Tag Archives: oklahoma option

An Open Letter on the Oklahoma Option

I’m the founder and CEO of WorkersCompensationOptions.com (WCO), a company dedicated to workers’ compensation (WC) and its legal alternatives. This letter is intended to quell the concerns of employees in our client companies—employees who may have been distressed by the recent (mostly negative) publicity from ProPublica and NPR regarding options to WC in Texas and Oklahoma.

In case you only saw one installment from the Insult to Injury series, I’ll provide a quick summary. In 2014, the project’s authors started to assimilate massive amounts of data from their research concerning each state’s (and the federal government’s) WC system. In March 2015, the authors began releasing articles with an indisputable premise: Collectively, these systems need improvement.

That commendable beginning eventually gave way, however, to a hypothesis that is supported neither by reality nor by the overwhelming quantity of data the authors provide. Their conclusion (that employers are in cahoots with insurers to pressure attorneys, anonymous doctors and legislators into discarding the lives of an unfortunate few for the sake of bolstering corporate profits) completely misses the mark in pinpointing why so many WC systems are broken beyond repair. In fact, attorneys and doctors put at least as much pressure on WC systems as insurers, and any attempt to depict the medical and legal communities as innocent bystanders in the WC feud is simply too naive to be taken seriously.[1] I do not doubt the authors’ sincerity in addressing a serious societal problem, but I also do not believe they are equipped to understand the problem they sought—however earnestly—to demystify for their readers. Worse yet, I fear they have positioned themselves in the WC space in a manner that is only likely to retard the implementation of practical solutions.

This letter is prompted by the article on Oct. 14, 2015, which painted an inaccurate—even an irresponsible—picture of both Texas nonsubscription (TXNS) and the Oklahoma option (OKO). As that article’s title (“Inside Corporate America’s Campaign to Ditch Workers’ Comp”) is lengthy, I’ll shorten it to CDWC going forward.

Texas Nonsubscribing Employees: What Can We Learn?

Texas is exceptional in the WC world because it has, for more than a century, offered employers a viable alternative to WC. Of approximately 380,000 employers in Texas, roughly two-thirds subscribe to a traditional WC system; the other third are nonsubscribers who develop their own models. That’s about 120,000 different systems, and there is plenty to be learned. We’ve seen various organically grown components develop from these disparate systems, many of which superficially resemble WC. Despite those similarities, however, industry experts understand how counterproductive it is to make unilateral comparisons between TXNS and WC.

The authors of CDWC didn’t get that memo.

Of all the various lessons learned from diverse TXNS models, one runs counter to conventional WC dogma: Employers can protect themselves while delivering superior care for employees at a fraction of the cost of WC. Eliminating the inflated costs associated with abusive practices that run rampant in WC is a critical component of that particular lesson.

Because the CDWC authors insist on judging TXNS through the lens of WC, TXNS looks to them like a system that would appeal to skinflint employers who simply do not care whether their employees get hurt. However, because employees of nonsubscribing companies can sue their employers for tort, the decision to opt out of WC is likely to be penny-wise and pound-foolish for employers who do not take measures to ensure the safety of employees. The CDWC authors’ failure to unpack the importance of tort negligence means many readers will come away from the article without understanding that a typical $50,000 payout in WC could easily be either $0 or $5 million in TXNS—depending on who is at fault for the accident. Even more disappointing is CDWC’s attempt, in a one-sentence paragraph, to gloss over one of WC’s most dangerous shortcomings: the extent to which the no-fault arrangement between employers and employees has removed incentives for safety in the workplace throughout the country.

If you are an employee of one of our Texas nonsubscribers, rest assured that your employer has every reason to minimize workplace accidents and to take very good care of you if an occupational injury occurs.

In a nutshell, your interests are aligned with your employer’s—another critical lesson we’ve learned from TXNS.

Oklahoma Option Employees: A Whack-a-Mole WC System Led You Here

ProPublica and NPR harp on a consistent theme throughout the Insult to Injury series: WC is broken. We at WCO agree, and Oklahoma may provide the single best example of how and why a state’s WC system becomes unsustainable.

