Legislators: Employers' insurance data will be public again

Lawmaker says there was no attempt to shield information

mlocke@newsobserver.comDecember 13, 2012 

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Pamela Young, chair of the N.C. Industrial Commission, speaks during the joint legislative committee on workers' compensation insurance and fraud prevention at Legislative Office Building Wednesday, November 28, 2012.

TAKAAKI IWABU — tiwabu@newsobserver.com

  • The story so far The News & Observer reported in April that as many as 30,000 North Carolina employers are dodging their responsibility to buy workers’ compensation insurance. Data used to highlight the problem were made confidential this summer by the legislature. This is just one of the problems The N&O found. A subsequent series in August reported that some businesses are avoiding some taxes and insurance, largely by classifying workers as subcontractors, hurting honest businesses. Two groups of state leaders are looking for solutions.

— Workers will soon be able to make sure that their bosses are carrying the insurance needed to protect them if they get hurt on the job.

At the urging of legislators, officials from the N.C. Rate Bureau, the state Industrial Commission and the N.C. Press Association have met and agreed to undo a change to the law this summer that made data on employers and their insurance policies private.

While legislators will need to sign off on the measure early next year, leaders don’t anticipate any hurdles. The announcement of an agreement among the interested groups came Wednesday during a meeting of a special legislative committee studying problems with workers’ compensation.

The records were made confidential this summer at the urging of the Industrial Commission and the Rate Bureau, said Rep. Dale Folwell, a Forsyth County Republican who has worked to reform workers’ compensation rules.

Folwell said that he had no idea of the impact of the measure when he was asked to make the change by Industrial Commission Chairwoman Pamela Young. Folwell said he had no intention of shielding the information from public inspection and ordered the groups last month to meet and try to reach resolution.

“Once it was made clear to everyone that Folwell hadn’t intended this, it was really a matter of saying, how do we put this back the way it was?” said John Bussian, a lobbyist for the Press Association who helped broker the agreement.

The accord is a small victory in the battle to protect workers from employers who skimp on workers’ compensation insurance. The News & Observer reported in April that as many as 30,000 employers required to carry insurance don’t. Those workers are left vulnerable, without guaranteed payment for lost work, injuries that will never heal and costly medical bills.

Worker advocates say that detecting businesses shirking their responsibilities will largely depend on consumers flagging businesses that are ignoring the law.

Pushing a bill

The N&O’s analysis in April relied upon the database of employers, their insurance carriers and effective dates of the policies. But this summer, the legislature changed the law to make much of the information confidential.

Other states, such as Oregon and Florida, make the information available on websites and use the site as a way to collect tips from consumers about businesses not carrying the insurance.

The Industrial Commission decides disputed workers’ compensation claims and has long relied upon the Rate Bureau to share its data about businesses and their policies. The bureau didn’t like the commission sharing the information, particularly to a private firm in Florida that sold the data to insurance companies soliciting new clients.

Sue Taylor of the Rate Bureau said the agency has agreed to make the data public after polling the insurance companies it represents. The companies said they were OK with making the information public.

Ray Evans, general manager of the Rate Bureau, said his agency still has privacy concerns and urged legislators to use software aimed at protecting the website against hackers.

Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Jacksonville and co-chairman of the workers’ compensation fraud committee, said he would help introduce and shepherd the bill that would make the correction next year.

Other reforms

Making the database public again is one of several measures state officials hope to enact in the coming months as they try to crack down on businesses that skimp on workers’ compensation insurance and taxes.

A separate task force of state leaders met Tuesday to discuss information sharing among state agencies and enhanced penalties for businesses that break the law by treating employees as subcontractors to dodge certain taxes and insurance. The problems have persisted for years as state agencies have failed to share information that would enable investigators to identify problem businesses.

A series in The N&O in August highlighted how employers playing by the rules have struggled to compete.

Among the reforms the task force may consider asking legislators to support:

• Educating employers on their obligations.

• Creating a shared database for agencies to consolidate information they have on employers.

• Giving more resources to state licensing boards to revoke licenses for businesses running afoul of the law.

• Prohibiting state and local governments from hiring businesses that are breaking the law.

• Enhancing penalties for businesses that misclassify workers as subcontractors.

The task force will meet again in January and present recommendations to legislators early next year.

Locke: 919-829-8927

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