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Jan
4

2021 predictions – How’d I do?

It’s time once again to see how I did on my 2021 predictions for workers’ comp.

Today we’ll dive into the first 5 and finish up with the last 5 tomorrow.

  1.  Total premiums will stay low.
    As employment, payroll, and injury rates all remain under pressure, total premiums will remain significantly lower than we’d expect in a non-COVID, non-recession environment. We are also on the tail end of the opioid cost bubble, with actuarial projections still over-compensating for what was rampant overuse of opioids.
    Unemployment will persist at least thru the first half of 2021 – and likely the first three-quarters – helping to keep premiums lower. There are some predictions that employment will ramp up towards the end of the year; let’s hope so.
    Implications abound.

    Verdict – True. Wages did increase significantly (Good news indeed for hospitality, leisure, construction, logistics, healthcare and retail workers!) but premiums and rates mostly dropped. Florida, California, and other states saw decreases, continuing a decade (or so) long decline in rates and premiums.
    Note – Actuary Mark Priven – and I – both believe rates are still too high.

  2. Facility costs will spike.

Hospitals are in dire financial straits, with 2021 bringing no respite from the cash crunch experienced by the entire industry when people avoided facilities, put off elective procedures, or weren’t able to get care due to facility restrictions.
As desperate financial managers look high and low for any and all revenue sources, you can bet your house they’ll be focused on workers’ comp. Payers have:

    • few effective price or utilization controls;
    • an often-lackadaisical approach to cost management;
    • bill review programs and processes hopelessly outclassed by sophisticated revenue maximization technology; and
    • management that doesn’t know that it doesn’t know;

thus payers are going to see facility costs – already the largest part of medical spend – jump.

Verdict – too early to tell. We won’t know until we get 2021 data, which will be sometime in mid-Q2 for most states. I’ll go out on a limb and double-down on my prediction; facility costs – as a percentage of total spend – have increased significantly in 2021

3. Consolidation
Seems I’ve been forecasting increased industry consolidation for years…it’s not a prediction but more acknowledgment of reality. Workers’ comp is a declining industry with shrinking claim counts and flat expenses – and that isn’t going to change.

COVID has accelerated the process dramatically; with claim counts down 15-20%, there are fewer claims to adjust, fewer services to medically manage, fewer bills to pay, fewer dollars to compete for.
Because there will be fewer revenue and premium dollars next year than this, more consolidation is inevitable.
I expect this to be most pronounced among medical management firms and TPAs, and the big to get bigger. Genex/Mitchell/Coventry, Sedgwick, Concentra are all likely consolidators. Not sure about Paradigm.

Verdict – True. Paradigm has bought HomeCareConnect; Enlyte (Mitchell/Genex/Coventry) acquired QualCare (and reports indicate Enlyte is for sale); and Sedgwick is buying up tangential businesses (JND Legal Administration, Temporary Accommodations, Managed Care Advisors, and several other firms).

4.  Drugs will re-emerge as a significant problem
After several years of declines in opioid prescription volumes, it looks like things headed in the wrong direction last year.
Prior Auth requirements were relaxed, refills extended, and states loosened restrictions on prescribing. Add to that patients weren’t able to get to their PT visits and surgeries were postponed. The result – I expect we’ll see drug costs in 2020 flattened out, and opioid usage actually increased (We will know a lot more in mid-late March when I complete my Survey of Drug Management in WC).
That was last year; as COVID is returning with a vengeance, expect to see continued increases in 2021.

Verdict – False. Drug costs continued to drop in 2020 and reports from multiple industry contacts indicate that continued into 2021.

5. COVID claims aren’t going to be costly.

Despite all the caterwauling we heard back in 2020, COVID costs have been minimal. That will not change. Yes there will be long-haulers, but those will be very few indeed. Yes there will be more claims, but most will cost just a few thousand dollars.

Verdict – True. All credible research and reporting indicates COVID claim costs have been pretty low. Not surprising to those who actually have a grasp of healthcare cost drivers and treatment expenses.
More on costs here, here, and here.

The Net – 3 True, 1 False, and 1 pending.

What does this mean for me?
I’ve got to relook at my thinking re drugs and drug costs. I know as much about drugs in workers comp as anyone, and I clearly got this one wrong.  


2 thoughts on “2021 predictions – How’d I do?”

  1. Joe,
    Good 2021 track record given COVID and the unpredictability of its impact. Part of the reason that recent WC results have been so good is COVID. Claim frequency is very low and COVID claims have not been expensive. For 2022, several issues may impact results. First, how significant an impact is COVID experience having on rate indications? If the COVID years carry weight in rate level calculations, rates may become lower than is appropriate. Recent rate filings have been for material decreases in several states. Second, will claim experience change when we get back to work places rather than work at home. Third, if wages increase given labor shortages, will wage replacement rates of WC be sufficiently low that claim duration trends lower as well. I am sure there are more issues as COVID really changed many areas of WC including availability of surgery, lower motor vehicle accidents, etc. Good luck figuring out 2022.

    1. Jeff – thanks for contributing – you make several excellent points re COVID – frequency is down, COVID chains are cheap, and there’s much to watch for.

      be well – Joe

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Joe Paduda is the principal of Health Strategy Associates

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