR administration in-house. That change includes securing a direct workers’ compensation insurance policy for our company.

Now, workers’ compensation in Florida has become anything but mundane, as court decisions in recent months have stripped key sections of the comp code. The two primary cases that have driven the storyline are Westphal and Castellanos. Westphal ended a 104-week cap on temporary benefits. In reality, that decision will only affect a very small percentage of claims in the state. Castellanos, on the other hand, is having much broader impact. It found that income caps on attorneys for injured workers created an imbalanced level of representation, and declared the limits unconstitutional.

To make a long story short, there is now a huge unfunded liability for attorneys’ fees that may be due from any cases still open from much of this past decade. Some estimates are that employers and carriers will shell out as much as $2 billion for past cases alone. Litigation is expected to surge, resulting in a recommended and approved rate increase of 14.5% effective Dec. 1.

That is where the news of the day potentially affects my firm.

See also: How Should Workers’ Compensation Evolve?  

My agent sent me a quote for coverage effective Jan. 1, 2017. The quote, of course, included the approved rate increase that would be effective at that time. Just two hours later, a Circuit Court judge in Tallahassee blocked the approved rate increase, declaring that NCCI, which had generated recommendations for the state, violated state sunshine laws by not conducting the analysis in public meetings.

This is going to be a mess.

Litigation is already starting to increase in Florida. According to Deputy Chief Judge David Langham, petition filings rose 12% in 2016 (ended June 30, 2016), and thus far in 2017 (beginning July 1) the petition volume is up an average of 6%.

Ironically, while everybody and their brother knows that an increase in lawyer fees WILL drive litigation and costs up in Florida, it was a lawsuit brought by a plaintiff’s attorney, acting as an employer, that brought a screeching halt to the rate increase. If that group is looking to avoid its share of blame and divert attention for the increasing costs, that strategy is not going to work.

However, there is plenty of blame to go around.

As I’ve said previously, these court decisions “were largely the result of some really shortsighted legislative decisions, which were largely the result of greedy actions on the part of a select few who exploited the system for their own selfish gain, which was largely the result of some people screwing around with claims that should have just been paid to begin with.” There is little doubt that abuse existed in Florida. Before reform, attorneys were entitled to fee awards any time they brought action that “benefited” a client. Stories abound of cases where, technically, benefit was obtained, but it was in no way substantial. There was the case where an attorney gained an increase in weekly indemnity of 10 cents for a client, and received a $16,000 fee for the filing. Yet another (that one of my employees witnessed) where an attorney received a decision that awarded an injured worker $5. The attorney got $2,500 for his efforts.

There is little doubt that the reforms, starting back in 2004, had their intended effect. Fees for attorneys for injured workers, which were $215 million in 2003-04, fell to $136 million in 2014-15. However, the ratio of legal fees between plaintiffs and defense attorneys indicatted future problems. In 2003-04, Florida attorney fees were near parity, with 49% going to plaintiffs’ attorneys and 51% going to defense counsel. By 2014-15, however, that ratio had shifted dramatically, with 37% for plaintiffs and 63% for defense counsel (Source: Judge Langham’s Blog). There was indeed a representation imbalance created, and that caused a lot of problems here for some injured workers, particularly those with very temporary lost time and lower-value cases.

The real problem here in Florida was that our legislature took a very broad brush to stop a few bad actors, and ended up painting everybody into a corner.

But now, attorneys who will be the most immediate financial beneficiary have played a role in blocking the rate increase many know is needed to finance the reversal. Left unresolved, this portends big problems for the state. Carriers, facing certain cost increases but prevented from preparing for them, may simply choose to stop issuing new policies. Longer term, some could leave the state. At a minimum, those employers with a less-than-stellar experience level are most certainly facing the chopping block for their coverage.

See also: Healthcare Reform’s Effects on Workers’ Compensation  

As for my company, we’ve had one workers’ comp claim in 17 years. Our current loss run over that time shows zero dollars. We are in pretty good shape, but I do find myself wondering what our agent will be telling me when we chat later today. In the movie O’Brother Where Art Thou, when the boys find themselves surrounded by the law and trapped in the loft of a barn with no apparent way out, Everitt, played by George Clooney, kept repeating the obvious by saying, “Oh, we’re in one heckuva tight spot.”

I know how they felt. Let’s hope that someone comes along to re-write a sensible ending to this scene.

workers' compensation

Hidden Motives on Workers’ Comp

As legal alternatives to workers’ compensation (WC) grow in number and popularity, employers will save money, and employees will—in aggregate—receive better care. [1] As this market grows, my income will also grow.

Such forthrightness should seem unnecessary from a proponent of the opt-out movement, like me. But a vocal (and boisterous) contingent of the opposition to alternatives avoids the necessary logical inversion by hiding behind other, less relevant motives.

As companies move away from WC, the income for opponents of alternatives will shrink, though they will never acknowledge financial well-being as a motive in opposing the opt-out. Attorneys, judges, cost-containment companies, third-party administrators, industry regulators, the NCCI and a host of other WC stakeholders [2] veil their financial motives by redirecting the argument to “what is fair and just for the employee.” They are being disingenuous.

See Also: The Pretzel Logic on Oklahoma Option

Over time, it becomes easier to expose financially motivated WC stakeholders. But a second component of the opposition is free from poorly hidden financial agendas. This ideological group—which compels me to write this essay—claims to oppose free market alternatives on altruistic grounds. The group’s members—just like their financially motivated brethren—lean quite heavily on the noble ideas that they hope are conveyed in the two-word, nebulous term “grand bargain” and that they treat as sacrosanct.[3]

The U.S. was a little late to the WC party. Pressure had been building on policy makers since the second half of the 19th century, but it was the Pittsburgh Survey by the Russell Sage Foundation that provided the greatest influence in the rapid adoption of WC laws in the U.S. between 1911 and 1920. Anecdotes (e.g., The Jungle) helped, but legislatures needed statistically compelling factual evidence to reform the legal schemes governing workplace accidents. Crystal Eastman stood and delivered. In her seminal study, Work-accidents and the Law (which was part of the Pittsburgh Survey and was published in 1910), Eastman gathered and reported on workplace accident data for a 12-month period between 1906 and 1907 in the small but industrially relevant sample of Allegheny County, PA. She rightly and importantly spent the first 200 pages of her study explaining the devastating effects of workplace accidents on individuals, families and communities.[4] After dozens of case studies concerning widows, orphans and maimed workers, she dove into the problem with aplomb.

