I have written before about what I consider to be a true Massachusetts Miracle: The 1992 reform of the Commonwealth's workers' compensation system and the results achieved following that reform. Bottom line - premium rates in Massachusetts are among the lowest in the nation while benefits are among the highest.
To make that happen back in 1992 all of the varying and vested constituencies had to come together and enter a grand compromise where everyone lost something so that the system could flourish as it has ever since (I won't bother to mention that the current crop of folks we Americans have sent to the nation's capital might learn something from this).
Employers and injured workers have benefited hugely from the 1992 reform. Insurers not so much, especially lately. Early this year, the Massachusetts Workers Compensation Rating and Inspection Bureau, representing insurers doing workers comp business in the Commonwealth, requested that Massachusetts Commissioner of Insurance, Joseph G. Murphy, approve a premium rate increase of 18.8%. After the Division held hearings and thought about it for a while, Mr. Murphy announced that he was denying the request - all of it. Result: Status quo, just as in New York a few weeks earlier. But if you think about it, this might actually be an insurer victory of sorts, because Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley had made her own rate filing, which called for a reduction in rates of 8.8%. After Commissioner Murphy announced his decision, Ms. Coakley issued a press release saying, "The industry's request to raise rates could not have come at a worse time for small businesses in Massachusetts." She also congratulated herself and Commissioner Murphy by saying, "The decision will save Massachusetts workers compensation insurance customers approximately $175 million compared to the rates they would have paid if the proposed rate hike was approved."
The decision will also cost the Commonwealth's insurers the same $175 million.
But let's get real for a minute. As Bill Clinton said last week, "It's all about the arithmetic."
Now, there are many variables impacting premium rates in any state. For example, workers compensation medical loss costs have been rising in Massachusetts. Just a couple of years ago they comprised an enviable 36% of total loss costs; now they're up to about 40%, and rising. But I thought perhaps I could put things in perspective if I just looked at the Massachusetts evolutionary development of a few key factors since the 1992 reforms. And those factors would be workers compensation premium rate changes, wage development and the progression of the CPI. The data in the chart below is taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Massachusetts Division of Unemployment Assistance and the Massachusetts Department of Industrial Accidents (DIA), summarized in the Massachusetts Division of Insurance's Annual Report of 2010 (PDF) and DIA Circular Letter 336, dated 6 October 2010 (PDF).
In the 17 years since 1994, there have been six years with double digit rate reductions, the largest being 21.1% in 1998, five years with single digit reductions, ranging from 1% to 4%, five years without change, and one year with a whopping big rate increase of 1%. The result is that rates in Massachusetts are where they were in the early 1980s. One by-product of this situation is that many Massachusetts employers seem to have lost the sense of urgency when injuries occur.
On the other hand, the CPI has increased every year since 1994 with the exception of 2010, when there was no change (it's interesting to compare the CPI development with periods of recession; look at 2009 and 2010, for example), and the average weekly wage in the Commonwealth has grown from $586 in 1994 to $1,088 in 2010 (in 2012, it's now more than $1,100).
The result shows a steady increase in costs and a steady decline in rates. I have to say that the reductions from 1994 through 1999 were entirely appropriate; those are the result of the 1992 reform. However, the six years with reductions since then, totally 28.3%, are questionable.
The consequences of both Commissioner Murphy's current decision as well as the recent reductions are now being felt. The Massachusetts Assigned Risk Pool is growing quickly; in the last year it's jumped from 12% of the market to 15% ($152 million in premium), and that was before the decision of two weeks ago. It would not surprise me to see Pool growth accelerate in the immediate future.
You can only keep the pressure cooker's lid on for so long.