The WC ecosystem is made up of five major communities: insurance, medical, legal, employer and employee. Abuse within the system by any of these communities leads to adjustments to the boundaries of the system. Throughout the Insult to Injury series, the authors go out of their way to sidestep the discussion of systemic abuse. They even attempt to dismiss fraud by citing a study that minimizes its role. Abuse and fraud in WC are, in some ways, analogous to speeding on the highway: Almost all drivers abuse the speed limit, but very few are issued citations. Similarly, the cases of clear-cut fraud in WC only reflect a small portion of the amount of abuse going on. But even if we allow the authors to exclude all instances of clear-cut fraud from the WC conversation, we are still left with rampant abuse driven by insidious systemic incentives.

For decades, abuses and inefficiencies within the WC system have led to each of the five communities touting the need for major reforms—at the others’ expense. Real reform threatens each community, which leads to stalemates in negotiations. Major upheaval has been avoided via the compromise of pushing and pulling the system’s boundaries, resulting in a decades-long game of whack-a-mole being played across the nation. If one voice cries, “Data shows an alarming trend in opioid abuse,” that mole gets swatted by requiring more medical credentials for prescribing pain killers. When another shrieks, “Overutilization is surging,” that mole is whacked through costly and time-consuming independent medical examinations. When someone else observes, “Our disability payouts are higher than neighboring jurisdictions,” that mole prompts us to lower disability payouts. Immediately, a fourth voice shouts, “Pharmaceutical abuses make up 8.4% of total costs,” and that mole persuades us to introduce drug formularies. But there isn’t even a moment of silence before another voice remarks, “Our analysis shows dismemberment payouts in this jurisdiction are lower than those of our neighboring jurisdiction.” That mole gets whacked by proposing legislation to increase dismemberment payouts—legislation that is dead on arrival.[2] At some point, we have to realize the moles are multiplying faster than we can whack them. (If my commentary doesn’t apply to other jurisdictions, I’m happy to restrict it to Oklahoma and Texas because writers can best serve their readers by acknowledging the limitations of their own expertise.)

Even if we concede that the changes detailed in the paragraph above aren’t necessarily bad (which I’m not conceding; I’m just trying to be polite and move the argument along), they demonstrate a persistent pattern of outcomes, inclusive of abuse, inherent in any hierarchical bureaucratic system. Regulators are busy reacting to entrenched abuses while market participants find new and exciting ways to game the system. This futile game of whack-a-mole is endless.

The Sooner State had a front row seat to witness what TXNS accomplished—both the good and the bad.[3] With that first-hand knowledge, the Oklahoma legislature has finally provided the state—and the country—with an opportunity to see whether real change can restore function to a malfunctioning system. While WC stakeholders assure us they are only a few more whacks-at-the-mole away from making WC hum, Oklahoma lawmakers have written a new chapter in the history of workplace accident legislation. The OKO is neither WC nor TXNS.

The brilliance of the OKO is that it doesn’t attempt to overhaul a broken WC system. The legislators effectively stepped away from that decades-old stalemate. Instead of an all-out overthrow, they left WC in place and created an option for employers who were willing to try something new—which is exactly how WC itself was introduced a century ago.

Because the OKO is substantially modeled on TXNS, it is easy to see why the CDWC writers conflated the two in their analysis. The errors in CDWC concerning ERISA’s applicability, employee benefits and appeals committee processes in Oklahoma are all presumably honest mistakes made by writers who, in their zeal to distinguish TXNS and the OKO from WC, failed to distinguish TXNS and the OKO from each other.

Nevertheless, it’s important for employees to understand that TXNS varies dramatically from one employer to another, and many of the rules concerning TXNS do not apply north of the Red River.

Although the CDWC authors misleadingly couple TXNS and the OKO with respect to ERISA’s applicability, ERISA plays no direct role in occupational accidents in the OKO.[4] We’ll be happy to get you a legal opinion on that, but for our purposes regarding CDWC, take my non-legal opinion as on the record. If others disagree, they should go on the record, as well. While ERISA has served employers and employees well in TXNS, its role in the OKO is only implied (if that). We are free to use it where we wish, as long as we are compliant at the state level.

