Annual Workers’ Comp Conference To Focus On Opt-Out Legislation

I.I.I. chief actuary James Lynch previews the upcoming Workers Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) annual conference:

My job involves a lot of travel, and the travel tends to be in the spring and the kickoff always seems to be the WCRI conference in Boston, which this year will be March 10 and 11 at the Westin Copley Place. It’s a great place to start.

This is my third conference. The first two have been both important and controversial.

In (my) year one, Jonathan Gruber spoke about the Affordable Care Act. It generated a lot of media coverage because he is considered one of the big thinkers behind Obamacare and its Massachusetts predecessor.

I blogged about it at Terms + Conditions. He said health care reform should help the workers comp system. Fewer workers would be uninsured, and those newly insured would be less likely to try to game their malady into a comp claim.

Last year’s conference also had a preview of research that WCRI would release formally later in the year documenting the way that Obamacare’s structure promises to shunt millions of dollars in medical costs onto workers compensation.

The short story: Obamacare encourages health plans in which doctors receive a set amount from health insurers for each patient in the doctor’s practice. If one of those patients is a borderline case between workers comp and traditional health insurance, the doctor has an incentive to call it a comp claim–it brings him more money. In his research, Dr. Richard Victor, who then was in his final months as WCRI’s executive director, showed that when presented with a similar health plan–the HMO–doctors appear to behave just that way.

In another talk, Victor said ACA’s impact will be like a hurricane. I wrote:  “Like a storm whose path is not quite defined, health care reform could take a significant toll, but we don’t know where.”

Dr. Victor has retired; his replacement is Dr. John Ruser, formerly at the Department of Labor.

This year I’m looking forward to a discussion of whether employers should be allowed to opt out of the workers compensation system. An employer that opts out of the comp system still has to provide injured workers protection but can be sued for negligence by injured employees.

Texas has always allowed qualified employers to opt out. Oklahoma became the second state to permit opting out with legislation passed in 2014. Opt-out proponents hope Tennessee and South Carolina will be next.

Insurers generally oppose opt-out legislation, feeling that the workers comp system remains a fair tradeoff of tort rights for quick, sure recovery in case of injury.

WCRI will spend a big part of its first day discussing the issue. One panel will spell out what opt out is and will feature Bill Minick, an attorney who is one of the movement’s strongest promoters. He will be joined by Trey Gillespie of the Property Casualty Insurance Association of America, which looks much more skeptically on the idea.

The second panel will include advocates on both sides of the issue, representing insurers, regulators, workers and employers.

The highlight of Day Two, for me, will be seeing my boss, Robert Hartwig, speak about how the sharing economy is likely to impact the workers compensation system. The idea: If sharing economy workers are not employees, as companies like Uber contend, they are ineligible for workers comp benefits. What will happen when those workers get hurt?

As most insurance observers know, Bob is leaving the I.I.I. in August to join academia–teaching risk management, insurance and finance courses at the University of South Carolina. He is likely the most dynamic speaker in the insurance world, and in the future he won’t be speaking nearly as frequently as he does now (that is unless you become one of his students!) So I plan to enjoy Bob’s show as often as I can the next few months.

Details on the conference, including registration information, can be found here.

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