The root of the problem was that common law systems couldn’t keep up with changes stemming from the Industrial Revolution—especially those in the U.S. It’s no coincidence many countries that eventually committed to industrialization were also, to some extent, relying on English common law. From the Pittsburgh survey, Eastman summarized the problematic common law system on page 206 as follows:

  1. It is wasteful:
  • The state expends a large amount in fruitless litigation.
  • Employers expend a large amount, as the result of work accidents, only a small part of which is actually paid in settlement of accident claims. 
  • The injured employes [sic] spend nearly half of what they get in settlements and damages to pay the cost of fighting for it.
  1. It is slow; recovery is long delayed, while the need is immediate.
  2. It fosters misunderstanding and bitterness between employer and employees.
  3. It encourages both parties to dishonest methods. 
  4. The institutions which have been resorted to as an escape from its evils, liability insurance and relief associations based upon a contract of release, are often advantageous to employers, but disadvantageous in important respects to employees. 

The irony—over a century later—is too obvious. Eastman’s first four points might as well be the outline for states like Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee when contemplating legal alternatives to their inefficient, caustic, modern WC systems. Granted, there was substantially more urgency for Eastman when she created this list—deaths per 100,000 hours worked were at all-time highs. Today, that statistic is at an all-time low. As significant as our modern occupational accident problems are, they are a different breed from—even if they are similarly described to—what Eastman studied.

Eastman’s study was so powerful that many state legislatures used it to outline their original WC laws. Stakeholders were generally agreeable to this grand bargain, which, 1) prevented employees from suing employers for common law negligence, 2) required employers to pay medical and lost income benefits for employees injured on the job and 3) removed negligence from the conversation by making the entire WC scheme “no fault” in nature.

But there are some important contextual factors that contemporary WC stakeholders forget to mention regarding the grand bargain that gave us WC to begin with. First, most states made these new-fangled WC systems optional. That’s right; of the 45 states that passed WC legislation between 1911 and 1920, 36 allowed employers to choose which system they wished to participate in. The original Texas law—which still stands iconoclastically today—was perfectly ordinary when it was originally enacted in 1913 (it gave private employers the opportunity to subscribe to WC or stick with common law, albeit without three powerful common law defenses). When the grand bargain was being born, options were the norm.

See Also: Key Misunderstanding on Oklahoma Option

A second, forgotten characteristic of the grand bargain is how disputes—though rare—were handled. By design, attorney involvement was minimal. One of the primary goals of the grand bargain was to decrease the amount of litigation, not to recategorize and grow it. Eastman’s suggested mechanism (pp. 211-220) for dispute resolution was arbitration, which was embraced by a number of states.[5] However, never count attorneys out. Primal due process ideals eventually compelled them to increase their involvement (and compensation), all in the name of giving clients the day in court to which they are constitutionally entitled. This aberration—attorney involvement—is now sold to the public as part and parcel of the grand bargain.

Opponents will accuse me of misinterpreting Eastman’s time and message. All interested parties are, of course, welcome to read her study [6] and draw their own conclusions.

We invite interested parties to tour the facilities of our opt-out employers and interview employees. They can even search for hidden torture chambers filled with injured workers, but they won’t find them, because they do not exist. Our employees are happy, and our employers are delivering top-notch care to them at a fraction of the cost of WC.

But our opponents won’t accept this reality. “Facts be damned!” they cry. “The employer needs to pay full fare for WC.” That reasoning, again, is understandable from those WC stakeholders who fear they will starve if they can’t slurp from the trough of WC. Inexplicably, however, this attitude is even more pronounced among the opposition’s altruistic contingent, which maintains that employers must continue covering the inflated costs of employee welfare under WC, whether or not that financial burden improves the situation of injured employees.

Medicare presents an interesting litmus test for this ideological perspective. It is obvious to anyone paying attention that our entitlement healthcare program for seniors could—and should—deliver better outcomes at substantially lower costs. This is self-evident to Americans of all political stripes, in large part because we all pay for those costs via taxes. We would all like to see outcomes improve and our tax burden decrease.

In both Texas nonsubscription and the Oklahoma option, we eliminate the vast majority of legal overhead, which allows us to focus on medical outcomes. The same sorts of inefficiencies and abuses that occur within Medicare also infect WC, so it shouldn’t be hard to believe that the free market (given the legal opportunity to do so) can economize them.[7]

Yet, our vocal, altruistic opponents won’t allow their own criticisms of Medicare to influence their opinion about opt-out saving money and improving outcomes. It’s perfectly obvious that Medicare (a healthcare system rife with bureaucratic inefficiencies) could deliver better results at lower costs if it were redesigned. However, when we demonstrate that WC (a healthcare system equally rife with bureaucratic inefficiencies) could—and should—deliver better results at lower costs, they opponent of opt-out close their eyes and cover their ears. “It can’t be done!” they cry.

Somehow, from this perverse perspective, the solution to workplace injuries does not need to make the little guys (the employees) any better off, so long as it does a sufficient job of making the big guys (the employers) pay.

Ah, the joys of spending other people’s money.

This litmus test provided by Medicare shows our altruistic opponents have an unexpected hidden agenda: politics. Is such a desire—to have the employer pay more than necessary—relevant to the welfare of employees? No, it is not.

It is political. It is an impediment. It is stupid.[8]

The grand bargain was about rationalizing what had become out-of-control non-solutions for workplace injuries. Throughout the past century, many WC systems have become burdensome for employees and employers alike. They are now, ironically, non-solutions. The grand bargain wasn’t fundamentally about WC; it was about protecting employees and employers as sensibly and pragmatically as possible. It accomplished that objective with minimal use of attorneys, while generally allowing employers to elect (or subscribe) to a statutory scheme that took the name “workmen’s compensation.”

With slightly different jargon, that sounds eerily similar to what Oklahoma did in 2013. The Sooner State took a critical look at its non-solution for workplace injuries and created an alternative to more efficiently protect employer and employee alike. This statutory scheme has taken the popular name of “the Oklahoma option.”

What’s next for opt-out proponents? First and foremost, Oklahoma must tend to its new creation. After that, we’ll just have to wait and see what other states will do—if anything.

What’s next for our opponents? I suspect they will not advertise their fear of losing income. They will continue to tout the grand bargain as sacrosanct, without examining the historical context from which it emerged. They will try to hide behind arguments that appear noble.

We at WorkersCompensationOptions.com will remain at the cutting edge of this movement and will provide whatever legal occupational accident programs our clients wish to implement. Our results already speak for themselves—and they will continue to do so.

 

[1] If the reader is determined to think of “care” in only post-injury terms, so be it; my claim still stands. However, our idea of “care” starts with motivating employers to create the safest workplaces possible and motivating employees to avoid injuries in the first place. Because “no fault” is a cornerstone of the WC structure, our emphasis on safety is far easier to convey to our opt-out clients than to our WC clients.

