2018 Risk All Star: James Curbeam

One Las Vegas Risk Manager Eliminated Silos, Redefining Risk Management’s Role

James Curbeam, one of the 2018 Risk All Star winners, knew the only way to achieve true ERM was by making every department aware of how their risks intertwined.
By: | September 14, 2018 • 3 min read

Relationships are James Curbeam’s thing.

When the Las Vegas Valley Water District hired Curbeam in 2016, he saw the need for a lot of changes, starting with redefining risk management’s role.

James Curbeam, risk manager, Las Vegas Valley Water District

Traditionally, its sole purpose had been to purchase insurance, and it operated in isolation. He conducted 181 interviews with every supervisor and above, asking them what keeps them up at night.

Mostly, he listened: “I needed to understand their challenges. That’s huge to getting buy-in,” he said. In a change-resistant organization, buy-in from the top was essential to implementing his plans.

He swears by face-to-face meetings. “Meetings build trust,” he said, which is essential to a profession that must persuade its clients it has their best interests at heart. “Things get misinterpreted in emails. In a face-to-face conversation, you can work through issues.”

“He was methodical,” said Jennifer George, risk management analyst, Las Vegas Valley Water District. After the meetings with department heads, he met with supervisors and managers, then supervisors and employees. If they cancelled, he rescheduled. “Everyone met him.”

“Make sure you have support from someone who has access to the top,” he advised — essential when someone declines a meeting. “They don’t think it’s important. Then you establish what’s in it for them.”

In an organization with limited interaction between departments, he met some resistance. When he felt resistance, he took the skeptic out to lunch.

“The biggest impediment to ERM is silos,” he said. “We need everyone’s vision and support.”


Because ERM is a holistic view of entwined risk, he said, what’s in it for them is essential to the entire company. “A company is a house, and everyone has a room. Nobody cares what you do in your room until there’s a fire.” Then the room is a danger to the house.

Meeting by meeting, he broke down the silos that were inhibiting collaboration, perpetuating purchasing inefficiencies and obstructing effective management of the organization’s risks.

He used the same technique — meet, listen, plan and persuade — to create a District Workers’ Compensation PPO Network, establishing flat-rate fees for services that saved, among other things, 58 percent over the life of the five-year contract for claims administration fees.

“The biggest impediment to ERM is silos. We need everyone’s vision and support.” — James Curbeam, risk manager, Las Vegas Valley Water District

He negotiated a new first-fill prescription program with the TPA that maximizes district discounts and allows employees to fill prescriptions without any out-of-pocket costs.

He met face-to-face with providers and TPAs, too. “If they know and trust you, they’re more likely to talk to you about a problem instead of shooting off an angry email to your boss,” he said.

And he worked with IT to move recordkeeping to a new, common cloud-based Risk Management Information System, which will be key to developing a total cost of risk for the organization.

“Next year, he’ll start the whole process again,” said George, since risk management is never finished. &


Risk All Stars stand out from their peers by overcoming challenges through exceptional problem solving, creativity, clarity of vision and passion.

See the complete list of 2018 Risk All Stars.

Susannah Levine writes about health care, education and technology. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

4 Companies That Rocked It by Treating Injured Workers as Equals; Not Adversaries

The 2018 Teddy Award winners built their programs around people, not claims, and offer proof that a worker-centric approach is a smarter way to operate.
By: | October 30, 2018 • 3 min read

Across the workers’ compensation industry, the concept of a worker advocacy model has been around for a while, but has only seen notable adoption in recent years.

Even among those not adopting a formal advocacy approach, mindsets are shifting. Formerly claims-centric programs are becoming worker-centric and it’s a win all around: better outcomes; greater productivity; safer, healthier employees and a stronger bottom line.


That’s what you’ll see in this month’s issue of Risk & Insurance® when you read the profiles of the four recipients of the 2018 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Award, sponsored by PMA Companies. These four programs put workers front and center in everything they do.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top,” said Steve Legg, director of risk management for Starbucks.

Starbucks put claims reporting in the hands of its partners, an exemplary act of trust. The coffee company also put itself in workers’ shoes to identify and remove points of friction.

That led to a call center run by Starbucks’ TPA and a dedicated telephonic case management team so that partners can speak to a live person without the frustration of ‘phone tag’ and unanswered questions.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top.” — Steve Legg, director of risk management, Starbucks

Starbucks also implemented direct deposit for lost-time pay, eliminating stressful wait times for injured partners, and allowing them to focus on healing.

For Starbucks, as for all of the 2018 Teddy Award winners, the approach is netting measurable results. With higher partner satisfaction, it has seen a 50 percent decrease in litigation.

Teddy winner Main Line Health (MLH) adopted worker advocacy in a way that goes far beyond claims.

Employees who identify and report safety hazards can take credit for their actions by sending out a formal “Employee Safety Message” to nearly 11,000 mailboxes across the organization.

“The recognition is pretty cool,” said Steve Besack, system director, claims management and workers’ compensation for the health system.

MLH also takes a non-adversarial approach to workers with repeat injuries, seeing them as a resource for identifying areas of improvement.

“When you look at ‘repeat offenders’ in an unconventional way, they’re a great asset to the program, not a liability,” said Mike Miller, manager, workers’ compensation and employee safety for MLH.

Teddy winner Monmouth County, N.J. utilizes high-tech motion capture technology to reduce the chance of placing new hires in jobs that are likely to hurt them.

Monmouth County also adopted numerous wellness initiatives that help workers manage their weight and improve their wellbeing overall.

“You should see the looks on their faces when their cholesterol is down, they’ve lost weight and their blood sugar is better. We’ve had people lose 30 and 40 pounds,” said William McGuane, the county’s manager of benefits and workers’ compensation.


Do these sound like minor program elements? The math says otherwise: Claims severity has plunged from $5.5 million in 2009 to $1.3 million in 2017.

At the University of Pennsylvania, putting workers first means getting out from behind the desk and finding out what each one of them is tasked with, day in, day out — and looking for ways to make each of those tasks safer.

Regular observations across the sprawling campus have resulted in a phenomenal number of process and equipment changes that seem simple on their own, but in combination have created a substantially safer, healthier campus and improved employee morale.

UPenn’s workers’ comp costs, in the seven-digit figures in 2009, have been virtually cut in half.

Risk & Insurance® is proud to honor the work of these four organizations. We hope their stories inspire other organizations to be true partners with the employees they depend on. &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]