Tag Archives: propublica

How the Feds Want to Change Work Comp

The Department of Labor has issued a stinging report that, in effect, calls for a new federal commission to review how the state-based workers’ compensation system fails. The department throws down the gauntlet, challenging defenders of the current system to show how state oversight has not deteriorated in the past 25 years in the ways that matter to it —mainly, preventing financial distress to injured workers.

The report’s title, “Does the Workers’ Compensation System Fulfill its Obligations to Injured Workers?”, signals that the department is interested only in increasing worker benefits. It doesn’t want to take over managing the system.

The body of the 43-page report barely mentions employers and insurers. The department portrays itself as a vital stakeholder, in two ways. First, it cites a team of researchers with 70 years’ experience in workers’ comp who estimated that Social Security Disability Insurance spends $23 billion annually for benefits to beneficiaries injured at work. The SSDI enrollment rate for injured workers is double that of workers not disabled by work.

See also: Time to Focus on Injured Workers

Second, not large in the text but strikingly so in the press conference, speakers suggested that the nation’s entire economic safety net is out of kilter because of poor performance of the only part of the safety net run by the states.

There should be no doubt that ProPublica’s series of articles, which commenced in March 2015 with its initial broadside, “The Demolition of Workers’ Comp,” makes it easier for DOL to pitch its views. But DOL doesn’t have much problem finding evidence, some of which is sound, some speculative and some questionable.

The report’s power of persuasion is greatly enhanced by the fact that neither states nor private sector participants in workers’ comp seriously attempt to demonstrate that injured workers fare well, or even just no worse than in the past. The industry does not try to demonstrate that its immense investment in doing business, such as medical management, improves the lot of these workers.

The executive summary says, “Working people are at great risk of falling into poverty as a result of workplace injuries and the failure of state workers’ compensation systems to provide them with adequate benefits.”

The force of this sentence warns that if state regulators and private parties want to respond, it will take quite an effort. The risk of financial distress is rarely addressed, as WorkCompCentral did in The Uncompensated Worker report of January 2016.

States need to consider the extent to which the state system is responsible, such as by barring or erecting hurdles to claims for disease and post-traumatic stress disorder. Certain workers’ compensation benefits, such as for atomic weapons workers, have already been federalized because of failed efforts deliver benefits. (Some financial distress is beyond the scope of a workers’ compensation system, such as lower incomes years after a worker sustains a temporary medical-only claim.)

See also: States of Confusion: Workers Comp Extraterritorial Issues 

DOL’s report argues extensively that benefits have worsened since the 1980s. That’s when state reaction to 1972’s so-called Burton Commission (named after its chair, John F. Burton Jr.) began to falter. States made improvements primarily out of fear of federal take-over. Since, then, according to the report, it’s been only downhill. The report even questions how evidence-based medicine guidelines have helped workers.

This worsening of benefits is a complex argument, arising from Burton himself, still in the game. For some 40 years, frequency of work injuries (the number per 100 workers) has steadily declined. This seems a spectacular gain for workers and employers.  Indemnity benefits per $100 payroll also declined by a lot. In 2010, Burton asserted that benefit payments fell far more because of restricting access to benefits than from fewer injuries.

Much in the report can be picked apart by informed critics. Does anyone want to do it? The report does not end with a crisp list of action items to critique, other than a bland one for more research. But the obvious aim is another federal commission. Those who want to drown this surfacing proposal might consider what allies they have in Washington. Will either of the presidential candidates be opposed to a commission? Would congressional Republicans want to come to the defense of a state system not ready for this battle?

The Department of Labor and others in Washington want, it appears, to federalize enough to increase benefits but not to be in charge of every wheel spinning every weekday at 9 a.m. To achieve change, one has to propose something that most stakeholders will see as better or no worse. And you first have to destroy the reputation of those guarding the status quo. That’s the 50 states, and that’s the goal of this report.

This article first appeared at WorkCompCentral.

The REAL Objection to Opt Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But they don’t.

See also: What Schrodinger Says on Opt-Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bingo.

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

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

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

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

See also: States of Confusion: Workers Comp Extraterritorial Issues

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

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

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

This article first appeared at WorkCompCentral.

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.

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 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.