[2] The panoply of stakeholders in WC (ranging from payroll auditors to WC Medicare Set Aside reporters and from private investigators to coding specialists tasked with maximizing reimbursements) is quite a spectacle. To avoid overwhelming my audience, I generally categorize this excessive cast of characters into the five communities of WC: insurance, medical, legal, employer and employee. Watch the first seven minutes of this video for an explanation of how perverse the incentives are for most of these stakeholders. Regrettably, the employer and employee have become afterthoughts in a system ostensibly designed to meet their needs.

[3] In both form and content, this article borrows heavily from the first 12 pages of John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society. In particular, I have modeled my discussion on his examination of “the obsolescence of ideas,” where he explains the danger of leaving “sacrosanct” concepts unexamined as a matter of convenience.

[4] Sensitive readers beware; stories of aching necks are completely ignored by Eastman in favor of gruesome accounts of deaths and dismemberments.

[5] Arbitration was much less formal a century ago. Typically, a disinterested but experienced third party would simply perform a records review and make a determination. Testimony could be heard. For a glimpse of how WC disputes were resolved in the 1920s, see pages 88-194 of Bureau of Labor Statistics Bulletin 301, April 1922. The report by Carl Hookstadt details the various methods of dispute resolution for 21 states and two Canadian provinces. Voluntary resolution between employer and employee was universally sought. In its broadest sense, “arbitration”—in varying layers—successfully prevented litigation in the vast majority of cases (with the California sample offering the singular, glaring exception).

[6] I urge all industry insiders to read Eastman’s survey, as it’s fascinating, historically significant and accessible for free via the link above.

[7] While this argument is esoteric, I remind the reader we have actual results. Texas nonsubscription and the Oklahoma option are not theoretical; they are real.

[8] Reza Aslan delivered one of the greatest uses of the term “stupid” in September 2014, when interviewed on CNN. This nine-minute video is certainly worth watching in its entirety, but, for his thoughtful and appropriate deployment of a term many of us are too cowardly to invoke, watch from 6:20 to 7:00.

excess

The State of Workers’ Comp in 2016

Over the last two years, employers and groups that self-insure their workers’ compensation exposures have enjoyed reasonably favorable terms on their excess insurance policies. Both premiums and self-insured retentions (SIRs) have remained relatively stable since 2014. This trend is likely to continue through 2016, but the long-term outlook for this line of coverage is less promising. Changing loss trends, stagnant interest rates, deteriorating reinsurance results and challenging regulatory issues are likely to have a negative impact on excess workers’ compensation insurance in the near future.

Predictions for 2016

Little direct information is available on the excess workers’ compensation marketplace even though written premiums well exceed $1 billion nationwide. Accurately forecasting changes in the marketplace is largely a function of the prevalent conditions of the workers’ compensation, reinsurance and financial marketplaces. But, based on available information, premium rates, retentions and policy limits should remain relatively flat on excess workers’ compensation policies for the balance of the 2016 calendar year. This projected stability is because of four main factors: positive results in the workers’ compensation industry over the last two years, availability of favorable terms in the reinsurance marketplace, an increase in the interest rate by the Federal Reserve at the end of 2015 and continued investment in value-added cost-containment services by excess carriers.

For calendar year 2014, the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) reported a 98% combined ratio for the workers’ compensation industry nationwide. In 2015, the combined ratio is projected to have improved slightly to 96%. This equates to a 2% underwriting profit for 2014 and a projected 4% underwriting profit for 2015. This is the first time since 2006 that the industry has posted positive results. The results were further bolstered by a downward trend in lost-time claims across the country and improved investment returns.

Reinsurance costs and availability play a significant role in the overall cost of excess workers’ compensation coverage. On an individual policy, reinsurance can make up 25% or more of the total cost. Excess workers’ compensation carriers, like most insurance carriers, purchase reinsurance coverages to spread risk and minimize volatility generated by catastrophic claims and adverse loss development. Reinsurers have benefited from underwriting gains and improved investment returns over the last three years. These results have helped to stabilize their costs and terms, which have directly benefited the excess workers’ compensation carriers and, ultimately, the policyholders that purchase excess coverage.

According to NCCI, the workers’ compensation industry has only posted underwriting profits in four of the last 25 years. This includes the two most recent calendar years. To generate an ultimate net profit and for the industry to remain viable on a long-term basis, workers’ compensation carriers rely heavily on investment income to offset the losses in most policy years. For the first time since 2006, the Federal Reserve increased target fund rates at the end of 2015. Although the increase was marginal, it has a measurable impact on the long-term investment portfolios held by workers’ compensation and excess workers’ compensation carriers. Workers’ compensation has a very long lag between the time a claim occurs and the date it is ultimately closed. This lag time is known as a “tail.” The tail on an excess workers’ compensation policy year can be 15, 20 and even as much as 30 years. An additional 0.25% investment return on funds held in reserve over a 20-plus-year period can translate into significant additional revenue for a carrier.

Excess workers’ compensation carriers have moved away from the traditional model of providing only commodity-based insurance coverage over the last 10 years. Most have instead developed various value-added cost-containment services that are provided within the cost of the excess policies they issue. Initially, these services were used to differentiate individual carriers from their competitors but have since evolved to have a meaningful impact on the cost of claims for both the policyholder and the carrier. These services include safety and loss control consultation to prevent claims from occurring, predictive analytics to help identify problematic claims for early intervention and benchmarking tools that help employers target specific areas for improvement. These value-added services not only reduce the frequency and severity of the claims experience for the policyholder, but excess carriers, as well.

Long Term Challenges

The results over the last two years have been relatively favorable for the workers’ compensation industry, but there are a number of long-term challenges and issues. These factors will likely lead to increasing premiums or increases in the self-insured retentions (SIRs) available under excess workers’ compensation policies.

Loss Trends: Workers’ compensation claims frequency, especially lost-time frequency, has steadily declined on a national level over the last 10 years, but the average cost of lost-time claims is increasing. These two diverging trends could ultimately result in a general increase in lost-time (indemnity) costs. Further, advances in medical technology, treatments and medications (especially opioids) are pushing the medical cost component of workers’ compensation claims higher, and, on average, medical costs make up 60% to 70% of most workers’ compensation claims.

Interest Rates: While the Federal Reserve did increase interest rates by 0.25 percentage point in late December, many financial analysts say that further increases are unlikely in the foreseeable future. Ten- year T-bill rates have been steadily declining over the last 25 years, and the current 10-year Treasury rate remains at a historically low level. A lack of meaningful returns on long-term investments will necessitate future premium increases, likely coupled with increases in policy retentions to offset increasing losses in future years.

