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Ads put state official in middle of I-1082 fight

Wed., Oct. 27, 2010

Kreidler says he opposes workers’ comp proposal

As if Initiative 1082 weren’t confusing enough, television commercials for the opposing sides now feature the same person: State Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler.

Kreidler is against the proposal, as he says on a commercial for the No on I-1082 Committee and in the state voters pamphlet. It would make the state’s current system for workers’ compensation into a good deal for insurance companies and a bad deal for unprotected workers, he argues.

But that just makes Kreidler another double-talking politician, says Save Our Jobs Washington, the committee to approve I-1082. That group’s ad shows a video clip of him saying the system needs reform while noting he’ll be in charge of regulation.

Kreidler calls the pro-I-1082 ad an attempt to divert attention from the measure with a personal attack on him. If he were a politician trying to build an empire, he said, he’d want I-1082 to pass to have another form of insurance to watch.

“I’d be the first one to say that what we have is in need of reform,” Kreidler said, but not the kind proposed by the ballot measure.

I-1082 may be the least understood ballot measure for a year in which initiatives and other proposals fill one side of the state ballot. It tries to do something the Legislature has discussed for years with little progress: change the state’s industrial insurance system, sometimes known simply as workers’ comp.

Washington is one of just four states in the nation that operates the workers’ comp system for most employers. While supporters of I-1082 refer to this as a monopoly, it isn’t quite: Some large employers are allowed to self-insure if they meet certain financial benchmarks.

Under I-1082, state and local governments would continue to use the state system, operated by the Department of Labor and Industries – usually just called L&I – which sets the rates for coverage based on an assessment of the risks of different jobs. So could any private employer. Or a business could buy a policy for workers from an insurance carrier. That would set up what’s sometimes called a three-way system.

Kreidler’s office would oversee a possible influx of insurance carriers coming into the state to offer workers’ comp policies. But his oversight would be limited, he said. They’d have to file financial reports like companies that offer other kinds of insurance in Washington, proving they are solvent and have a track record in other states.

That’s more oversight than his office currently has, supporters note.

True, says Kreidler, because a separate state agency runs workers’ comp. “I don’t have any oversight of L&I.” He estimated he’d need about 30 more people to handle the new workload from industrial insurance.

He also wouldn’t have any role in resolving complaints of workers who say their claims were unfairly delayed or denied. “I can’t require an insurer to pay.”

But the workers would have consumer protection laws and the courts behind them, supporters say.

Because the state currently sets industrial insurance rates each year without any competition, supporters argue it’s less efficient than the marketplace in which insurance companies have to compete for business. Lately they accused L&I of deliberately delaying information about the rates for 2011 until after the election.

Whether the rates will go down for businesses under I-1082 is a bone of contention between supporters and opponents, but rates will go down for workers if the measure passes. That’s because Washington currently requires workers to pay a portion of the medical fund rates, which I-1082 would end. That would shift the burden to the employers, opponents say. Employers will be paying less through lower insurance rates, supporters counter.

Both sides are drawing heavily from large contributors. A political action committee of mainly trial lawyers has given the no campaign $1.8 million, and unions representing state employees, aerospace workers and the construction trades are in for six-figure totals. Save Our Jobs has received $1 million from the Building Industry Association of Washington, which wrote the initiative and has pushed for three-way insurance for years, and has six-figure totals from the state’s insurance association as well as insurers Liberty Mutual, Hartford Financial and Farmers Services.

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