Governor Andrew Cuomo inherited a century-old workers' compensation system in extreme dysfunction, caused by years of neglect and special interest lobbying. Independent research, such as studies by the Workers' Compensation Research Institute, shows that compared to other states, New York’s system is slow to pay injured workers and produces poor medical outcomes. It is undisputed that prompt delivery of benefits is good for injured workers and reduces employer costs. Yet those most in need receive least, our workers wait longer for benefits, and our costs to employers are the fifth highest in the nation. Things needed to change.
Already, under Governor Cuomo’s administration, the Workers’ Compensation Board has been aggressive in improving the system. We fully implemented and continue improving upon the 2007 Reform. That was followed by an increase in the minimum benefit from $100 to $150, protecting New York’s most vulnerable employees. Simultaneously, the Board tackled the high and rising cost of workers' compensation assessments on employers. In March 2013, Governor Cuomo signed the Business Relief Act, which included $800 million in assessment savings to employers in 2014 – a drop from 18.8% to 13.8% of premium. Ensuing years will see assessment savings of $300 million. Employers are already realizing the benefits of this legislation.
Next, the Board is upgrading its aging technology and outdated business processes with two key initiatives. We are implementing electronic reporting, or “eClaims,” revolutionizing the haphazard paper reporting process of injuries and payments that the state has used for almost a century. For the first time, the Board will know when injuries occur and when payments are made. True oversight will be possible.
No agency can properly regulate a $7 billion, 21st century system on a 20th century platform. Our claims system was designed nearly 20 years ago, before the Internet age. The new claims system we build must improve employee and employer experience by leveraging technology and well tested, industry best practices.
When large organizations seek to improve overall performance, they commonly embark on a “business process re-engineering project” or BPR. The Board’s second key initiative is a BPR focused on designing a system that functions better for all our constituencies. The study will guide changes to processes and assess how to use technology to better serve employees and employers.
The Board cannot succeed acting in isolation. Consequently, we are in the midst of unprecedented public outreach. We are gathering ideas from injured workers, businesses, public employers, organized labor, healthcare providers, insurance carriers, attorneys, and other industry professionals through a variety of forums and focus groups.
Our most concerted outreach is to the injured workers who are the heart of our system. Our dedicated injured worker focus group, labor groups around the state, injured worker days in our offices, and an ongoing injured worker survey with 6,000 responses to date all contribute to this initiative.
To be transparent and build trust, we regularly post our outreach schedule and the comments we receive to our website (www.wcb.ny.gov). When the study concludes, the Board will post final recommendations and an implementation roadmap.
For the first time in a long time, the Board is systematically identifying and fixing the fundamental problems in our system. Improving a system that decayed for decades is not easy. Not every vested interest will agree on every recommendation. Interest groups that profit from dysfunction will defend this indefensible status quo. Guided by our core belief that everyone benefits from timely and appropriate lost wage benefits and medical care, the Board is ready for the challenge and is committed to fighting for a better workers' compensation system in New York State.
First published in The Buffalo News, January 12, 2014.
Jeffrey Fenster, Esq., is executive director of the New York State Workers’ Compensation Board.