Reinsurance: According to a recent study published by Ernst & Young, the property/casualty reinsurance marketplace has enjoyed three consecutive years of positive underwriting results, but each successive year since 2013 has produced a smaller underwriting profit than the last. In 2013, reinsurers generated a 3% underwriting profit followed by a 2% profit in 2014 and finally an underwriting profit of less than 1% in 2015. Like most insurance carriers, reinsurers utilize investment income to offset underwriting losses. As the long-term outlook for investments languishes, reinsurance carriers are likely to move their premiums and retentions upward to generate additional revenue, thus increasing the cost of underlying policies, including excess insurance.

Regulatory Matters: Workers’ compensation rules and regulations are fairly well-established in most states, but a number of recent developments at the federal and state levels may hurt workers’ compensation programs nationwide. The federal government continues to seek cost-shifting options under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to state workers’ compensation programs. Later this year, state Medicaid programs will be permitted to recover entire liability settlements from state workers’ compensation plans – as opposed to just the amount related to the medical portion of the settlement. At the state level, there are an increasing number of challenges to the “exclusive remedy” provision of most workers’ compensation systems. Florida’s Supreme Court is currently deliberating such a challenge. Should the court rule in favor of the plaintiffs, Florida employers could be exposed to increased litigation from injured workers. A ruling against exclusive remedy could possibly set precedent for plaintiff attorneys to bring similar litigation in other states. Lastly, allowing injured workers to seek remedies outside of the workers’ compensation system would strip carriers and employers of many cost-containment options.

opt-out

Debunking ‘Opt-Out’ Myths (Part 6)

“Transparency” demonstrates whether a product or service has real value to society. It also promotes collaboration and process improvement. So, what does transparency mean, and how can the same standards be applied, in the context of workers’ compensation and the Texas and Oklahoma “options” to workers’ compensation? There are lessons all can learn on a path of progress.

Transparency in Workers’ Compensation

Transparency within the workers’ compensation industry has dramatically improved over the past 20 years, but some aspects remain translucent, at best.

From an insurance agent and employer perspective, workers’ compensation is too often viewed as a complex government mandate to be complied with in the easiest manner possible. Most employers do not have the wherewithal to affect significant claims, dissect an experience modifier or otherwise engage with workers’ compensation systems beyond the review of insurance quotes, the payment of premium and the initial filing of a claim. Who can blame them with so little information readily at hand?

For both employers and injured workers, most states provide little clear information on system rights and responsibilities. When was the last time you got on the Internet and reviewed all of an unfamiliar state’s workers’ compensation laws? Or attempted to find or build your own summary of benefits or claim procedures for an unfamiliar state workers’ compensation system? We go to the “For Employers” or “For Injured Workers” tab on the state system website but see only a high-level review of system benefit requirements and information on how to file a claim. But how is each form of benefit computed? When do they start and stop? What are the other exclusions and limitations on benefits? It is no wonder that employers and injured workers with concerns about their rights and responsibilities on a particular claim often engage legal counsel to navigate.

At a workers’ compensation regulatory level, a few states excel at providing meaningful information that is readily accessible. For example, the Texas Department of Insurance has a research and evaluation group that continually generates good information on system performance. But most states provide little (if any) data on actual workers’ compensation system performance. There is no universal standard or consistency in what scant workers’ compensation information on regulatory costs, injury claim costs, employee satisfaction or other outcomes is available from government agencies at no charge to the general public.

Many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) do great work to fill this information void. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI), Workers’ Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) and other high-quality organizations provide helpful summaries of legal differences between state systems, as well as insightful claim data analyses. This information can be very useful to legislators, regulators and large employers, as well as insurance company executives and claim adjusters. It is rarely accessed by small business to affect their cost of workers’ compensation or by injured workers to advance their claim.

The largest workers’ compensation NGO is the National Council on Compensation Insurance. NCCI privatizes the collection and analysis of claims and other statistical data for nearly 40 states and hundreds of insurance companies. NCCI tackles the enormous challenge of making sense of data flowing in disparate fields across different technology platforms, with a talented staff of more than 900 employees. In 2014, NCCI generated $152 million in net sales, with assets of $151 million and total equity of $42 million, for its insurance company members.

Most NCCI data is proprietary and only available at significant expense to member insurance companies and certain state regulators. Only high-level summaries are provided to the general public, and most of that information is macro-focused on premium rate setting and insurance company profitability.

State regulators use NCCI loss-cost projections to help set insurance premium rates. Projected loss-cost reductions are commonly viewed as a direct monetization of recent workers’ compensation law reforms. However, insurance companies are allowed to substantially deviate from those expectations when setting premiums for individual employer policies. Some insurance companies may reduce actual premium rates just enough to maintain credibility in view of recent reforms but maintain premium rates at the highest possible level for the benefit of their shareholders. Workers’ compensation is a highly risky business to underwrite, and shareholders reasonably expect profits. But we should understand that NCCI’s projected loss-cost reductions and premium rate projections may or may not translate to the lower costs employers have been told to expect from reforms.

Transparency in Options to Workers’ Compensation

In comparison to workers’ compensation systems, the option industry is relatively new and does not have a similar, robust infrastructure of NGOs to fill the information voids. But interest in and movement toward option programs is growing daily, and option proponents are committed to transparency.

The states of Texas and Oklahoma begin the process by maintaining employer coverage lists. Texas maintains a searchable database of employers that carry workers’ compensation insurance and a list of employers that do not. Coverage is entirely voluntary in Texas, and employers on this latter list have self-reported (and most likely sponsor) an injury benefit plan.  The Texas Department of Insurance indicates that 95% of all Texas workers have either workers’ compensation or injury benefit coverage. Employers on neither Texas list are out of compliance with current legal reporting requirements and may have no workers’ compensation or injury benefit coverage for employees. Those are the companies that truly fit the derisive term “opt-out,” which is unique to Texas. The Oklahoma model and what other states are considering is a more highly regulated “option” to workers’ compensation. For the state of Oklahoma, every employer must have workers’ compensation or be approved as a “qualified employer” (https://www.ok.gov/oid/workerscompreform.html) that sponsors a legally compliant injury benefit plan and satisfies financial security requirements.

From an insurance agent or employer perspective, insurance companies writing option policies have long insisted on a higher level of engagement than is common in workers’ compensation. Such agent and employer engagement requires transparency and understanding. Transparency is emphasized through simple requirements for active, pre- and post-injury communication between employers and employees, particularly on the need for immediate injury reporting, use of approved medical providers and following doctor’s orders. Safety program integrity is also commonly verified, particularly in the Texas Option environment, where both injury benefit and simple negligence liability exposures are insured.

