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Employers Grapple with Higher Workers’ Compensation Costs

Employers, who are getting hit with higher workers’ compensation costs as the insurance industry changes premium calculations, are instituting programs to control the impact of workplace accidents.

Phillip M. Perry (Q3 / Summer 2013)
Employers have long been concerned about the cost of workers’ compensation insurance. This year, though, the premium environment seems particularly harsh as the insurance industry changes the way it calculates the “experience rating modification,” or “x-mod,” that powerful pricing engine gear assigned to each employer. The change is expected to result in higher rates at a time when premiums are already rising quickly in response to escalating medical costs.

As if all that weren’t enough, a growing number of carriers are leaving the market, diminishing the supply of competing policies and putting even more upward pressure on the price of this mandated benefit.

It all boils down to a challenge for employers. “We are currently in an environment of rising workers’ compensation costs,” says Peter Burton, senior division executive for State Relations at the National Council on Compensation Insurance, Boca Raton, Florida.

The New Math
For business owners, the most immediate concern is the change in the x-mod. The portion of each claim that will flow into the experience rating formula at its full primary value will increase to $10,000 from the former level of $5,000.

The reason for the change, says Burton, is the growing mismatch between the cost of claims and the premiums that employers pay. “The split point portion of the experience rating formula has not been updated for 20 years, a period during which the average cost of a claim has tripled,” says Burton. “So our actuaries looked at the program and saw it was out of balance.”

Some industry observers recognize the connection. “The new x-mod calculation is a reflection of medical costs which have gone up exponentially in recent years,” says Daniel C. Free, president and general counsel of Insurance Audit & Inspection, Indianapolis, Ind. “The NCCI is really just catching up. The new mod can be seen as a ‘true-up.’”

Be that as it may, employers are sitting up and paying attention to the new math. “The x-mod changes are a big deal for employers,” says Karl Ahlrichs, benefits consultant for Indianapolis-based insurance broker Gregory & Appel. Those employers with historically safe workplaces are going to be better off under the new system. Those with more frequent, higher-level claims will see their x-mods increase. “The impact will vary based on the number and size of claims the employer has had,” says Ahlrichs.

Carriers Leaving the Market

A third factor contributes to premium angst: a dwindling supply of carriers serving the market. “We are seeing a growing number of cases where multi-line (auto, property, umbrella, general liability) carriers are refusing to renew workers’ comp insurance for an employer whose experience is unfavorable,” says Mike Salazar, vice president and manager of Client Services at Gregory & Appel. The reason for carriers’ growing reluctance is clear: “In a low interest rate environment, carriers cannot make up workers’ comp losses with profits from property and other insurance products,” Salazar explains.

“Employers turned down by the multi-line outfits must apply to the single-line workers’ comp insurance carriers,” says Salazar. While the premiums at such carriers may not be much higher, there is another problem: Insurance carriers are becoming more judicious in what they underwrite, due to the rising costs of the workers’ compensation system. “Single-line carriers are becoming more prone to accept only employers with strong claims management and risk control engineering,” notes Salazar.

Employers with poor histories may have to go to the state pools for coverage. “These are pools you do not want to go swimming in,” says Salazar. “They are expensive. They charge standard premiums, adjusted for the employers’ experience, plus a 20 to 25 percent surcharge. And you do not get the same service. For example, there is no engineer to come in and help you manage your safety program.”

Hire Smart
Employers can take a variety of steps to keep workers’ comp costs under control. Right out of the gate, say consultants, vetting potential hires can obviate problems down the road. “Change your hiring practices to reflect your drive to get people who value safety,“ says Ahlrichs. “It’s legitimate, for example, to ask safety-related questions that are work-related.” Also look at pre-hire assessments that can predict safety behaviors. For example, it is valid to ask applicants to perform the activities required of a position. “This is called a ‘fit for duty’ assessment,” says Salazar. “Can the applicant do the job safely based on its requirements?”

Finally, conduct pre-employment drug screens. “That’s a good way to avoid hiring people who will file workers’ comp claims,” says Salazar. “People who take drugs are more likely to have accidents, hurting themselves or others.” Drug abusers, too, can suffer from poor health. “Employees who are in poor health when they do have accidents usually end up with more expensive claims,” adds Salazar.

However, don’t fall into the trap of discrimination. It is improper, and illegal, to reject older applicants under the belief that they will have more accidents. “Older workers tend to work more safely than younger workers because they know the job better,” says Burton.

It’s true that older workers, when they do get injured, often have costlier injuries because they do not heal as quickly as younger ones, notes Burton. However, this is offset by the fact that older workers tend to be higher paid and this correlates to higher premiums being collected in the workers’ compensation system. “In the aggregate, older workers do not adversely affect the costs of workers’ comp,” Burton notes.

Install Safety Programs

Given that the x-mod rating is based on an employer’s accident record, it is wise to put an emphasis on workplace safety, says Burton. “The message to the employers is this: Clean up your act; have a safe workplace and you are likely to reap greater benefits under the revised experience rating system.”

Undertake a program of constant safety vigilance. “Hold a monthly meeting during which you review every single accident and near-miss accident,” suggests Salazar. “Investigate every event and develop a corrective strategy so the accident does not happen again to that employee or another worker.” The response might be something as simple as fixing a hole in your parking lot.

Many employers have redesigned their workstations and introduced stretching and exercise programs to assure good employee health. “Strains and sprains, and slips and falls are the most common claims in the workers’ comp industry,” says Salazar. “They can be engineered out of the workplace.”

Wellness programs can also play a role. “My sense is that there will emerge a body of data that links effective wellness programs with effective safety programs,” says Ahlrichs. “The combination should produce a great result on workers’ comp costs. Right now it’s difficult to find supporting data, but it makes sense that a company with a focus on safety and well-being will gain a competitive advantage.”

Next: Identifying Alternative Positions for Injured Workers
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