Presumably tied to their ERISA misapplication, the CDWC authors assert that “benefits under opt-out plans are subject to income and payroll taxes.” Such tax advice is unusual from investigative journalists without citation, and I have asked the authors to share their source. Although the jury is still out on this tax issue, it is a point the CDWC authors must distort to substantiate their otherwise baffling claim that the workplace accident plans of OKO employers “almost universally have lower benefits.”[5] If any OKO plans really do offer benefits that aren’t at least as good as those provided by WC, they’re illegal. That’s how the legislators have written the law, and it’s what they’re dedicated to achieving for workers, regardless of obfuscations invoking TXNS, ERISA and unresolved tax implications.

The authors of CDWC also completely misrepresent appeals committees for at least a majority of OKO employers. The authors overlook a dramatic improvement to employee protection that the OKO makes to TXNS when they claim that appeals committees in Oklahoma work analogously to appeals committees in Texas: “Workers must accept whatever is offered or lose all benefits. If they wish to appeal, they can—to a committee set up by their employers.” That’s dead wrong. Executives at each of our OKO employers are fully aware that, in case of an employee appeal, the employer has nothing to do with the selection of the appeals committee panel members or the work they complete. The process is independent from the employer and extremely fair.[6] The CDWC authors would do well to read Section 211 of the law more carefully.

On the subject of benefit denials, I’ll share a single data point from our OKO book: To date, we have denied exactly one claim. This is a nascent system, so we must be very careful in drawing actuarial conclusions. Still, our company has led more employers from traditional WC into the new OKO than any other retailer, so we have a bit of credibility to offer on this subject. The point of the system isn’t to deny benefits to deserving employees but to ensure benefits are delivered more efficiently. The system is working.

The CDWC authors only provide one OKO case study, Rachel Jenkins. Strangely, they lump Jenkins in with four TXNS case studies. The Jenkins case is still being tried. We will withhold opinions—as we hope others would—until a more appropriate time.

As a reminder, while the OKO law is stronger today than ever, if it were to be deemed unconstitutional by the Oklahoma Supreme Court, we would have 90 days to get everyone back into traditional WC (per Section 213.B.4.).

Next: Vigilance and Diligence

My comments are mine and mine alone. I do not speak for any associations or lobbyists. I have no interest in debating those who inexplicably assume that any alternatives proposed to a failing system must stem from sinister motives. However, I encourage anyone (from prospective clients to employees of existing clients) with questions or concerns to call me.

Another option for learning more is to click here and watch a formal debate regarding the OKO. This footage was shot in September 2015. It features Michael Clingman arguing against the OKO while I, predictably, argue for it. One thing you can’t miss in that video is my desire to oust most attorneys from the scene. To help explain, I’ll adapt a quotation from John F. Kennedy (who was discussing taxation) to my own area of concern (the well-being of employees): “In short, it is a paradoxical truth that employee outcomes from increased WC protections are worse today, while economic results suffer, and the soundest way to create higher and better standards of living for employees is to eliminate these abused protections.” For philosopher kings, the theory of the OKO may not sound as good as the theory of WC, but when it comes to practical realities the results demand everyone’s attention.

To summarize my primary criticism of Insult to Injury, it simply hasn’t done enough. The story it tells is insufficient and smacks of partisanship and ideology, two biases that ProPublica’s journalists allegedly avoid. WC is substantially more complex than a corporation-out-to-exploit-its-workforce short story. Ignoring abuse in each of the communities in a five-sided WC debate demonstrates a lack of journalistic impartiality and a stunning deficiency of perception. Moreover, to my knowledge, ProPublica hasn’t crafted any relevant suggestions for legislation, simply leaving its readers with the vague and implicit notion that federal oversight is needed. If that is the goal of Insult to Injury—to provide one-sided, emotional yarns alongside a treasure trove of data, hoping it will all spur some federally elected officials to create real change at long last—then I suspect ProPublica will still be holding this subject up to the light of opprobrium upon the retirement of each of the series’ authors.