Option injury benefit plan documents and claim procedures have been widely available in the public domain since the early 1990s. These benefit plans are the functional equivalent of a state workers’ compensation statute, describing the plan’s funding, benefit payment and administration processes.

Insurance companies have brought transparency to, exercise substantial control over and bring consistency across a large number of option programs by requiring most employers to use standardized injury benefit plan documents. In Texas and Oklahoma, option insurance companies freely distribute to independent agents their template plan documents and policy forms that vary because of competition on the breadth of coverage. Insurance agents then review these documents (often on a checklist), along with claim procedures and safety requirements with employers interested in implementing or renewing an option program. Employer implementation of the standardized program, including communication to all covered workers, is a condition of the insurance coverage. All injury claims must then be managed by the insurance company’s owned or contracted claims unit.  Only large employers are allowed more flexibility to unbundle claims administration and make pre-approved customizations to their benefit plan.

Hundreds of papers, articles, interviews and presentations that provide good information on options to workers’ compensation have been available over the past two decades. For example, http://www.partnersource.com/media/35242/partnersource_media_compilation_for_publication_1-21-2016.pdf. An abundance of information is available now, and this library is growing.

For injured workers, Option plans provide substantially greater transparency than workers’ compensation. Every employee covered by an option plan sponsored by a private employer must be provided a detailed summary plan description (SPD) in accordance with the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. In plain language, the SPD must explain how the plan works, what benefits are available, how those benefits are provided, any exclusions and limitations applying to those benefits and the employee’s rights and obligations under the plan. A highlights section is commonly included at the front of the SPD.

The SPD must be provided within 90 days of an employee becoming covered by an option plan but is routinely provided at the time of hire. Any material change to the plan must also be communicated. All of this information must be provided to each employee in a hard copy or electronically in a manner that satisfies regulatory standards. Another copy of the SPD is also available at any time upon request. Interpretive assistance is required for non-English reading employees.

This transparency fosters employee appreciation for the program, as well as compliance with the accountability requirements found in option benefit plans. Open communication from employers promotes faster accident reporting, earlier medical diagnosis and treatment, a reduction in the number of disputes and less dependence on regulators and lawyers for basic information and claims support.

Every covered employee and beneficiary also has access to the official injury benefit plan document and their claims information. Employers that fail to provide requested information face monetary penalties. Plan participants can include information in and otherwise affect their claim file, and have access to state and federal courts for benefit disputes.

Though available to plan participants, publication of option benefit plans for review by the general public is not required by law. Oklahoma Option benefit plans were publicly available until the 2015 Oklahoma legislature decided to provide broad confidentiality of qualified employer application files in an effort to mirror the application file confidentiality of self-insured employers under workers’ compensation. The idea of establishing a public database of SPDs has also historically proven impractical. For decades, the federal government required employers to file a copy of the SPD for every employee benefit plan. That filing requirement was eliminated in 1997 because the government could not efficiently store the documents, such documents were rarely requested by the public and the related employer and taxpayer expense was deemed wasteful. Perhaps this subject should be revisited in the electronic age.

At a system performance level, most option employers are small companies, with owners relying on their independent insurance agent for periodic updates on their own program performance. But there are also thousands of other workers’ compensation industry professionals who understand and support option programs. Many sophisticated, Fortune 500 risk managers, who are very aware of their brand value and most important asset manage option programs that cover billions of dollars in payroll. Many “A”-rated insurance companies support the option insurance marketplace and write approximately $150 million in annual premiums. Employers, insurance companies and many nationally recognized third party administrators and brokers successfully support resolution of tens of thousands of option injury claims every year. And several nationally respected actuarial firms have confirmed option program success for their clients.

Self-interested opponents of option programs like to theorize about bad things that might happen under an option program, and falsely proclaim that option program savings only occur at the expense of injured workers. But what option industry professionals know from actual experience is that savings come from fewer employees being taken off work, faster return to work for employees who have been disabled and fewer disputes. This all speaks to better outcomes for injured workers and less cost-shifting to state or federal government programs. Those are the facts that truly deserve more transparency and study by policymakers. These facts are already reflected in many studies and reports recently summarized and released as Part 2 of a “Resource Guide” from the Association for Responsible Alternatives to Workers’ Compensation.

Data on tens of thousands of Texas option claims is now in the hands of many insurance companies, third-party administrators and others. For example, PartnerSource prepares statistically credible claim analyses for many individual employers annually and conducts biennial benchmarking studies of Texas option claims across six different industries, covering billions of payroll and hundreds of thousands of workers. These benchmarking studies include sub-industry segmentation and data on the types of benefits, dollar/duration/percentage limits and other injury benefit plan terms most commonly used among option employers, as well as the insurance types, limits and retention levels.

Consider this good-faith snapshot of Texas option industry aggregate data: [http://www.partnersource.com/media/34154/texas_option_data_review_for_publication_1-22-16.pdf]. Similar, expanded data reports, reviewed by independent actuaries, are expected in 2016.

Better-established processes within private industry for aggregating claims data and collective insurance premium price setting seen in the workers’ compensation environment are simply not present today and have not been urgently needed in the option environment. For example, employers that sponsor option programs have focused on the results of their own individual programs. Option insurance companies individually set their own premium rates in a competitive environment, unsupported by the exemptions to antitrust laws and other protections enjoyed by the workers’ compensation insurance industry. Unlike in days of old, insurance companies and individual employers are able to collect and analyze a significant volume of data from their own experience, as well as other publicly available information, to chart their own destiny – something some option opponents fear most.

Undoubtedly, more option industry aggregate data would be instructive and helpful to employers, insurance companies, legislators, regulators and other policymakers. But there is nothing nefarious in the lack of publicly available option data today, and option programs should not be held to a standard higher than workers’ compensation. All of the above-named NGOs that generate workers’ compensation system data have had decades to organize, refine, obtain many millions of dollars in funding for and publish industry aggregate and state-specific information. Data collection and reporting efforts in the option environment are in an early stage of development but can be expected to steadily advance.

This process of gaining additional option industry transparency must be about more than satisfying voyeuristic curiosity. We must also distinguish between what is needed “for the public good” and the self-interest of certain option opponents. Even with approximately 50,000 injuries occurring outside of the Texas and Oklahoma workers’ compensation systems every year, we’ve seen no credible evidence to indicate that workers’ compensation systems generally perform better than option programs in any respect, and option opponents remain unable to muster more than a few anecdotes about option claims that have gone awry. Perhaps this will change as more option claims data becomes publicly available, but it will require independent verification through access to workers’ compensation system data that should also become more publicly available.

