Archive for June, 2006

Ben, why weren’t you wearing a helmet?

Tuesday, June 13th, 2006

Earl Weaver, the eminently quotable Baltimore Oriole Hall of Fame Manager and World Series winner, once said of the young Carl Yastremski, my boyhood idol, “He’s the best player in baseball – from the neck down.”
Weaver’s quote came to mind this morning when I learned that, while riding his Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycle (the fastest “street-legal” bike on the market, according to Susuki), Ben Roethlisberger, of the reigning Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, had been seriously injured when he drove into the side of a Chrysler New Yorker that was making a left turn in front of him in downtown Pittsburgh.
Following surgery to repair his injuries, which were mainly to his head and face, the Pro-Bowl quarterback was listed in serious, but stable, condition.
Harken back to Newton’s first law of inertia, the one about a body in motion remaining in motion until something stops it. In this case, although the the fastest street-legal motorcycle on the market stopped nearly instantaneously when it hit the New Yorker, Roethlisberger kept going until he also plowed into the side of the car (somewhere in America someone is going to refer to this as the “mother of all sacks”).
Unlike Sunday afternoons in the fall and against the advice of his coach, Bill Cowher, the quarterback was not wearing a helmet.
I’ve been planning to write about motorcycle helmets for nearly a week ever since learning that the Michigan House of Representatives, by a vote of 66-37, had voted to repeal the state’s 37 year old helmet law. But Big Ben going belly up yesterday has gotten me off the mark.
One could write for hours, days even, about the psychology involved in deciding to leave the helmet behind, but I won’t, because the science and the medicine and the logic here seem so simple. Even most of the people who don’t wear helmets will admit that they save lives, but, as an otherwise intelligent Massachusetts Representative told me a few days ago when we were debating this motorized russian roulette, “Citizens should have the ‘freedom of choice’ to decide for themselves.”
One could also write about the millions of dollars it takes to treat and care for even one victim of a serious head injury, but I won’t do that either, because the numbers have been trumpeted for decades and they don’t seem to resonate with the audience that needs to hear them.
And one could write about the statistically significant increase in motorcycle fatalities in the 20 states that have totally repealed their helmet laws and in the 26 others that only require helmets for young operators. In fact, since 1967, motorcycle deaths and serious injuries have been directly proportional to the on-again, off-again efforts of congress to either reward or penalize states regarding helmet laws. Since late 1995, it’s been off-again, and fatalities have risen 89%. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has an excellent summary of the history of helmet laws in the US.
In 2004 alone, more than 4,000 people died in motorcycle accidents – an 8% increase over 2003, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And NHTSA also reports that the per capita rate of motorcycle fatalities was 41% higher in states without helmet laws.
But none of this doom and gloom stuff penetrates what must be the really thick cranial tissue of the people who count – the ones who, above all else, want to feel the wind moving through their hair (and the bugs through their teeth) at 65 mph.
As a diehard New England Patriot fan, I really want to see Ben Roethlisberger on the field challenging my team for all he’s worth. So, I hope he makes a miraculously speedy recovery and is his old self by the start of training camp. But what would be really great, better than any football game, is if Big Ben, as soon as he’s sitting up and able to mouth coherent speech, were to make a big-time television public service announcement. A TV spot in which he would tell every kid and every football fan in America that he was wrong, that he was stupid, that he is not immortal and that he will never, ever again ride a motorcycle without wearing the best helmet made in the universe.

News roundup – PBMs, mine safety, pandemics, vacations, and IED

Monday, June 12th, 2006

PBMs – By declining to review an Appeals decision, Maine’s Supreme Court let a decision affirming a law that regulates Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs) stand. The PBM industry’s lobbying group had been challenging a law that requires disclosure of rebates, conflicts of interest and discounts from drug manufacturers. The law is an attempt to create more transparency for consumers and to ensure that discounts are passed on to payers (employers) rather than being retained by the PBM as is current practice. The District of Columbia has a similar law that is in litigation.
Safety resources – OSHA has a variety of free resources on summer safety issues, including a series of QuickCards on seasonal topics, available in both English and Spanish. And from across the pond, Britain’s Health & Safety Commission publishes a variety of employer case studies on the business benefits of health & safety.
Flu Pandemic – Public Entity Risk Institute (PERI) is hosting a Virtual Symposium on June 19-23 on preparing for a local flu pandemic. This is one of a series of free online seminars that are open to the public. Here’s a list of past topics.
Mine Safety – Commenting on the recent overhaul of mine safety rules that Congress approved last week, Jordan Barab wryly notes that our values are a bit skewed. The maximum civil penalty for violations of mine-safety regulations that could result in deaths? $220,000, up from $60,000. The maximum penalty for a “wardrobe malfunction” or other matter deemed indecent on the air by the FCC? $325,000, up from $32,500.
Euphemism of the week – In case you missed it, last week’s news was that road rage has been repackaged as intermittent explosive disorder in a study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. According to the study, IED may affect as many as 7 percent of American adults who have a tendency to ” … overreact to certain situations with uncontrollable rage, experience a sense of relief during the angry outburst, and then feel remorse about their actions.”
Vacation deprivation – are your employees turning surly lately? Well, first check to see if they have IED, and if not, it may simply be because they are feeling deprived. A recent study shows that not only do American workers have fewer total vacation days than their European counterparts, they also aren’t using all the time they have, leaving an average of 4 days on the table last year. Here’s how vacation time stacks up: U.S – 14 days; Australia – 17; Canada – 19; Great Britain – 24; Germany – 27; and France – 39. More info.