We do not aspire to win over the authors or even their followers. We will focus our energies each day on providing the best workplace accident programs for employers and employees alike. Our results should speak for themselves.

Finally, I am not an attorney, and nothing in this letter should be taken as legal advice.

Sincere regards,

Daryl Davis

Footnotes:

[1] With medical providers, overutilization is always a concern. Click here and watch the video from the 12-minute to the 15-minute mark for a detailed description of rampant WC abuse by surgeons who provide unnecessary and damaging back procedures. If the workers weren’t disabled prior to the surgeries, many were afterward. As for the legal community, simply view slide 73 of the NCCI’s 2013 Oklahoma Advisory Forum. WC disability payments, which is where attorneys get their cut, were 38% higher in Oklahoma than in neighboring states—not because jobs are 38% more dangerous in Oklahoma than in Kansas or Texas but because Oklahoma attorneys are 38% more effective at gaming the state’s WC system.

[2] Alabama SB 330—which was prompted by Insult to Injurynever got out of conference. From what I could gather, lengthy negotiations between several different interest groups led nowhere, with the Alabama Medical Association at the center of this particular stalemate. Not surprisingly, the two special sessions called by Alabama Gov. Bentley in 2015 were strictly focused on the state’s budgetary crisis; this bill was never discussed.

[3] The final Texas case study offered in CDWC deals with Billy Walker, who fell to his death while on the job. The upside to TXNS is his estate’s common law right to pursue a tort lawsuit against his employer. The employer could have been ordered to pay Walker’s estate a settlement in the millions, but the employer filed bankruptcy before any such judgment could be awarded, which is plainly an unacceptable outcome. This demonstrates a lack of surety—the single biggest problem in TXNS. OKO addresses this issue in various ways, most notably in Section 205 of Title 85A, which guarantees surety for injured workers.

[4] For the non-occupational components of your OKO program, ERISA does apply.

[5] Per Section 203.B. of the statute, compliant plans “shall provide for payment of the same forms of benefits included in the Administrative Workers’ Compensation Act for temporary total disability; temporary partial disability; permanent partial disability; vocational rehabilitation; permanent total disability; disfigurement; amputation or permanent total loss of use of a scheduled member; death; and medical benefits as a result of an occupational injury, on a no-fault basis, with the same statute of limitations, and with dollar, percentage and duration limits that are at least equal to or greater than the dollar, percentage and duration limits contained in Sections 45, 46 and 47 of this act.” (Emphasis mine.)

[6] Details of OKO appeals committee procedures are generally misunderstood—for now—by plaintiffs’ attorneys (and, apparently, investigative journalists). Attorneys frequently assume that, because the employer foots the bill, the employer controls the process. For a peek at how the appeals committee process really works for a majority of OKO employers, those curious should watch this video.

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.

What Schrodinger Says on Opt-Out

I’ve said before regarding Opt Out—the alternative plan in Oklahoma that allows employers to escape the workers’ compensation system but maintain the benefits of exclusive remedy—that repeatedly using the word “transparency” will not make it so. Yet, when it comes to “the Oklahoma Option,” the word “transparency” is tossed around like cheap hash on a roadhouse griddle. Proponents continually use the word to describe the scheme. It is used so much that, if it were true, the entire concept would be completely invisible because it would be so incredibly, endlessly transparent.

And, of course, the Oklahoma Option is anything but.

Really smart people will know the story of Schrodinger’s cat from advanced science classes they took at some hoity-toity university or elementary school. The rest of us Neanderthals have learned about it from the weekly science lessons we get watching the hit television show “The Big Bang Theory.” For those of you who neither attended fancy schools nor are “Big Bang Theory” aficionados, Schrodinger’s cat is a thought experiment devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger in 1935. It illustrates the problem of quantum mechanics applied to everyday objects. In the experiment, a cat, a flask of poison and a radioactive source are placed in a sealed box. If an internal monitor detects radioactivity, the flask is shattered, releasing the poison and killing the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that, after a while, the cat is simultaneously thought of in two states. In other words, if the box remains unopened, the cat may be thought of as both alive and dead.