Lastly, this process of gaining more option industry transparency must be about more than collecting data at unnecessary taxpayer expense for the sake of saying it has been collected. Note that substantial reporting of option program information has been reported to the state of Texas (on Forms DWC-5 and DWC-7) and the federal government (on Form 5500) at significant employer and taxpayer expense for decades but has not been used for any purpose. So, it should come as no surprise when employers, insurance companies and service providers are unable to support new data reporting mandates without a clear articulation of both the need and value, including regulatory commitment and funding to collect, sort, analyze and report such data.

The Texas Alliance of Nonsubscribers took a neutral position on bills that would have added new option program claims reporting requirements in the 2015 Texas Legislative Session. The alliance is actively working with the Texas Division of Workers’ Compensation to improve employer compliance with and the usefulness of current reporting requirements and to extend workers’ compensation or injury benefit plan coverage to more Texas workers.

Accepting the Call for Option Program Improvements and More Transparency 

Employers and industry supporters of options to workers’ compensation support more public disclosure of program terms, claims data and other information and are actively working to achieve it. For example, option program improvements will likely be seen in 2016 as both Texas and Oklahoma employers and insurance companies positively respond to the past year’s dialogue and claims experience by broadening injury benefits coverage for hundreds of thousands of injured workers. Option programs are able to respond to important needs much faster than hyper-regulated systems that only change after protracted legislative and rulemaking processes. New option legislation introduced in other states will also reflect significant enhancements over prior proposals.

Industry conferences are also responding to the need for more information on options to workers’ compensation. This topic has been featured at many professional and regulatory conferences in the past year, and more are scheduled in 2016. In view of widespread interest and the fact that option programs today cover more workers than 23 individual state workers’ compensation systems, these and other national workers’ compensation events should consider going beyond the one-hour session overview or debate. They can include an entire educational track that allows attendees to become truly knowledgeable about option program design, implementation, administration and regulatory requirements.

Investigations of options to workers ‘compensation by the National Conference of Insurance Legislators, International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions and the U.S. Department of Labor will also be welcomed.

More transparency and transformative change can result when option opponents and supporters simply sit down to work together. Whether discussing injury reporting requirements, compensability, medical expense coverage, financial security or other important public policy issues, civil dialogue matters. Those who are willing to have a reasoned discussion and information exchange will find ready partners on the current path of progress. Because sooner or later, all industries tend to change for the better, and we should be prepared to lead that change or adapt.

20 Work Comp Issues to Watch in 2016

In an “Out Front Ideas with Kimberly and Mark” webinar broadcast on Jan. 12, 2016, we discussed our thoughts around the issues that the workers’ compensation industry should have on its radar for 2016. What follows is a summary of 20 issues that we expect to affect our industry this year.

  1. Election Cycle

Everyone knows that this is a presidential election year. But election time also means governor and insurance commissioner seats are available. State insurance commissioners are elected in 11 states and appointed in the other 39. In the coming election, there are 12 gubernatorial seats and five insurance commissioner positions to be decided. The workers’ compensation industry needs to be paying attention to these elections because the insurance commissioners can have significant influence over procedures, policies and enforcement in their states.

  1. Viability of Workers’ Compensation

It is important for all of us to consider the continuing viability of workers’ compensation. Is the grand bargain still doing what it was established to do? There is a growing debate around the gaps and shortcomings of workers’ compensation. Our industry needs to engage in a critical analysis of these issues.

  1. Federalization

In October 2015, 10 high-ranking Democrats on key Senate and House committees sent a letter to the Department of Labor asking it to conduct a critical review of state workers’ compensation systems. Some are concerned that this is a sign we could see federal government involvement in state workers’ compensation systems.

In some ways, the federal government is already involved in workers’ compensation. For instance, OSHA has a tremendous impact on workers’ compensation. Medicare Secondary Payer Compliance is another example of federal law affecting the system.

Recent criticisms of workers’ compensation have focused on the vast benefit differences between states. There is also growing concern that workers who are permanently disabled are pushed off workers’ compensation and onto Social Security disability. With Social Security raising solvency concern, lawmakers will be receptive to discussions on how to keep workers’ compensation from shifting long-term claims to the federal government.

This is a substantial issue to watch in the coming years, and there is a significant chance that the federal government will suggest minimum benefit recommendations to the states at some point. This could especially affect states that have hard caps on the total amount of indemnity benefits that an injured worker can receive.

  1. Affordable Care Act

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) will continue to be a subject of discussion in 2016.

The implementation date of the high-cost, employer-sponsored health plans tax, dubbed the “Cadillac tax,” was recently delayed from 2018 to 2020. It imposes an excise tax of 40% on health plans whose value is more than $10,200 for individual coverage and $27,500 for a family. Regardless of the delay, employer-sponsored benefit plans have evolved over the past five years in preparation to avoid the additional tax. The formerly rich benefit plans were dropped in an effort to provide benefit plans within ACA’s requirements and often replaced by higher-deducible plans with reduced benefits.

NCCI and WCRI have both conducted studies on how the ACA has affected workers’ compensation. Results have not conclusively tied treatment delays or actual cost shifting to workers’ compensation. We believe continuing studies by these organizations and others are important to evaluate the impact of ACA on workers’ compensation.

Other issues that should be monitored include consolidation of health systems, providers and insurers. In 2015, there was more than $700 billion of consolidation in the healthcare marketplace. This is driven, in part, by the ACA, because scale and size assist providers with efficiency, purchasing power and the need to provide a continuum of care.

Another issue where the ACA could affect workers’ compensation is changing reimbursement models. Medicare is looking to shift into a value-based reimbursement model, and many state fee schedules are based on Medicare rates.

Although not specifically related to ACA, a healthcare topic to keep an eye on is drug pricing. Drug pricing will continue to be a topic within the media, PBMs, employer benefit managers, health plan experts and the political arena. Prescription drug pricing increased more than 10% in 2015, and this trend is expected to continue. This has an impact on the cost of workers’ compensation claims.

  1. Holes in Workers’ Compensation

What many people do not realize is that workers’ compensation protections are not available to all workers within the U.S. In 14 states, smaller employers with five employees or fewer do not have to secure coverage. In 17 states, there is no legal requirement for coverage of agricultural workers. Half of the states do not require coverage for domestic workers, and five states specifically exclude coverage for these employees. There are also states that create exceptions for certain types of workers, such as state employees in Alabama. Finally, we have seen from court cases around the country that occupational diseases that take several years to develop are often barred by the statute of limitations, leaving workers with no recourse for benefits.

These holes are yet one more thing that critics point to when talking about the inadequacy of workers’ compensation. The occupational disease issue is particularly concerning because it is very easy to question the fairness of barring a claim under the statute of limitations and, at the same time, denying the injured worker the ability to pursue a claim in civil court under the exclusive remedy protections of workers’ compensation. This is another area where we will not be surprised to see the federal government give recommendations.

