Workers' Comp is Identical Everywhere, Except Where it is Completely Different

16 Apr, 2015 Bob Wilson


I had an interesting conversation this week with the chairman of a state workers' compensation commission while at the IAIABC Spring Forum in Myrtle Beach, SC. He was talking about how he came into the position, and some of the things he did to prepare for this challenging role. He made, what I believe to be, a very enlightening statement about that process. He told me he took the time to read all of the other states comp legislation, and then shook his head and said, essentially, "It didn't take long to figure out that while workers' comp is exactly the same everywhere, it is completely different in every state". 

It was a great observation. The concept of comp is virtually identical in every state, yet the process with which it is deployed is unique to every jurisdiction. This became extremely evident during a Leadership Seminar Wednesday morning talking about the challenges of upgrading state agency technology systems and infrastructure. 

Prior to panelists from Virginia, Pennsylvania, Saskatchewan, and Michigan covering extensive challenges and accomplishments for the audience of regulators, the microphone was passed around the room so that everyone had a chance to discuss their concerns and issues on the topic. Everyone had exactly the same concerns, yet ironically no one had the same problem. Monday I wrote about the differences in the workers' comp industry's "data language". It was pretty evident from this exercise that the phenomenon is merely an extension of a greater diversity of procedure that all of these states have with one another.

The major problems that the states face regarding technology are rooted in both the complexity of managing comp data and a limited pool of customers for which a company can create a solution. This leaves Workers' Compensation Divisions around the nation looking for off the shelf solutions that will accommodate a certain percentage of their needs, or building a home grown solution for their stakeholders and employees.

And since no two jurisdictions are alike, even one states home built or heavily customized system is virtually useless for others. Virtually everything is tied to the fact that workers' comp, similar in concept, is nonetheless a completely different animal when the rubber hits the road.

Peter Federko, CEO of the Saskatchewan Workers' Compensation Board, gave a somewhat self-scathing review of the trials and tribulations his agency experienced when migrating to a new technology platform several years ago. The project, as is seemingly typical in these cases, ran well over both schedule and budget. Federko discussed the lessons learned from this, and made distinct recommendations for the group. Among them was the suggestion that agencies be prepared and willing to modify their operations to conform to their new platform, instead of wasting time and resources making the new platform fit their existing mold. It was a suggestion I think that could be applied at a far greater level. 

Technology isn't the only thing that needs to be continually upgraded to meet changing demands. Sometimes processes in these agencies should be subject to the same philosophy. Certain procedures, established long ago by God knows who, no longer meet the workflow demands of today. It makes no sense to try to retrofit modern technology to perform outdated procedures. Changing the culture, breaking the "way we've always done it" is a challenging and at times frightening task. Yet doing so would help agencies grow and adapt, and more easily adopt to changes in their technology systems.

That in itself won't help the initially discussed issue, where 50 states have 50 different methods to achieve a relatively common goal. Still, the conversation at the IAIABC was a great one to have. The more states discuss their individual issues and challenges, the more they will identify their common ground. From that common ground can grow similarities that will benefit states as they work to improve their services.  

While workers' comp will continue to be a notion in agreement across the land yet different at every level of implementation, improved sharing of ideas and technology experience will help break down those all too common barriers. Workers' comp is exactly the same everywhere while completely different in every state. That does not mean the process gap can't be closed through better understanding of procedure both in the state next door and beyond. 

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