I have been wanting to write this article for a few days, and in fact intended to do so next week. However, a session yesterday at the California Workers' Compensation and Risk Conference in Dana Point, CA, has compelled me to do so now. The panel, assembled to discuss the current status of workers' compensation in California, was fantastic; lively with spirited debate among the five participants. But right near the end, one of the panelists, Julius Young, an applicants attorney in the state, chose to read to the audience excerpts from blog posts by both David Depaolo and Joe Paduda. The posts he read were those lambasting "payola" and corruption within workers' compensation.
Both Depaolo and Paduda have authored more than one article on the topic recently, calling for the unethical practice of "paying to play" - bribing company employees to gain business (as well as soliciting those bribes) - to be firmly addressed and stopped. I agree with that sentiment, and do not intend to demean the good intent of two people I greatly respect. But I fear the emphasis and concern may not accurately reflect the greater picture, and that leaves me with an overwhelming need to say something.
In more than 16 years of service as a vendor providing service to the workers' compensation industry, I've never seen or experienced the "pay for play" corruption to which they allude. I've never encountered it. It has never, ever darkened my doorway. Not once. No one has asked for special treatment from me in order to allow my business to serve their company. No one has even hinted towards that goal. I've never had to buy access for a meeting, or agree to kickbacks to anyone for any reason. It is honestly something I have never encountered.
I'm not naive. I know it happens. It happens in virtually every industry at some point somewhere. I have had a discussion with one vendor friend who encountered it and declined to participate. But my impression is that major, blatant "payola" in workers' compensation is rare. At least it has not existed within my personal experience.
In fact, my impression has been completely the opposite. Prior to entering the workers' compensation industry, as an employer largely oblivious to the inner workings of comp, I did not hold the industry in particularly high regard. That cannot be said today, and the reason is the absolute quality and integrity of the people I have been honored to deal with both in business and my travel around the country. The people my company serves are almost without exception committed and professional; and they are dedicated to doing what is right by their profession, position and employer. It is an honor to have served them with integrity.
And it is not just our customers. Spend some time on LinkedIn workers' comp groups to see and experience the passion and integrity that exists with many of the posters opinions. I don't agree with all of them, but I do not question the dedication and commitment within the opinions most express. I have had the opportunity in more recent years to meet and know judges, regulators and administrators around the country, and I find them to be largely excellent people attempting to manage a virtually unmanageable task.
The point is, there are many high quality people in our industry, and they don't deserve to be painted with the suspicion of a broad and anonymous brush. I absolutely know that is not the intent of either Depaolo or Paduda, but in broad, general discussions it must be clearly defined, or we risk putting people under the microscope who do not deserve to be there.
I am not sure why Young chose to introduce this topic to this particular panel. I am sure he felt it was an issue that needs to be discussed. Unfortunately he did so at the end of the session, and participants did not get the chance to fully address and discuss the accusations. It was just sort of left "hanging" out there, with no clear resolution. The accusation was leveled, but there would be no time for a clear and fair trial (There was, however, a very humorous zinger from one panelist, Sedgwick CEO Dave North. Let's just say that North is probably not on the Paduda family Christmas card list).
This lack of full discussion was unfortunate, so we need to continue it outside that venue.
Is the workers' compensation industry perfect? Far from it. Have we failed some injured workers? Absolutely. Are we rife with corruption, with executives on the take and intentional efforts to defraud millions?
Of course not.
We do have bad players. We have some unethical people with sick and selfish intentions. There are some crooks. Every industry has them. But the true, overall failures of comp today are far more attributable to systemic complexities and process requirements than overt intent to defraud and deny. Our focus today has been diverted from the proper end goal, and the "system" - the machine - is becoming more relevant than the people it was intended to serve. However, that doesn't mean the people working within that system are bad. It just means that, sans significant reform, their jobs are just all the more difficult.
I agree with Paduda and Depaolo that wherever corruption or malfeasance exists, we should not be afraid to identify and condemn it. We should not tolerate unethical people who are lining their own pockets at the expense of their employer and injured workers, but speaking "anonymously" will never be the answer.
If and where such corruption exists, we need to expose it. We need to name names. Otherwise the vast nameless and innocent majority will be swept under a needless veil of suspicion, and that is not good for individuals or the industry they serve. This is critical, since when it comes to workers' compensation payola, graft and corruption are not everything or everywhere they are cracked up to be.
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Robert Wilson is President & CEO of WorkersCompensation.com, and "From Bob's Cluttered Desk" comes his (often incoherent) thoughts, ramblings, observations and rants - often on workers' comp or employment issues, but occasionally not.
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Bob is an accomplished speaker for the workers' compensation industry. He is available for conferences, corporate events, children's birthday parties and Bar Mitzvahs. You may access his Speakers Brief here.