Sunday, March 8, 2015

WCRI's Annual Workers' Compensation Conference 2015

I had the opportunity to meet with some of the leaders of workers’ compensation last week. Giants of the industry, it was humbling to be in their presence. The annual conference of the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) ran for two days in what can only be described as frigid temperatures.

Upon arrival, I ran into Bob Wilson, of I had the chance to chat workers’ compensation with Jim McConnaughhay and Steve Rissman of WCI fame. I ran into Rafael Gonzalez from Helios; he has forgotten more about Social Security and Medicare than I will ever know. 

I saw Joe Paduda whose insight into management of medical delivery is renowned. I was fortunate to have opportunities to speak with David DePaolo and Peter Rousmaniere of, and David Dietz, the former medical director for Liberty Mutual. I got to speak to risk managers for major retailers, and icons of the hospitality and tourism industries. There were industry icons from the insurance market also, including Mark Walls from Safety National and Tom Glasson from AIG. These people eat, breath and live workers’ compensation. For them it is a passion, and it has been for a long time.

I was privileged to meet in a small group with a handful of the state officials in attendance. William Monnin-Browder is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Advisory Council. Frank McKay is the Chair of the Georgia State Board of Workers’Compensation. Michelle McGovern is again an ALJ adjudicator for the Iowa Division of Workers' Compensation, following service as acting Director these past six months. Linda Hamilton is the Chair of the Indiana Board, and a member of the WCRI Board. Laurie Lamy is a regional director of the WCRI. Despite his many commitments, Rick Victor joined us also for a spirited discussion of the distinctions and similarities of workers’ compensation across the country. 

It is not an exageration to say that there were thousands of years of workers' compensation experience at this gathering. An incredible breadth and depth of experiences and perspectives. 

This was a major gathering. WCRI has been in the data business for about thirty years. An anomaly in modern business, WCRI has had the same hand on the helm for its entire existence. Richard Victor was just a few years out of graduate school, working for the Rand Corporation in California, when he agreed to take on the challenge of this inspired think-tank. Thirty years later, here he was foreshadowing the transition to new leadership. More on that in a future post. 

The Institute took a few minutes on Thursday to recap the history of WCRI and the contributions that Rick has made. Rick then took the stage to explain that despite the parade of accolades, there are a great many people responsible for what WCRI is and the promise that it holds.

I had been recruited to speak on a panel Friday morning. I knew that going in. Until the agenda was published though, I did not realize I would be the last speaker of the conference. It is always a little intimidating to speak first or last. There are pressures for both, though they are stressful for different reasons. When you are up last, you always wonder if anyone will stick around for the landing. Beyond that nervousness, there is the added stress when you look up from the lectern and realize that they did. 

As if that was not enough on these narrow little shoulders, I was slated to speak immediately after Charles Davoli. He has been around workers’ compensation since the 1970s, a legend in his own right. Mr. Davoli represents injured workers in Louisiana, has been a mediator for the last few years, and just wrapped-up service as president of the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group, or “WILG.” Floridians will be familiar with the Florida Workers’ Advocates; WILG is a similar organization with a national focus. Mr. Davoli is also a member of the WCRI Board.

After days of intense information and bountiful data, Mr. Davoli discussed the “Race to the Bottom” with us. He makes an interesting case that the Padgett litigation (formally Florida Workers’ Advocates v. State of Florida) is a symptom of a greater problem. He contends that the "Grand Compromise" is no longer so grand. 

Mr. Davoli decries the claims of "erosion" and describes instead a "corrosion" of the benefits on the injured workers’ side of the equation  that is workers’ compensation. He essentally questions “how low can you go?” That catch-phrase echoed repeatedly through the assemblage. Keep in mind that this is an industry audience, heavy on the nuts and bolts side of the business; actuaries, managers, directors. Not the friendliest audience for a speech on the inequity of modern workers’ compensation.

Mr. Davoli persevered and narrated his perspective nonetheless. It was informative. Though the WCRI had cancelled the panel presentation that would have addressed the proverbial “opt-out,” that was a subject that had nonetheless been mentioned and discussed. Mr. Davoli returned to it and made a case that such opt-outs represent a further corrosion of the “benefit of the bargain” for the injured workers’ of America.

