Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Special Report: NY's Wildly Bizarre System

"It's a wildly bizarre system," said Tom Lynch, the founder of workers' compensation cost-consulting firm Lynch Ryan. "It's a system that runs on vested interests, and you can start with attorneys. It's a volume-based business for attorneys, and every single thing that happens has to be okayed by a judge."

"It's like if you want to go from Albany to New York City, you've got to by way of Santa Fe," he said. "Over time, it's just become a ridiculous system."

WorkCompCentral reporter Michael Whiteley found out as much when he prepared his special report on the state's workers' compensation system, published Monday.

A review of data from the workers' compensation systems in California, Florida, Illinois and Texas and interviews with experts inside and beyond the Empire State, show:
  • New York State Workers' Compensation Board's (SWCB) 94 judges held 266,046 hearings last year. SWCB reported it held the most hearings in the nation, although that is arguable. California, which has a civilian labor force nearly twice as large, reported judges held 151,728 hearings and another 128,537 conferences involving judges, for a total of 280,265. Still, New York had nearly six times more hearings than Illinois and 25 times more than Florida.
  • New York has nearly three times the number of judges than Florida and more than three times as many judges as Illinois. California has 149 administrative law judges and 21 presiding judges. New York has 85 judges, called claims referees, and 9 senior claims referees.
  • Despite its volume of hearings, SWCB and its judges closed 329,319 claims last year – nearly 2.5 times more than the number of cases closed in California and about five times the number of cases closed in Florida and Illinois.
Data on claims costs and assessments needed to fund SWCB's $200 million operating budget and pay claims from special funds also show New York is an outlier:
  • Total average costs per lost-time claim in New York had reached $73,055 by policy year 2008 and are projected to exceed $100,000 this year, according to the actuarial firm Oliver Wyman, which adjusts claims each year to reflect costs for future years. The New York Compensation Insurance Rating Board (NYCIRB), which only projects costs for nine years, put lost-time claims costs in New York at $68,796 for 2010.
  • Oliver Wyman reported that, for policy year 2007, Delaware ranked first in average lost-time claims costs at $83,013. Louisiana ranked second at $77,231, and New York ranked third at $66,501.
  • Lost-time claims accounted for 36% of all claims in New York, compared to a national average of 25%.
  • Assessments for New York self-insured employers, which comprise about a third of the state's workers' compensation market, reached 48.5 cents for every dollar paid out in indemnity costs in 2011 and were the highest in the nation.
  • Assessments collected by insurers were 20.2% of standard premium – the highest rate in the nation and more than five times the national average, according to the New York Workers' Compensation Policy Institute.

Whiteley reviews claims of widespread patronage that controls (some say choke) New York's system detailing how Board members obtain their seats and return rewards for the privilege.

Interviewees say former Gov. Mario Cuomo and the New York Legislature took a major step to end patronage in 1994, when they ended the political appointment of workers' compensation law judges.
The Legislature technically "fired" all the judges, said one former board official, and required the judges to pass civil service exams to regain their jobs.

"In those days, for lawyers who were important people and who needed jobs, the New York Workers' Compensation Board was the likely place for them to land," Rosasco said.

"But my experience is that politics at the Workers' Compensation Board has actually decreased, and the board has much more credibility than it ever did in past years," Troy Rosasco, former co-chairman of the New York Workers' Compensation Alliance, a political action committee for claimants' attorneys and an executive board member of the New York Injured Workers' Bar Association, said. "During past years, during former Democratic administrations, we had a sea of favorable workers' compensation decisions, and then you would have Republican administrations come in and the decisions would shift 180 degrees."

Whiteley also reviews how stenographers have essentially attained traffic cop status in New York's system and that efforts at the top to streamline procedures have effectively been rebuffed.

SWCB Chairman Robert Beloten is attempting to replace stenographers at hearings with digital recorders as part of a broader initiative to reduce the number of hearings in New York and allow judges to resolve disputes with proposed rulings, called "desk orders."

Beloten said in a regulatory announcement last September that transcripts are called for in about 3.5% of the board's hearings.

"Verbatim reporters spend approximately 70% of their work time recording hearings that will never be transcribed and only 30% of their work time transcribing the hearing minutes and performing other job-related duties," Beloten said.

The practice of awarding attorney fees throughout the life of a case is also coming to an end.

The report review many other aspects of the Empire State's system and the issues facing the state, but is much too lengthy for publication in this blog, but particularly if you're from California, Florida or Illinois, this report will allay any feelings of inadequacy or unjust criticism. I have made it available for download it here.

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