California Workers' Compensation Looms as a Major 2012 Legislative Issue

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On March 28, two California legislative committees met to hear concerns about the California workers’ compensation system. The chairs of the committees declared that the hearing was the Legislature’s first-step in this year’s effort to solve problems that plague the system.

During the joint hearing of the Assembly Insurance Committee and the Senate Labor & Industrial Relations Committee, stakeholders in the California workers’ compensation system identified problems and gave their perspectives on how those problems should be addressed.

Representatives of the California Workers’ Compensation Institute outlined the increase in workers’ compensation costs. In the years immediately after the enactment of the 2003 and 2004 reform laws, the total loss per indemnity claim decreased. However, in recent years, workers’ compensation claim costs have been increasing. The total loss for an indemnity claim is higher today than prior to the enactment of the 2003-2004 reforms. Institute data show that escalating medical costs are driving the increase in claim costs. Increasing costs are affecting insurers. The most current accident year combined loss and expense ratios are at 130.

Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones observed that the high combined ratios will probably result in a rise in workers’ compensation insurance rates. The commissioner expressed concern about the higher premiums that may be charged to employers. In wrestling with workers’’ compensation issues, the Legislature has operated under the theory that a dollar increase in benefits should be accompanied by a dollar in savings in the workers’ compensation system. Commissioner Jones explained that because of the sharp increase in costs, that theory is no longer useful. It appears that it will take more than one dollar in savings to offset a dollar in benefit increase.

Christine Baker, director of the Department of Industrial Relations, testified that her department is seeking comprehensive workers’ compensation reforms that achieve both cost savings and benefit increases. Baker explained that such comprehensive reforms will require both legislative and regulatory changes. The Division of Workers’ Compensation is conducting public forums throughout the state aimed at reaching a consensus on the changes that should be made.

Frank Neuhauser, professor at the University of California at Berkeley argued that the 2003-2004 reforms have reduced compensation paid to injured workers. Neuhauser said the reforms resulted in a 61% decrease in overall compensation. He stated that workers who are not represented by attorneys have been especially affected by the decline in compensation paid.

A representative of the California Federation of Labor accused insurers of undermining the workers’ compensation administrative process and delaying medical treatment for injured workers. The Federation called for the prior approval of workers’ compensation insurance rates and significant adjustments to the permanent disability rating schedule.

A representative of Grimway Farms, which is self-insured for workers’ compensation, challenged the allegation that high costs can be solved by stricter insurance regulation. As a self-insurer, Grimway is facing the same increase in workers’ compensation costs as insurers. The Grimway representative complained that there are too many lawyers in the workers’ compensation system.  A representative of public schools urged the adoption of measures to reduce the number of workers’ compensation liens.

A representative of the California Medical Association asserted that further restrictions on fees that may be charged for workers’ compensation medical treatment would lead to a reduction in access to care. A representative of the California Society of Industrial Medicine and Surgery complained about delays in utilization reviews and the administration of medical provider networks.

At the close of the hearing, Senator Ted Lieu, chair of the Senate Labor & Industrial Relations Committee, and Assembly Member Jose Solorio, chair of the Assembly Insurance Committee, said that they are committed to achieving both workers’ compensation savings and workers’ compensation benefit increases. The committee chairs said that they will proceed in an honest, cautious and transparent manner.