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February 15, 2016

Time to Focus on Injured Workers

Summary:

Research on workers' comp focuses on soaring costs in the industrial-medical complex, but workers get lost in the shuffle. That must change.

Photo Courtesy of Rick McCharles

When WorkCompCentral released a report, The Uncompensated Worker, I wrote about how a work injury affects family finances. I applied several realistic work injury scenarios to each state. In 31 states, workers receive a reduction in take-home pay of 15% or more when they’re injured on the job. In half the states, households with two median wage earners—one on work disability and the other working full time—cannot afford to sustain their basic budget.

These findings confirmed what workers’ comp claims adjusters, attorneys and case managers already know: Many injured workers live on the edge of financial collapse.

But the findings are by no means conclusive.  The research done for “The Uncompensated Worker” was too limited. I know, because I did it. To really understand the financial experience of being on workers’ comp benefits, one should run not a handful but thousands of scenarios through a statistical analyzer and then compare the data results with actual cases researched through interviews.

The research agendas of the workers’ comp industry rarely involve looking at the worker her or himself.

Instead, the industry has funded research mainly to understand the drivers of claims costs, specifically medical care. This focus can be explained. Over the past 25 or so years, the workers’ comp industry has absorbed a huge rise in medical costs, more and more layers of regulation relating to medical treatment and even more specialties needed to deliver or oversee medical care.

To illustrate the extent of this industrial-medical complex: Nationwide spending on “loss adjustment expense,” a proxy for specialist oversight of claims, has grown annually on average by 9.4%  since 1990, while total claims costs have risen on average by 2.5%.

The quality of industry-funded research has improved, because of better data and strong talent pools in places like the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute (WCRI), the California Workers’ Compensation Institute and the National Council for Compensation Insurance. Their research focuses on cost containment and service delivery. These two themes often intertwine in studies about medications, surgeries or medical provider selection.

It’s time to pay more attention to the worker. Close to a million workers a year lost at least one day from work because of injury.  We hardly know them. Bob Wilson of Workerscompensation.com predicts that, in 2016, “The injured worker will be removed from the system entirely. … Culminating a move started some 20 years ago, this final step will bring true efficiency and cost savings to the workers’ comp industry.” Industry research, one might say, has left the worker out the system.

An example of how the worker is removed can be seen in how the WCRI did an analysis of weekly benefit indemnity caps. These caps set a maximum benefit typically related to the state’s average weekly wage. (The methodology has probably not been critiqued by states for generations, despite better wage data and analytical methods.) The WCRI modeled different caps to estimate the number of workers affected. But it did not report on what this meant to workers and their families; for example, by how much their take-home benefits would change.

As it happens, Indiana is one of the worst states for being injured at work; it has close to the stingiest benefits for a brief disability. You are not paid for the first seven calendar days of disability. Benefits for that waiting period are restored only if you remain on disability for 22 calendar days. Take-home pay for someone who is out for two weeks or less will likely be 83% less than what it would have been without injury. An Indianapolis couple, both at the state’s median wage, cannot afford a basic month’s budget for a family of three when one is on extended work disability. These poor results are partly because of Indiana’s benefit cap, which is one of the lowest in the country. The weekly benefit cap used in the report, a 2014 figure, was $650.

Les Boden, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health, read a draft of “The Uncompensated Worker.” For years, he has studied the income of injured workers and the adequacy of workers’ compensation benefits. He told me, “Studies have shown that many people with work-related injuries and illnesses don’t receive any workers’ comp benefits. I don’t think that the problem is too little research. It’s political. Unfortunately, workers are invisible in the political process, and businesses threatening to leave the state are not.”

I am not sure how the politics of this issue can change until the strongest research centers in the industry begin to pay attention to the worker.

This article first appeared at workcompcentral.com.

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About the Author

Peter Rousmaniere is a journalist and consultant in the field of risk management, with a special focus on work injury risk. He has written 200 articles on many aspects of prevention, injury management and insurance. He was lead author of “Workers’ Compensation Opt-out: Can Privatization Work?” (2012).

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