CLARKSBURG -- A Thursday meeting between workers' compensation officials and area employers revealed the latter group remains frustrated with a state system still operating in the red despite a recent legislative overhaul intended to stave off bankruptcy.
About 50 employer representatives grilled the 11-member state panel for 11Ś2 hours about specific complaints. Their concerns mainly involved increasing premiums, a plethora of forms and how medical services are conveyed to injured workers.
The session, one of nine "town hall" meetings scheduled around the state, took place at the Village Square Conference Center in Clarksburg. Attendees ranged from small business owners to managers from area hospitals, colleges and government.
"What can we do to lower our premiums?" asked Jim Harris, Harrison County administrator.
His question was echoed by several others, including a small business owner who said her rates jumped an "unacceptable" $10,000 this year.
Both Harris and that businesswoman acknowledged their premium increases are mostly related to recent, costly claims.
State staff said employers trying to reign in costs have certain options, although getting unusually pricey claims off their record takes three years. Those options include getting premium credits by implementing programs that increase worker safety or help injured workers return to work more quickly. The system offers help setting up such efforts.
Greg Burton, executive director of workers' compensation, said privatizing the state-run system is not likely a premium-reducing strategy, at least for now.
Not only is workers' compensation expected to operate in the red until at least 2006, the program is carrying more than $3.6 billion in debt. He said that debt would make it unappealing for a private insurance company to take on the challenge and, if one were willing to do so, it could only make it work by enforcing huge premium increases.
Dr. James Becker, director of the program's Office of Medical Services, answered a number of other questions about the flow of medical care. He said the legislative fix made a number of cost-effective changes on that issue.
Care such as physical therapyŚchiropracty can now be capped at a certain number of treatments, particularly after an injured worker has returned to the job.
The program is also trying to contain costs by establishing a preferred-provider system that could ultimately limit which doctors injured employees can visit.
The medical office is also more closely coordinating claim managers' activities with staff nurses to ensure care is consistent with demonstrated injuries.
Several attendees also complained about old and new forms they said are confusing and sometimes slow down injured employees' return to work.
State staff said all forms are being reviewed and may be changed. They noted claim filing and tracking can now also be done on-line, which should speed things up and make it easier for employers to monitor the compensation costs that drive future premium increases.
Following the session, Burton acknowledged employers' obvious frustration. But, he said dealing with such questions provides valuable information as the program continues to implement the legislative overhaul.
He noted there is also a goodwill element to the statewide tour.
"We're trying to get buy-in to our plan to get the system fixed," he said.
Workers' compensation officials will meet with area residents in two other regional sessions. They are Dec. 11 at Davis & Elkins College in Elkins and Dec. 16 at the West Virginia High Technology Consortium in Fairmont. Both sessions run 10 a.m. to noon.
Regional Editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1447 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.