I think that experiment lends itself well to Opt Out transparency.

In the realm of Opt Out promotion, the word “transparency” is sprinkled around like holy water. It is used as if it intended to sanctify and purify the concept for the consuming public. It is employed to describe the communication that employers use to educate their workers about their rights and responsibilities. It is used in reference to the overall plans and approval process, and it is used to defend the existence of the plan. Problem is, Opt Out is not transparent in the way proponents would have you believe.

See Also: Texas Is NOT an Opt-Out State

For instance:

  • The application process to have an employer plan approved is now confidential. All documents and information submitted to the state to obtain approval to Opt Out is closed to public eyes. This is because of reforms specifically pushed by Oklahoma Opt Out proponents last year.
  • The plans themselves are not available through the state. They were initially, but they have been removed from public access since the previously referenced reforms took effect. At the recent WCRI conference in Boston, a workers’ compensation director for a very large and well-known company took up that issue, directly telling Option author Bill Minick that she was uncomfortable with Opt Out and that she wanted to know where she could actually see existing employer plans. (I wanted to rush up to this woman and hug her in front of all 400 attendees, but I did not know her personally and thought it probably would have appeared wildly inappropriate and would possibly lead to some sort of assault charges being filed). Minick assured her the plans were easily obtainable, mentioning that ProPublica published many. He also told her several courts have copies. He did not mention that courts only have those copies because they have been entered into evidence in multiple lawsuits, and I noted he did not tell her she could get them from the state. Someone on the panel suggested Minick could just send them all to her, and he agreed he could. I am not sure he agreed he would. In a recent article on InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com, Minick stated, “The idea of establishing a public database of SPDs (summary plan description) has also historically proven impractical.”

That statement, explaining why plans are not available to the public, was made in an article describing how transparent Opt Out is. I swear, I could not make this stuff up if I tried. Furthermore:

  • There is absolutely no audit function allowing the state to see how employers are managing their plans. They are under no obligation to report their activity to anyone.
  • Under many of these plans, an employee appealing a denial may not testify or submit evidence at that appeal. The people reviewing the appeal are selected by the employer.
  • Even the denial letters issued on behalf of some employers contain strict confidentiality language, instructing the injured worker not to share the information contained within the letter with “any unauthorized individuals.”

I could go on (and on and on and on), but you get the idea.

So, this is the paradox known as Schrodinger’s Opt Out. The Oklahoma Option has been placed, by legislative and regulatory fiat, in a sealed box and kept away from prying eyes. It is in that state that it may be simultaneously thought of as both transparent and not transparent. Only by opening the box and thrusting the concept under the unforgiving light of scrutiny do we learn the truth.

That, of course, is what is happening. The Oklahoma Option, recently found to be unconstitutional, has been subjected to tremendous review in a variety of formats and mediums. The claims of transparency do not hold up when exposed to that scrutiny; instead, opaqueness rules the day. The concept of transparency when related to the Oklahoma Option can only survive in a closed and impenetrable box, where the claims can be protected from prying eyes.

The cat is out of the bag, and the concept is out of Schrodinger’s box. The transparency variable cannot be easily applied in that situation. Just repeating the word many times will not change that reality.

And that, for my” Big Bang Theory” friends, is the big Bazinga.

Texas Work Comp: Rising Above Critics

Recently, published articles have been critical of the Texas workers’ compensation system and the choice of an “Option” available to Texas employers. Such articles tend to be an accumulation of plaintiff attorney opinions and confusion of out-of-state persons who do not have sufficient working knowledge of the subject matter. This article will address two recent examples:

  1. “The Status of Workers’ Compensation in the United States — A Special Report” by the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group (“WILG”).[1]

This is a group of attorneys supposedly “dedicated to representing the interests of millions of workers and their families.”[2]  Their paper is at best a rant against the original “grand bargain,” which was struck to create each state’s statutory workers’ compensation system. It is without virtually any legal citations or other back-up. It does, however, illustrate the wisdom of the Texas system in offering a choice — (1) workers’ compensation insurance or (2) the “nonsubscriber” Option. For example, the article notes that many physicians will not take workers’ compensation patients, that 33 states have cut workers’ compensation benefits and that insurance companies continually clamor for reform by lobbying legislatures to cut medical costs or implement other cost savings — all of which the authors say makes it more difficult for the injured worker to recover.

