Fla. Workers’ Comp One of The Costliest

By Michael Ha

NU Online News Service, July 14, 4:30 p.m. EDT?Florida’s per-claim workers’ compensation costs for all paid claims came out to be higher than most states analyzed and are growing at a double-digit rate, according to a new study by the Workers Compensation Research Institute.

The Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit research group found in its study that a workers’ comp claim in Florida cost an average of $3,081 for 1999 claims evaluated in mid-2000.

This average figure for Florida was some 18 percent higher than the median of the 11 large states also examined in the study. Other states included in the WCRI study were: California, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin.

The study noted that one of the main factors behind Florida’s high workers’ comp costs is high frequency and costs for claims on more serious injuries, called permanent partial disabilities. Also noted was the impact of more frequent lump-sum settlements on driving up per-claim costs in Florida. These settlements, the study explained, are agreements that typically close out a workers’ comp claim and result in a single payment to the worker.

Furthermore, this is a situation that’s been getting worse every year, according to the study, which also found that the average cost per claim for all paid claims in the Sunshine State jumped 10 percent per year between 1998 and 2000, for claims with 12 months of experience.

The study noted that Florida’s growth in per-claim costs during the most recent period analyzed–1999 claims as of mid-2000–was partly triggered by a boost in the share of claims with more than seven days of lost time, which were up nearly one percent. Minor shifts in this area, the study argued, can have a large impact on costs.

Also pointed out in the study was the legal environment in Florida. The research showed that Florida was among the most litigious of the 12 large states examined. Looking at 1997 claims evaluated as of mid-2000, 32 percent of claims in Florida had involved defense attorneys, while the median figure from all 12 states was considerably lower, at 22 percent. Defense attorneys also get paid better in Florida, with an average payment of more than $3,600 per claim, which is almost 90 percent higher than the 12-state median of $1,918.

“We are not surprised at this finding. We always knew Florida had one of the most expensive workers’ compensation systems,” said Julie Pulliam, public affairs director at the Southeast region of the Washington, D.C.-headquartered American Insurance Association.

But, Ms. Pulliam added, the workers’ comp reform bill recently passed by the Florida Legislature will go a long way in fixing this problem. “We definitely expect this to have an impact,” she told National Underwriter.

The reform bill (S.B. 50), passed last May, alters the criteria for determining “permanent total disability.” The new bill, for instance, would eliminate the use of the Social Security disability–instead, it would require clear evidence from those seeking permanent total disability benefits that they have suffered a debilitating injury and that they are no longer able to perform any work.

Another provision in the bill would ban defense attorneys in many workers’ comp cases from getting paid by the number of hours worked. Such payment arrangements, some critics have argued, tend to create an incentive for lawyers in stretching out legal disputes.

Ms. Pulliam added that she is expecting Gov. Jeb Bush to sign the reform bill “any day now.”

Once the bill becomes law, it will have a profound impact on Florida’s workers’ comp system, she predicted. “The projection from the National Council on Compensation Insurance is that the bill would lower the total cost of the workers’ comp system in Florida by 12-and-a-half percent. We believe it’s a major reform and it will have a major impact,” she said.