Column: Workers' Comp

Ahead of the Curve

By: | December 14, 2017

Roberto Ceniceros is a retired senior editor of Risk & Insurance® and the former chair of the National Workers' Compensation and Disability Conference® & Expo. Read more of his columns and features.

Proactive risk managers can directly impact the direction of the workers’ comp industry.

It often takes a few passionate risk managers to force substantial, yet limited, shifts in workers’ compensation.

Fair example: More than a decade ago, a few focused risk managers launched strategies for curbing doctors’ opioid prescribing practices for injured workers.

They laid the groundwork for approaches widely applied in workers’ comp today, years before opioids would be labeled a national emergency or become a common household term.

These risk managers were early to spot the problem, and a few of them even shared their strategies publicly, discussing their approaches at risk management conferences.

You can imagine their corporate public relations departments frowned on publicly associating their company brands with worker addictions — had their PR departments known about these conference presentations, of course.

But that is how positive shifts occur in otherwise convoluted state workers’ comp systems resistant to change. Sophisticated employers encounter a problem, push their vendors to help find solutions and share their results.

Workers’ comp now leads the rest of the nation in addressing the opioid-abuse epidemic.

I don’t expect to see any radical structural changes occurring within state workers’ comp systems in the next few years. Positive shifts will occur, however, in smaller ways that can be substantial — with risk managers often at the forefront.

That happened during the earlier 2000s, when California risk managers joined labor representatives to kick insurers and workers’ comp vendors out of the room in order to negotiate for improvements that increased worker benefits while easing employer burdens.

Fixing workers’ comp won’t come from taking the input of people whose self-interest is well served under the current structure.

It wasn’t a radical reset of California’s worker’s comp system; but the changes they brought were substantial enough to reverse difficult insurance-purchasing market conditions.

Two years ago, ProPublica launched its journalistic investigation spotlighting workers’ comp system shortcomings that left disabled workers without care.

ProPublica’s stories caused some introspection within workers’ comp, followed by highly touted conversations on improving workers’ comp across America.

But I don’t see major changes emerging from that.

Fixing workers’ comp won’t come from taking the input of people whose self-interest is well served under the current structure. Significant change is more likely to come when employers take the lead by either working with labor or by bringing about change that isn’t one sided and that genuinely improves the lives of injured workers.

This might be what is happening with some large employers who are adopting serious worker advocacy strategies. The advocacy approach limits challenges on claims that are only marginally questionable.

The worker advocacy approach redirects resources formerly spent on questioning claims to programs that make sure workers are well cared for.

This strategy is being practiced by customer-service focused employers such as Disney and Delta Air Lines.

Just as the battle to stem opioid use began with a few risk managers, this positive development might also find a wider practice.

It’s not a given yet, but it is more likely than imaginary white knights in the form of workers’ comp special interest groups riding in to “save” the day. &

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