See Also: Who Is to Blame on Oklahoma Option?

The article changes course when it suddenly says that an option to workers’ compensation is at fault, boldly declaring that “opt-out is bad for everyone” and claiming that intervention by the federal government is “immediately needed.” WILG criticizes the no-fault workers’ compensation insurance system and in the same breath castigates those who elect the Texas Option and thrust themselves into the tort system, which plaintiff attorneys have long claimed they love. This is particularly perplexing for Texas readers in view of two factors: (1) the need for plaintiff attorneys has been largely eliminated from the Texas workers’ compensation system,[3] and (2) the fact that the Texas Option gives the injured employee the right to sue for negligence and recover actual and punitive damages. [4]

Responsible employers that elect the Texas Option establish injury benefit plans for medical, lost wage and other benefits.   The benefits are subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which provides numerous employee protections, including communication of rights and responsibilities, fiduciary requirements, and access to state and federal courts.[5] Only negligence liability claims against the employer can be forced into arbitration, which many employers insist upon as a more efficient method of dispute resolution that has been sanctioned for decades by both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Texas Supreme Court. Arbitration even supports awards for pain and suffering and punitive damages. In those cases, plaintiff attorneys have the advantage because an Option employer loses the defenses of contributory/comparative negligence, assumption of the risk or negligence of a fellow employee.

Perhaps the real reason why WILG is fighting Options to workers’ compensation is a combination of not wanting to learn how to succeed at ERISA litigation and fear that other workers’ compensation systems will become as efficient as the Texas system. Why aren’t these self-serving lawyers touting workers’ compensation Option that embraces the tort system they have so righteously pledged to protect?

  1. “Worse Than Prussian Chancellors: A State’s Authority to Opt-Out of the Quid Pro Quo” by Michael C. Duff, University of Wyoming College of Law, Jan. 9, 2016. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2713180

Professor Duff complains primarily about “compulsory arbitration” of workplace claims. He erroneously and boldly declares, “In states both retaining the exclusive remedy rule and allowing employers to opt-out of the workers’ compensation system, employees of opt-out employers are left with no legal remedy for workplace injury.[6]

This apparently refers to the Oklahoma Option, in which an employer can adopt an injury benefit plan with benefits at least equal to or greater than traditional system levels. Such a high benefit mandate may merit application of the “exclusive remedy rule,” which prevents an injured employee from suing their employer. However, Professor Duff overlooks the fact that ERISA provides injury claimants with extensive legal rights, including causes of action for wrongful denial of benefits, failure to produce documents, breach of fiduciary duty and discrimination (including retaliatory discharge). He also overlooks the fact that ERISA claims generally cannot be made subject to mandatory arbitration. [7] So, is this really a matter of having “no legal remedy” or a case of Professor Duff (who is also a WILG member) trying to support the positions and business of his plaintiff attorney friends?

See Also: Strategic Implications of the Oklahoma Option

Professor Duff makes it clear in the rest of his long article that the real enemy is an employer’s ability to implement a employment dispute resolution system that includes arbitration. Professor Duff omits the fact that he is bucking almost the entire U.S. judicial system, which endorses arbitration. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court clearly maintains that arbitration is right, proper and allowed.[8] “By agreeing to arbitrate a statutory claim, a party does not forego the substantive rights afforded by the statute, it merely results in submitting the resolution of the claim in “an arbitral, rather than judicial, forum.”[9] The Texas Supreme Court has been even more clear by stating that “. . . an agreement to arbitrate is a waiver of neither a cause of action nor the rights provided under [The Texas Labor Code]” and is not the denial of a right but rather simply “an agreement that those claims should be tried in a specific forum.”[10]