Injured Cop Walks

Friday, June 9th, 2006

Last July we blogged the story of Michael Forman, a suffolk County policeman who had been indicted for workers comp fraud. He was charged with illegally collecting $250,000 in worker’s compensation while climbing the ranks of the Bethpage Volunteer Fire Department. Disabled by “excruciating pain” in his wrist, he nonetheless was able to respond to hundreds of fire calls. In a stark demonstration that the wheels of justice can turn in unexpected ways, Forman was recently acquitted of all charges by a jury that deliberated for just three hours. When we examine the details, as provided by Julia Mead in the New York Times, perhaps the acquittal is not so surprising.
Forman had told police doctors that he was in so much pain that he could not drive or pick up objects. A surveillance video taken by police and played for the jury showed Forman trimming a tree in his back yard and using the injured hand to open doors, drive his fire department vehicle and talk on a cell phone.
However, Mead’s article points out that the videos were taken before Mr. Forman’s injury worsened and before he had surgery in April 2004. According to his attorney, the surgery to repair his wrist with a metal plate held in place by seven screws has caused his client to suffer from complex regional pain syndrome, a chronic condition requiring pain medication. Experts in the syndrome testified that Mr. Forman’s condition is “permanent and life-altering.”
One anonymous juror said that ultimately “the evidence did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt” Forman’s guilt.
Perhaps the jury was swayed by the fact that Forman was performing community service in a volunteer capacity, so on some level he wasn’t really “working.” (It’s not clear whether he was paid for his fire department work.) As we pointed out in our original blog, as a public safety officer, Forman collected 100 per cent of his average weekly wage, tax free. He makes more per hour on workers comp than he does working as a cop.
Management Drops the Ball
It’s interesting to note that at one point in this saga Forman’s doctors recommended he return to light duty with the police. Because light duty was apparently never offered, management dropped the ball in their one clear opportunity to bring this situation to a reasonable conclusion. Now Forman is applying for retirement disability, which, once granted, should free him up to do whatever he wants in his spare time. In retrospect, there was a brief window of opportunity to keep Forman active in the police department, but for unknown reasons, the opportunity was missed. Too bad for the police department and too bad for Officer Forman.

Refreshing and Progressive Proposals from New York Agents

Wednesday, June 7th, 2006

New York’s workers’ compensation system is expensive, adversarial, administratively cumbersome and, in many ways, harmful to the very people it is supposed to serve, employers and injured employees. Now, the Professional Insurance Agents of New York State (PIANY) have authored an insightful, forward-thinking and very intelligent Legislative Position paper that addresses the state’s serious workers’ compensation problems. It should be widely read and discussed.
To quote from the document:

“The present workers’ compensation system acts as a detriment to New York’s economic development and fails to function well for the benefit of workers. PIANY supports a comprehensive reform of the workers’ compensation system in New York to preserve and enhance worker benefits, prevent work-related disability and reduce inefficiency and fraud.”

PIANY’s proposals (a pdf can be found here) are refreshing, because not only do they address predictable issues such as fraud and rate setting procedures, but also because they shine a bright light on the state’s problematic benefit levels and the way it delivers them, as well as the lack of a fee schedule for prescription drugs and a slowness “to allow and encourage the workers’ compensation system to benefit from the application of managed medical care.”
Perhaps the most employer-helpful recommendation is the first one the agents make. Straight from the top they focus on workplace safety, pointing out that two major credit programs were approved by the legislature in its reform of the statute in 1996, but never implemented. The agents ask, “Why?” Pretty good question.
The PIANY has issued a clarion call for reform. Good for them.

