A Refresher Course in Workers’ Comp

A scathing audit of the workers' compensation system in a Florida school district spotlights the need for tighter employer scrutiny of outsourcers.

Finance executives wondering what’s wrong with the economics of health care at their organizations — not to mention the nation at large — might learn some lessons from the recently released audit report of the school district of Broward County, Florida. The report spells out the failures of the district’s $34 million (in annual operating costs) self-insured workers’ compensation system.

The Broward district’s brand of workers’ comp, while typical of many big employers, is only one piece of the health-benefits puzzle. Yet such programs share with group health insurance two related problems that arguably boost the overall costs of the employer-provided benefit system: an over-reliance on “go-betweens,” coupled with a lack of transparency in reports of how company dollars are being spent by intermediaries and services vendors.

In both self-insured workers’ comp and group-health benefits, an employer often depends on convoluted payment systems run by a third-party administrator (TPA), which contracts with managed-care vendors and administrative-services providers. If the company’s risk and benefits managers aren’t keeping close tabs on the TPA, obscure reporting of the voluminous and often confusing data can provide the administrators and other services vendors with ample opportunity to bill too freely. And even when risk managers have the best of intentions, getting their hands on meaningful data can be a tall order.

Indeed, the 200-page Broward report provides vivid documentation of the cost leakage and bungling that can follow when a self-insured employer lacks adequate control of its vendors. There you can find, for instance, an indictment of how Gallagher Bassett Services Inc., the TPA the district has used for 17 years, looked into the causes of workers’ comp claims. (Gallagher Bassett did not respond to requests for an interview for this article.)

In one case, the auditors charge, because Gallagher failed to pursue matters vigorously enough, the district paid out about $75,000 for a hysterectomy recommended for an employee who had been hit in the stomach with a doorknob. Workers’ comp payments also were made to one employee who was hurt while exercising and to another injured in a fistfight with a co-worker. The district even bought a spa for an employee’s medical needs and will pay its upkeep and electric bills for the employee’s lifetime.

The report also takes the company’s managed-care and case-management provider, CorVel Inc., to task for “obtaining a large quantity of discounted medical services, rather than facilitating quality care and superior results through a concentrated collection of high quality clinicians who are properly paid.” In particular, the auditors criticized CorVel’s use of non-specialists, claiming that that can make injuries worse and boost medical costs.

Despite shortcomings in the school district’s workers’ comp system that added costs of as much as $600,000 a year, payments to services providers and lawyers were on the rise, according to the report. In a criticism often heard in insurance circles, during the past four years an increasing percentage of the workers’ comp program’s funds — from 14 percent in 2001-2002 to 22 percent in 2004-2005 — were going “outside the system” into attorney’s fees and payouts to Gallagher and CorVel rather than to injured workers or to doctors caring for them, according to the auditors. In CorVel’s case, the number of payments to the company for services provided to the district rose by 18 percent since 2002-2003; the total dollar value of the payments rose by 38 percent.

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