Oddly, when discussing his arguments against arbitration, Professor Duff states emphatically that it might be “acceptable if employees have knowingly signed pre-injury waivers of workers’ compensation benefits.” [11] What Professor Duff apparently does not understand is that pre-injury waivers of negligence claims have long ago been essentially outlawed in Texas, and an injured employee under the Texas Option retains his rights to sue the company for negligence. [12] The Texas Labor Code also specifies strict conditions under which an employee is allowed to even settle such a tort claim — i.e., only after at least 10 days have passed following the employee’s receipt of a medical evaluation from a non-emergency care doctor, the agreement is in writing with the “true intent of the parties as specifically stated in the document” and the provisions are “conspicuous and appear on the face of the agreement.”[13]

Like the WILG report, Professor Duff confuses benefit and liability exposures in Texas and Oklahoma, overlooks available legal remedies in both states and refuses to accept well-established public policy and judicial precedent that favors arbitration of employment-related claims.

Conclusion

The publication titled, “Non-Subscription: The Texas Advantage,” [14] states that, “Fortunately . . . legislators who drafted the first workers’ compensation laws in 1913 were farsighted enough to provide an option.” Employers that elect the Texas Option to workers’ compensation are subjected to an extra measure of liability as they cut out the middleman and decrease the taxpayer expense of the governmentally prescribed workers’ compensation system. Those Option employers that are operating legally and responsibly should be credited with advancements, such as improving worker access to better medical care, offering modified duty job availability and oftentimes providing better wage replacement benefits.

At the end of the day, perhaps WILG and Professor Duff should make an investment of their time to learn how ERISA protects injured workers and how to litigate an ERISA dispute. These authors should also further consider the ample remedies under Texas law for employer negligence liability, an exposure that provides more incentive to maintain a safe workplace.

No doubt, pursuing such claims does require some effort. Perhaps, therefore, the real objectives of these two papers is a desire to maintain the profitability of legal work favoring injured workers and reducing the attorney effort.

[1]https://s3.amazonaws.com/membercentralcdn/sitedocuments/wp/wp/0245/745245.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=0D2JQDSRJ497X9B2QRR2&Expires=1458161961&Signature=7rYh45nzAcLAZ%2BYqPx1HilrodQ4%3D&response-

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[2] www.wilg.org

[3] St. Mary’s Law Journal 2000, “Texas Workers’ Compensation: At Ten Year Survey – Strengths, Weaknesses and Recommendations,” Phil Hardburger, Chief Justice, Court of Appeals, Fourth District of Texas, San Antonio, page 3, 41, citing to research an oversight counsel on workers’ comp, an examination of strengths and weaknesses of the Texas Workers’ Compensation System (August, 1998).

[4] Tex. Lab. Code § 406.033 and Carlson’s Texas Employment Laws Annotated, 2015 Edition.

[5] 29 USC Chapter 18, Subtitle B, Parts 1, 4 and 5.

[6] Page 3 of Professor Duff’s treatise.

[7] 29 C.F.R. 2560.503-1(c)(4); see also Professor Duff’s footnote 26, stating “in Texas and Oklahoma, employers are able to combine opt-out with arbitration.”

[8] Scherk v. Alberto-Culver Company, 417 U.S. 506, 519, 94 S. Ct. 2449, 41 L. Ed. 2nd 270 (1974) (holding that arbitration clauses are, “in effect, a specialized kind of forum-selection clause.”)

[9] Id. at 631 quoting Mitsubishi Motors Corp v. Solar Chrysler-Plymouth, Inc., 473 U.S. 614, 628, 105 S. Ct. 3346, 87 L. Ed. 2d 444 (1985).

[10] In re Golden Peanut Company, LLC, 298 S.W.3d, 629 (Tex. 2009).

[11] Professor Duff at page 2.