For the last few years I have spent an inordinate amount of time studying the opt-out. I have had some spirited discussions with others who find intellectual stimulation in this thing we call comp. I contend that there is really little difference between the perceptively revolutionary Oklahoma opt-out and the “carve-outs” that have become part of our market in the last twenty years.

When I was asked in 2013, what the difference is between an “opt-out” and a “carve-out,” I put it as succinctly as I could. I have maintained my conclusion since, though some great minds like the inscrutable Hon. David Torrey have done their best to convince me that I have missed the boat. What is the difference? Well, from where I sit, it is less than ten words.  That is tongue-in-cheek, and could even be interpreted as a bit sarcastic. But, for Florida to have an “Oklahoma Opt-Out,” I really think that might be accomplished by amending one subsection, Fla. Stat. §440.211, altering a few words.

  440.211 Authorization of collective bargaining agreement.—
  (1) Subject to the limitation stated in subsection (2), a provision that is mutually agreed upon in any collective bargaining agreement contract of employment filed with the department between an individually self-insured employer or other employer upon consent of the employer’s carrier and any employee or a recognized or certified exclusive bargaining representative establishing any of the following shall be valid and binding:

Mr. Davoli also noted an incongruity in the law that likely will need to be addressed. It is not known whether or how this thing called the Affordable Care Act will proceed. Some suggest that we may know more with the determination of the current Supreme Court challenge. Others suggest that the debate and challenges have really just begun. It is a politically charged topic, and others around the country have already done a better job of addressing the pros and cons, far better than I could.

The implication for workers’ compensation is worth noting though. Mr. Davoli pointed out that with the advent of mandatory health insurance; there will be a great many employers who are providing two insurance programs for their employees. He says that an employee who falls down the stairs at home will enter and follow the path of group health, while a similar employee that falls down the stairs at work will follow the path of workers’ compensation.

He concedes that this dichotomy has existed for a long time for many employers, but contends that the ACA will make it the reality for many more employers. He suggests that in this new paradigm, employers may come to question why they pay two premiums, manage two processes, and have this dichotomy. He also raises the point that treating employees differently in this context may present equal protection issues. Interesting and stimulating conversation.

I have never practiced law against Charles Davoli, and I hope that I never do. He was passionate, prepared, persuasive and focused.

I had a long ride home to Florida. As an aside, I suggested to the assemblage that this meeting could have been held in Florida. We have winter in Florida; we just don’t tend to feel it in a bone-chilling, breath-taking way like they do up north. 

On the ride home, I thought about the ProPublica articles of the first week of March 2015. I thought about what was discussed at the conference, and particularly I reflected on my time with Mr. Davoli, and some of the other workers' compensation giants with whom I was privileged to spend some time.

I wondered, what is the destination of this thing we call comp? Are we on the road to perdition, or the pathway to the stars? Is it all that it can be, or is it a concept which has outlived its relevance? I have invested a great deal of time in the subject. I cannot answer the question, but I think I got the perspectives of the nation's worker's compensation thinkers last week. 

I have been privileged to speak and associate with many of those that I consider to be the Twenty-First Century giants of the subject. I wonder what those giants would conclude if they were pulled together for the kind of discussion that emanated from the Workers’ Compensation Commission in 1972? I would love to be a fly on the wall for that conversation.

The strength of this conversation and conference might arguably be the speakers, with their statistics, historical foundations, and prognostications. But, the audience and attendees were every bit as imperative to the environment. It is rare that you hear a question poised to a blue-ribbon panel, that yields the simple response “that is good question,” and little beyond that. This is not to denigrate or minimize the panels, they were each excellent. This is to merely point out that the brains in the audience were frankly brilliant; asking penetrating, compelling and educating questions.

In my estimation it is a great sign that we can still ask questions that do not have ready answers. These kind of questions remove us from our respective comfort zones, challenge our presumptions and assumptions, and hopefully make us think about this industry. Henry Ford is credited with saying that “failure is simply the opportunity begin again, this time more intelligently." As states have reformed and remade, as states look to the opt-out, the fee-schedule, the prescription formulary and beyond, perhaps everyone is a little smarter than the last time?

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