Cavalcade of Risk debuts

Wednesday, June 7th, 2006

A new blog carnival – Cavalcade of Risk – makes it illustrious debut today – check it out. Kudos to HG Stern at InsureBlog who is the founder of this risk roundup. Here’s how he describes it:

“The purpose of the C of R is to offer insights into the world of risk management; generally, this will be insurance-related, but that’s not a requirement. Our goal is to help folks understand what risk is, and how to manage it. It’s about business and finance, of course, but it’s also about risks in our everyday lives and personal relationships.”

The Economics of Amnesty: A “Wink Wink” for the (Unacceptable) Status Quo

Tuesday, June 6th, 2006

The U.S. House and Senate have each passed a bill relating to immigration. The Bills are so far apart, it’s hard to imagine the conferees finding much common ground, other than tightening up border security. The House wants to criminalize all illegals and those who support them; the Senate wants a worker amnesty program that gradually offers illegals who have been in the country for a few years the opportunity to become citizens. As House conferee James Sensenbrenner (R- Wisconsin) says,”This is the toughest thing that I have ever been asked to do in 27 1/2 years in Congress and 10 years prior to that in the Wisconsin Legislature.”
Section 202 of the House bill may be at the center of the debate. It criminalizes a number of activities that are routinely performed by religious leaders, social service workers, health workers, and community activists. It makes criminal any act that “assists…encourages…directs or induces a person to reside in or remain in the United States…knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that such person is an alien.”
While I have little use for the hard-headed, rigid standards embodied in this House bill, I was surpised to find that Sensenbrenner seems to understand the economic implications of any change in the status quo. He is among the first public figures to address what ultimately is a fundamental problem with the Senate’s solution. It’s going to cost a lot of money.
Sensenbrenner is quoted as saying: I do not support anything that is an amnesty. The real problem with the Senate bill is that the people who would apply for amnesty would end up pricing themselves out of the market in many of the jobs that they currently hold. Amnesty is not going to be as successful as its supporters think because if someone legalizes themselves and then they end up paying Social Security taxes and state and federal securities, and increase their cost to their employer. If there are more illegal immigrants out there, they are simply going to fire the person who has been legalized and hire the illegal immigrant.
Sensenbrenner is correct. A worker in a certified amnesty program becomes a more expensive worker. Not just in the taxes paid, but more importantly in the health benefits, safety programs and workers comp insurance that provide the standard (and expensive) safety net for most workers in this country. Amnesty will drive up the cost of labor. And Sensenbrenner points out that the many illegal who are not eligible for amnesty will continue to operate as the second class workers who provide needed services for less-than-market rates.
Sensenbrenner does not envision a mass deportation of illegal immigrants. He thinks they will deport themselves: If we shut off the jobs by enforcing employer sanctions, many of the illegal immigrants will simply decide to go home because they cannot make money in the United States. And you will see an attrition. This sounds intentionally naive. Perhaps more likely, a punitive law will drive illegal workers deeper into the underground economy, where working conditions will become even worse than they are now.
Bush Speaks
Contrary to many of his policies, which shift hard to the right, President Bush has outlined a position on the immigration bill which adheres to the middle ground. Here’s a quote from a recent speech:
Some members of Congress argue that no one who came to this country illegally should be allowed to continue living and working in our country, and that any plan that allows them to stay equals amnesty, no matter how many conditions we impose. Listen, I appreciate the members are acting on deeply felt principles. I understand that. Yet I also believe that the approach they suggest is wrong and unrealistic. There’s a rational middle ground between granting an automatic path to citizenship for every illegal immigrant and a program that requires every illegal immigrant to leave. The middle ground recognizes there are differences between an illegal immigrant who crossed the border recently, and someone who has worked here for many years who’s got a home, a family, and a clean record. [Bush’s conservative critics are likely to find the time frame differential a “distinction without a difference.”]
My position is clear: I believe that illegal immigrants who have roots in our country and who want to stay should have to pay a meaningful penalty for breaking the law, to pay their taxes, to learn English, and to work in a job for a number of years. People who meet these conditions should be eventually permitted to apply for citizenship like other foreign workers. But approval would not be automatic. They would have to wait in line behind those who played by the rules and followed the law. This isn’t amnesty. It is a practical and reasonable way for those who have broken the law to pay their debt to society and demonstrate the character that makes a good citizen.
Slavery, Revisited
The fault lines on this issue are very deep and enormously divisive. There are no easy answers. The Chamber of Commerce, which supports most of the Senate bill, wants some form of guest worker program, but they will not be happy with any increases in the cost of labor. The sentiments for shutting the borders and tossing out the illegals will continue to percolate. What’s likely to happen? We’re betting on a continuation of the “wink wink” status quo. Despite the increasing carnage among illegal workers in our most dangerous industries, despite the rampant abuse of vulnerable workers, doing nothing may prove more practical than changing the nation’s laws.
We are facing a paradox similar to that of our slave-owning founding fathers. They were enlightenment thinkers of the highest order. They saw clearly the problems and paradoxes inherent in slavery, the blatant contradiction to the values embodied in new nation’s brilliant constitution. Nonetheless, they were unable to end the abominable institution themselves. They left that task to future generations. They were hopelessly addicted to cheap labor.
Well, folks, so are we. That’s why it’s so hard to envision any comprehensive solution that addresses the disparities of our second class, immigrant workforce. It’s the right thing to do, but it will hurt where we as a nation are most sensitive: in our wallets and purses.