[12] Tex. Lab. Code see 406.033(e) and (f) (a legal cause of action by an employee who claims to be injured on the job “may not be waived by an employee before the employee’s injury or death”); Tex. Lab. Code 406.033(a).

[13] Tex. Lab. Code 406.033(f) and (g).

[14] Published by the Texas Association of Business.

Texas Is NOT an Opt-Out State

There were two sessions on “Opt Out” at the 32nd WCRI Annual Issues & Research Conference, but a single, critical point was generally omitted by all six speakers across both sessions; an omission that could cause confusion for those not well-versed in the vernacular of alternative workers’ compensation systems.

Texas is not an Opt Out state. It never has been. No one may “opt out” in Texas. Period.

Instead, Texas is, and always has been, an “Opt In” state. Workers’ compensation coverage is not required of employers there. They can choose to buy insurance, or not. They can choose to set up alternative plans, or not. Either way, they can “opt” for some sort of coverage or go completely bare; they don’t have to have a policy, a plan or a prayer.

Those that do not acquire coverage or self-insure under state auspices are called “non-subscribers,” on the surface, the distinction about Opt Out vs. Opt In may seem like a shallow and insignificant point. But the differences in the Texas and Oklahoma systems run deep, and the speakers should have pointed that out.

Instead, I believe some intentionally conflate the two for the benefit of their arguments.

Most notably, for employers in Texas who choose not to opt in for workers’ compensation coverage, open liability prominently remains. They can be sued for negligence. They can be found responsible for pain and suffering. They are wide open to all of the foibles and pitfalls generally absent for those who choose to participate in the grand bargain and the exclusive remedy it provides.

By comparison, employers in Oklahoma have managed to develop a system that gives them unparalleled secrecy and control while maintaining the benefits of exclusive remedy. They have liability protections that Texas employers can only dream about.

Common sense would tell us that any alternative plans in Texas are probably better than those found to their north in Oklahoma. The looming reality of open liability means that employers actually have to be responsible if they wish to avoid litigious challenges and expensive jury verdicts. Yet people continually speak of “Opt Out” as if it was one common theme in both states. Our session speakers are not the only ones to do that. Recent articles in ProPublica and NPR also failed to adequately define the difference between the two.

See Also: The Bizarre Decision on Oklahoma Option

Bill Minick, a Dallas attorney whose firm has written most of the Oklahoma Option plans, mentioned the more than “20 years of history” when talking about the “proven” success of Opt Out. He did not really mention that the 20 years he repeatedly referred to was all based in Texas. Oklahoma has only offered the Option for two years, and only 60 of the state’s 70,000 employers have gone that route. Similarly, presenter Elizabeth Bailey of Waffle House, spoke only of their experience in Texas as a non-subscriber. To her credit, she was the only speaker to deliver hard statistics about the experience in that area, but she made no mention of the Oklahoma Option except to note that they had elected not to Opt Out in Oklahoma. She did not say why.

And I really would’ve liked to know.

Really, none of the speakers made an effort to define the difference between these two systems. To the uninitiated, it would seem they are the same thing. They are not. Oklahoma-style Opt Out is what is being proposed in at least two other states, not Texas-style non-subscription. Future sessions on the subject should clarify that point, focus on actual Opt Out and call out presenters if they dilute or confuse the facts.

Additionally, only one speaker, Trey Gillespie of Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, really mentioned that the Oklahoma Option has been ruled unconstitutional in that state. From an overall panel perspective, that fact was almost a non-event, like it never even happened. But more on that later…

See Also: Five Workers’ Compensation Myths

The point is, the Texas non-subscriber system has been around for a long time. The Oklahoma Option, by Minick’s own admission, is an “experiment” (one commenter at the conference pointed out that Frankenstein’s monster was also an experiment). We should not confuse the two. Oklahoma Opt Out, along with proposed similar plans in Tennessee and South Carolina, are unique creatures that deserve to be fully judged on their own scant merits and significant flaws. We should stop providing them cover by supporting them with the alleged achievements of a dissimilar system.

After all, Texas has never been an Opt Out state, and we should stop talking about it like it is.