Friday, May 13, 2016

Some Geeks Gathered in Dallas

A unique and special meeting this week may not change the world or workers' compensation, but it could. The "National Conversation" began in a non-descript hotel under the glide-path of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (more than once someone said "was that thunder?" and more than once the answer was "plane;" but being Dallas, the answer was also sometimes just "yes"). There was no golf course, no keynote speaker, not a single vendor, sponsor or financial contributor. 

There are conferences and events in every industry in this country. There are trade shows of amazing magnitude. There are conventions focused on a multitude of things that interest people. One website lists the "20 Biggest Geek Conventions." At these events tens of thousands gather to hear speakers, meet the stars and see and be seen. We have conventions in workers' compensation also (they do not attract 50,000 people). The biggest in the nation occurs in Orlando each August, but it cannot compare to Comicon. 

In this admittedly comfortable meeting environment in Dallas. gathered what one participant referred to as "geeks." I was a bit surprised to hear us described that way. The context referred to the lack of comprehension and understanding of American (or any, frankly) workers' compensation system. The commentor said most find the subject uninteresting, but we are the geeks of wokers' compensation and we like discussing it. As we lamented the lack of interest most display for this system, we were reminded that what we all find interesting and compelling is really of absolutely no interest to most people. We are the "geeks of workers' compensation." 

We travel to conventions to hear speakers talk about mod-factors, and loss ratios, combined ratios, retros, retentions, statutory construction, constitutionality, the "Grand Bargain," exclusive remedy, repetitive trauma and we understand what they mean. We speak our own "comp-geek" language and discuss PTD, TPD, MMI, CLR, ADA, DOI, CR, PPI, PIR, and more (even my spell-checker hates all the acronyms). We collectively absorb arcane facts and statistics, and we share them and debate them. An alien arriving on the planet and suffering us as its first exposures to human kind would get an interesting perspective on humans. 

We collectively have an interest in the industry, the process, the practicality and curiosity that is workers' compensation. We are interested in a broad sense. And the overall function and effect draws our attention. We also often investigate and prognosticate on narrow and perhaps arcane little segments of the system because we find intrigue and our curiosity drives us. We are admittedly, and frankly proudly, some of the geeks of workers' compensation. 

Many develop a specialty within workers' compensation. There are people focused on medicine, processing, underwriting, servicing, labor, management, risk avoidance, risk management, the law, and more. I long ago concluded that there are so many pieces and parts to this industry that it is impractical to believe one could be an expert on them all. As a result, we each seem to become acquainted especially and intensely with some portion of the map that is workers' compensation. 

But through our interaction and collectivity, we also develop some understanding of the expertise of others. When we listen, we learn a great deal from those who are in the same system, but whose expertise is different from our own. We learn from those whose perspective is different from our own. WHEN WE LISTEN.

There are perceptions that workers' compensation is broken. This impression has resulted in large part from negative publicity about the systems that exist in each of the 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia and American territories. There are critics and 2015 saw critiques. The response to published perceptions and conclusions is rarely unanimous. Some celebrate the criticisms while others criticize them. 

But, a handful of U.S. Senators has concluded that workers' compensation needs attention. Some academics insist that it is time for one workers' compensation system for America, and urge a federal takeover. This is nothing new, some academics have been urging this for almost 50 years. They perceive the federal government as a solution to what they see as a lack of state-to-state uniformity in workers' compensation. 

They celebrate and urge federal intervention, but ignore the documented performance of multiple federal government agencies, or lack of performance. They advocate federal control of workers' compensation, the same federal that brought us the Veterans' Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Internal Revenue Service. Each of these is run by humans and humans are imperfect. Large agencies, central agencies, are just as capable of error and mistake, they just make them on a larger scale. 

And so, some of the geeks of workers' compensation gathered to discuss what is right about workers' compensation. There are warts, no doubt. There are instances in which the systems do not perform optimally. There are human beings who are not provided their due, or for whom the system does not provide as, or when it is supposed to. There is failure. Often that is human failure, plain and simple, and the odds are perhaps in its favor because this is a human endeavor, with many moving parts and complexities. 

Some of the geeks of workers' compensation gathered to discuss how this system can be better. Thankfully, no one seemed distracted by the red herring of how to make this system (or systems) perfect. Regardless of the volume of focus, intellect, compassion, heart, and effort, these systems will retain humans, and we will remain imperfect. That will be true whether federalization remains a curiosity or progresses even to a meaningful discussion. A reality check on federalization, it is a subject of interest for a very small minority of politicians, currently supported by an even smaller group of academics (in fairness, though, there is not a large population of academics even interested in workers' compensation). 

And so in Dallas, a new conversation started about workers' compensation this week. It was intentionally limited in numbers, because it was a conversation, not a symposium or lecture or seminar. Everyone at the table had perspectives on the good and the "not-so-good." Anecdotes and perspectives were shared. There was some agreement and some disagreement. Some perceive that change in the systems is imperative, others perhaps not so much.

There was discussion of benefits, exclusive remedy, delivery models, system operations and restraints, dispute resolution, medicine, rehabilitation, communication, and miscommunication. It was an amazingly deep conversation, to which a great many of America's most devoted workers' compensation geeks contributed. 

There has been criticism. Why these geeks, and why not other geeks? Why here, why now, why, why, why? Who do you think you are? What gives you the right to  . . . set an agenda, call a meeting, presume to  . . . . There will always be critics; I celebrate them because they make me think and they have a perspective. Give me a honest critic any day.

In fairness, there was little to the "agenda" in Dallas this week. It was a framework of questions, such as "what are the friction points in workers' compensation systems." And from those very broad conversation starters, the discussion was instigated, framed, and fulfilled by 40 very diverse and sometimes vociferous workers' compensation geeks from across the country. 

We did not solve the world's problems. No cure for anything emerged from the two days of discussion, debate, sharing and describing. But no one thought the world's problems could be solved in two days. In fact, a fair number of people said that there was no way such a meeting could ever be held, absent some government mandate. Thankfully, they were just wrong. 

The conversation was possible, and the ideas and thoughts exchanged were enlightening. After spending a fair portion of my life on this world of workers' compensation, reading, writing, speaking and studying, I learned new things this week. And I was reminded of some I already knew but which needed refreshing. 

There was no "touchdown" in Dallas in May 2016. But the goal all along was not to win the game, but to "move the ball." That is, no one ever thought we would make the end zone, but could we begin a process" Start a conversation? There will be much written in days and weeks to come, describing the thoughts and impressions. In early 2016, I asked who will lead this industry. It think in Dallas we did not answer that question. But we did find that there are some who may be willing to try. 

We moved the ball, and started a conversation. Hopefully various individuals and organizations will take up the conversation. Perhaps they can bring specialized experience and intellect to specific parts of the debate, to particular perceptions of system strengths and weakness. The conversation is started, and now we will see how it concludes. 

On a personal note, I want to thank everyone that gathered for the conversation. Attendance was a sacrifice of time and resources. Participation was both a privilege and a burden. It was, franlky, exhausting. Thank you for being among the workers' compensation geeks, and for donating your time and expertise to getting this started. You moved the ball and you are a credit to your companies, organizations, professions, and perspectives on workers, workers' compensation, and the progress of this system. 

And a special thanks to Bob Wilson. It is unlikely that such a meeting could have ever occurred without his perseverance and singular focus. He has been criticized in the process. But he has been patient, industrious, gracious, and has led us this far. Who will take up the mantle and lead from here. As I put it in January, "here's looking at you kid."


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