  1. Blurred Lines Between Workers’ Compensation and Group Health

The employee health model is evolving. Employers are finding the need to provide a consistent healthcare experience for their workforce and plan members. Employers would like to find a model that provides both quality care and consistency for their employees, regardless of whether the need for treatment arises from a work injury or at home. Because a healthy workforce is a productive workforce, employers also feel that there is a need to tie health and productivity together.

We will continue to see health systems build accountable care organizations (ACO) and enter the health plan, insurance and risk-bearing arena with the goal of directly selling to and partnering with employers. ACOs are an attractive model for employers supporting a healthier workforce by extending the culture of health philosophy from work to the home for their employees and their families.

Mental health is a top driver for absence across employers and not simply a health cost concern. Mental healthcare should be as important as physical healthcare and is currently a focus of population health and employer programs. Employers are looking for healthcare models, which consider the person as a whole and offer consistent, engaging behavioral health and wellbeing programs for the workforce.

Workers’ compensation key stakeholders should be a part of the evolving health model discussions and early stage planning so as not to be left in the dark as health models change.

  1. Options to Workers’ Compensation

We all know that Texas has a unique system that allows employers to completely opt out of workers’ compensation benefits. The term “opt-out” refers only to the Texas system. Employers in Oklahoma have an option to workers’ compensation that allows them to develop a private benefit plan that replaces state-mandated workers’ compensation. It is this concept of an option that is looking to spread to other states. Bills on this issue will be reintroduced in Tennessee and South Carolina this year, and other states have begun preliminary discussions.

Some employers feel that they can provide better benefits to their injured workers at a lower cost with these option programs. Others are concerned that these programs lack the controls and oversight of state workers’ compensation. One thing is certain: This issue is not going away any time soon. Perhaps these discussions around options to workers’ compensation can lead to discussions about workers’ compensation reform, including employer medical control, increasing thresholds of compensability and reducing the bureaucracy of the workers’ comp system.

  1. Evolving Claims Model

There are significant discussions around the evolving claims model. The industry realizes that we need to focus more on the injured worker as a consumer. The model needs to focus more on advocacy, but what does this really mean? Should there be a person who assists the injured worker in understanding the claims process, or is there a need to change the culture of our industry to be less adversarial?

Other parts of the evolving model involve who actually touches the claim. Are there elements that could be automated? Should there be more specialization with different individuals performing different tasks instead of the current model where the claims adjuster is a generalist performing multiple tasks across multiple jurisdictions?

The claim handling model also needs to adapt to new technology and the way in which different generations want communication. Some injured workers prefer text instead of e-mail or phone calls. Some like to access claims information in an app on their mobile device or simply, 24/7, as they want it that moment. The model must evolve to take full advantage of new technology and communication methods.

The March 15 “Out Front Ideas with Kimberly and Mark” webinar will focus on the evolving claims model and include guests who are passionate about an advocacy-based design.

  1. Florida Supreme Court

Over the last two years, four cases challenging the constitutionality of various aspects of the Florida workers’ compensation statutes have made it to the state’s Supreme Court. The first of those cases, Padgett, ended in late December when the Supreme Court declined to review it. That case had been thrown out on procedural grounds during the appeal process, so the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court never addressed the underlying constitutional challenge.

There are three cases still to be decided:

  • Westphal, which deals with caps on temporary disability benefits.
  • Castellanos, which addresses limitations on attorney fees.
  • Stahl, which focuses on post MMI medical co-payments and the elimination of permanent partial disability payments.

The expectation is that the Florida Supreme Court will address all of these cases in 2016, but nobody knows when that will occur.

  1. Bureaucracy

Workers’ compensation is one of the most highly regulated lines of insurance, and regulators are increasingly aggressive in pursuing fines and penalties. Every form filed and every payment transaction is an opportunity for a penalty. EDI allows regulators to automate the fines and penalties. Some states perform retrospective audits on activity five to 10 years in the past. The IMR process in California adds administrative cost to claims without necessarily improving outcomes, and states with self-imposed penalties may be driving up the cost of doing business beyond the benefit of the penalty payment. Lobbying is becoming an increasingly important area for payers and service providers to consider.

The significant costs associated with the bureaucracy of workers’ compensation regulations are not improving the outcomes on claims. Most of the money collected from the fines and penalties is paid to the states. The programs may cover the operating costs of state workers’ compensation division and not be paid to the injured worker or medical provider.

This topic is an important issue to watch in 2016 and will be the topic of our Feb. 9 “Out Front Ideas with Kimberly and Mark” webinar.

  1. Regulatory Change

There are four states in particular that we should be keeping an eye on in terms of potential regulatory reforms in 2016:

New York

Employers in New York are continuing to push for additional workers’ compensation reforms to reduce their costs because the savings projected with the last round of reforms never fully materialized. Whether there is enough momentum to get a bill through this year remains to be seen, but the efforts are there.

Florida

In Florida, the situation is going to depend on what the state Supreme Court does with the cases mentioned earlier. If any of those cases punch holes in the constitutionality of the workers’ compensation law, then the legislature is going to need to address this. Again, this is a waiting game.

Illinois

Illinois Gov. Rauner has made it a priority to enact workers’ compensation reforms to reduce employer costs. But his efforts have been blocked by the state legislature, and there is a budget stalemate in the state. There has been much political back-and-forth on this budget and the workers’ compensation reforms. It remains to be seen if the governor has the political muscle to get his legislation passed.

California

Ever since the Schwarzenegger workers’ compensation reforms in 2004, and continuing with SB 863 passed by Gov. Brown, the California legislature has been trying to undermine these workers’ compensation reforms. Every year, multiple bills are passed by the legislature, and every year both Gov. Schwarzenegger and Gov. Brown have vetoed those bills. Gov. Brown is committed to preserving his workers’ compensation reforms, and there are three years left on his term. Once he is gone, there is concern about what could happen with workers’ compensation in California. But, for now, significant change is not expected.

  1. Talent Acquisition

Talent acquisition and retention is probably the biggest issue facing the entire insurance industry. Consider:

  • 25% of insurance industry workforce will retire by 2018 (McKinsey)
  • There are 2.3 million workers in the insurance industry. More than 1 million will retire in the next 10 years, and 400,000 positions will be left open by 2020 (Deloitte and Jackson Group)
  • Workers over the age of 45 represent 48% of the insurance workforce

Are we doing enough with colleges to show the career opportunities in the insurance industry? Although more colleges and universities are offering risk management programs, the reality is that there are very few of these programs nationwide. Our industry needs to support these programs with both grants and internship opportunities.