News Roundup – WV, OH, WTC, hurricanes, and the billion dollar derriere

Monday, June 5th, 2006

West Virginia – Employers will be facing some confusion – and likely some change in rates – as BrickStreet Mutual Insurance, the entity that has replaced the prior state fund, switches over to the NCCI system of employee classification and rating. Under the prior state system, there were only 94 employee classifications, and under the new system there will be more than 470. Employee classifications all have different rates based on the risk of the work performed.
WTC Workers – Another sad story about the difficulty that Ground Zero clean-up workers are facing in securing workers compensation benefits. Many disabilities are surfacing now, but the statute of limitations was only for two years following 9/11. Mayor Bloomberg recently interceded to get benefits for a former deputy mayor who is suffering from debilitating respiratory illness.
Health care – Joe Paduda at Managed Care Matters tells us to expect national health care within about five years.
New blog – Check out our newest addition to the blogroll – InsureBlog, written by H.G. Stern, LUTCF and Bob Vineyard, CLU. It’s new to our blogroll, but not new to the Web – it’s been up for 18 months. They are launching a new blog carnival called “Cavalcade of Risk” – we’ll keep you posted.
Ohio Coingate – More developments late last week – Terrance Gasper, the former CFO of the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation, is now facing federal and state racketeering charges for violating RICO by accepting bribes and laundering money. Thomas Noe gave Gasper $25,000 in exchange for Gasper’s funneling BWC investments to Noe’s rare coin company. Apparently, Gasper’s interest in investing public funds didn’t stop at the state border – he has also been named in an influence-peddling scheme associated with the New Hampshire Retirement System, activity that occurred after leaving the BWC. You might think he would have been treading a bit more carefully after the Ohio experience began making waves, but apparently not. If the New Hampshire allegations prove true, then perhaps Mr. Gasper should be nominated to this illustrious organization.
Meanwhile, things are heating up considerably for Thomas Noe. In addition to facing both federal and state charges for stealing millions in BWC monies, he is now facing serious violations of campaign finance law by using 24 friends and associates as conduits to illegally funnel more than $45,000 to the Bush presidential campaign. Both Noe and his wife Bernadette are former Lucas County Republican Party Chairs and Bernadette Noe was Chair of the Board of Lucas County Elections. The vote tally for Lucas County was hotly disputed in the last election – it’s not particularly reassuring to know we had this dubious crew minding the store, heh?
Ohio’s Coingate is a topic we have covered several times and will no doubt discuss again. Part of the shame in this whole sorry mess is the burden and stress that this puts on all the diligent workers who are innocent of any wrong doing. The Ohio BWC had a solid reputation and embarked on many progressive initiatives prior to this scandal. It must be difficult for all the good workers to see their place of employment subject to such unflattering and harsh public scrutiny. As the Enron workers learned, when the so-called leaders fail to lead, it’s often the workers who pay the steepest price.
Misc. Insurance news
The billion dollar derriere. Thanks to RiskProf for pointing us to an fascinating article in Slate on specialty insurance for celebrity body parts. Ah, the scintillating world of insurance!
Catastrophic events. Hurricane season is here, and Specialty Insurance Blog covers an recently released AM Best Hurricane Study – if there were a $100 billion plus catastrophic event, 20 to 50 insurers would be vulnerable to failure.

Announcing Health Wonk Review #8

Friday, June 2nd, 2006

Health Wonk Review #8 – the trailblazing issue – is posted at The Medical Blog Network. Check it out – many interesting posts from some of the best and the brightest in the health wonk blogosphere. Kudos to Dmitriy Kruglyak who has done a superb job hosting. Note that he has introduced a new format and process for submitting entries for HWR and other medical blog carnivals that will make things easier for both hosts and contributors.