In workers’ compensation, we need to be looking at the role of the examiner. Are there tasks that we could automate and reduce workload need? Millennials say they want to work with purpose. The role of the claims adjuster is to assist injured workers in their recovery. Could we be doing more to highlight the positive aspects of the claims adjuster role to make it more attractive to millennials?

We also need to be looking at ways to be flexible with work schedules and at whether someone is tied to the home office or able to work from a remote location. Finally, we need to continue to focus on promoting diversity and inclusion within our workforce.

In May, we will be doing an “Out Front Ideas with Kimberly and Mark” webinar devoted to this topic.

  1. Market Conditions

You cannot forecast the coming year for the workers’ compensation industry without talking about rates. Recently, for the first time in years, the Fed increased interest rates. This is good news, but the change is still insignificant and will not have a material impact on the workers’ comp industry. Because investment opportunities are limited for carriers, they continue to be very diligent with their underwriting. What does this mean for rates? Right now, the market is relatively stable. Accounts with good loss histories could see steady to slightly decreased rates, while accounts with poor loss histories will likely see slight increases. Overall, significant rate changes across the nation are not expected in the coming year.

  1. Predictive Analytics

Predictive analytics have been a buzz word in our industry for a number of years. Most data models identify at-risk claims, which may benefit from additional intervention in terms of nurse case management or a more skilled adjuster. The goal of the intervention(s) is to change the trajectory of the claim, to do something different than in similar prior claims, so the result is improved over the past experience. Although most payers reflect having predictive analytics and a variety of models available, there are limited published results on the outcome and effectiveness. Watch in 2016 to see if organizations begin sharing outcomes as a way to market their business or provide industry thought leadership on what is working and should be considered to drive success.

There is a need to evolve predictive analytics and big data models so that some human tasks are automated. Instead of just identifying cases where intervention is necessary, we should also identify claims where minimal intervention is needed. This approach frees resources and allows attention on claims, which will benefit from the touch. Future claims models will benefit from analytics using learning models similar to IBM Watson-type smart analytics.

  1. OSHA

OSHA continues to be a challenge for employers. Going into 2016, OSHA has increased reporting and recordkeeping requirements. It is also increasing its focus on certain industries, including healthcare, and employers are seeing a significant increase in fines. This is an area that is constantly evolving.

Our April 5 “Out Front Ideas with Kimberly and Mark” webinar will focus on these continuing developments and discuss the continuing issues that employers should track.

  1. Utilization Review

There is industry buzz and sidebar conversations around utilization review (UR) and the current approach deployed by employers, payers and service providers. Physicians are asking more than ever how they can help streamline treatment requests, obtain decision outcomes electronically and more quickly and provide timely, appropriate care for patients.

Utilization review should ensure that injured workers receive appropriate care within the right setting and for the correct duration. But what is the right UR model? Should all treatment be subject to UR or select treatment requests? Is UR a process strictly addressing the request for treatment and medical documentation submitted against guidelines of care or collaborative with adjusters, providers and the injured workers? Are denials of care driving up litigation unnecessarily? Do utilization review referral triggers change if the physician providing care is part of a high-performance network or known to be a top-performing physician? These are questions being raised by industry veterans and newcomers alike and are likely worthy of a review and further dialogue.

In the consumer-driven health world where we find ourselves, there is greater interest from injured workers to understand treatment options and outcomes. If not a part of UR, is your case management or claim model providing medical treatment option education, inclusive of outcomes awareness? Transparency is becoming increasingly important to consumers.

  1. Exclusive Remedy

Plaintiff attorneys are always trying to find ways around the exclusive remedy protections of workers’ compensation, and these efforts are becoming increasingly successful. In early January 2016, the District Court of Appeals in California allowed an injured worker to pursue a civil claim against a utilization review provider because the provider failed to warn him about the potential risks of medication withdrawal.

More and more, judges are allowing such litigation to survive a motion to dismiss on summary judgement because of workers’ compensation exclusive remedy protections. This creates enormous costs for employers and carriers, which then must spend hundreds of thousands of dollars or more defending such lawsuits and face the risk of a jury award that could be worth millions. In addition, an employer’s liability award based on the “intentional actions” of the employer may have issues with insurance coverage. The entire industry should be paying close attention to this area of increased litigation around exclusive remedy.

  1. ICD-10

The ICD-10 medical classification came along last year with a lot of hype and a significant amount of work effort to update systems and train teams. There was concern that the new diagnosis codes would result in slowed claims processes and treatment decisions. Thus far, workers’ compensation key stakeholders report little to no impact from the change. This may be because states did not mandate the use of ICD-10 for workers’ compensation and most organizations continue to accept ICD-9. Bill review receipt to pay timeframes have not lengthened, and e-billing rejections did not increase, which were two areas to watch after the ICD-10 go-live.

In 2019, Medicare plans to roll out an incentive-based reimbursement model tied to patient outcomes (MACRA). The American Medical Association believes this will be a significant reimbursement change for physicians. Changes to Medicare reimbursement could impact workers’ compensation because some state fee schedules are Medicare based.

History has proven Medicare does not always follow through with what it says it is going to do in terms of changing reimbursement models, but the MACRA implementation is an issue worth monitoring.

  1. Marijuana

Thus far, New Mexico has been the only state allowing medical marijuana for treatment under workers’ compensation. But as the use of medical marijuana spreads, it is inevitable that we will see other states take on this issue. The answer is simple –if states put something in their statutes barring medical marijuana under workers’ compensation, then that solves the problems. Some medical marijuana states have already indicated that insurance is not responsible covering medical marijuana. State legislators and regulators can stop this before it becomes a legitimate problem.

The bigger issue is employment practice concerns. Many expect the federal government to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule 2 drug, possibly by the end of this current administration. Once that happens, it will no longer be an “illegal” drug. Employers are going to need to adapt and drug test for impairment rather than just testing the presence of the drug. Standards are going to need to be developed on what constitutes “impairment” with marijuana. The science needs to catch up with the realities of this new normal when it comes to marijuana in the U.S.

  1. On-Demand Economy

The on demand economy is creating new concerns about what constitutes an employee/employer relationship. Is an Uber driver an employee of Uber or an independent contractor? What about a repair person you hire through Angie’s List?

While the on-demand economy is a newer dynamic, determining what constitutes independent contractor vs. an employee has been a challenge for the workers’ compensation industry for many years. In July 2015, the Department of Labor issued an interpretive memorandum indicating that the DOL feels “most workers classified as independent contractors are employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act’s broad definitions.”

So perhaps the issue to watch here is not so much the on-demand economy, but instead whether we are going to see the Department of Labor push for fewer and fewer workers to be classified as independent contractors. This could have a significant impact on many industries as well as significantly changing the business model of services like Uber and Lyft.