The new report, “Workers' Compensation: Benefits, Coverage and Costs, 2006,” is the eleventh in a NASI series that provides comprehensive national data covering all types of employers. The study found that nationally, workers' compensation payments for injured workers fell by 1.5 percent to $54.7 billion in 2006. The payments include $26.5 billion to providers of medical care and $28.2 billion in cash wage replacement benefits for injured workers.
California payments fell by 7.2 percent, mainly due to a 13.4 percent drop in payments for cash benefits. California medical spending changed little in 2006, after recording a 16.0 percent drop in 2005.
"The reduced spending for cash benefits in 2006 and for both medical care and cash benefits in 2005 reflect the cost containment measures that were put in place in 2003 and 2004 reforms to the California workers' compensation system," said NASI member Christine Baker, who directs the California Commission on Health and Safety and Workers' Compensation, a nonpartisan labor-management group that advises state policymakers.
Because it is a large state – accounting for 18.6 percent of national benefit payments in 2006 – California altered national trends. Outside California, total workers' compensation payments were almost unchanged in 2006 ($44.5) compared to the prior year ($44.6).
In 2006, employers paid a total of $87.6 billion nationwide for workers' compensation. A sharp drop in California employers' costs (of 16.6 percent) led to a small drop for the nation (1.5 percent). Outside California, employer costs for workers' compensation rose by 3 percent.
Workers’ Comp Trends
The new report tracks trends since 1989 in workers' compensation benefits and employer costs relative to total wages of workers covered by the program. Relative to wages, total payments for cash and medical care were the lowest in 18 years ($0.99 per $100 of wages). Employer costs also declined relative to wages in 2006 – to $1.58 per 100 of covered wages.
Strong wage growth in 2006 helped account for the decline in benefits and costs as a share of wages. Covered wage growth was 6.3 percent in 2006, the highest since 2000.
The NASI report compares the trend in workers' compensation cash benefits and Social Security disability insurance benefits, each as a share of payrolls covered by each program. Trends in the two programs have moved in opposite directions since 1980. When workers' compensation cash payments rose in the 1980s, Social Security disability benefits declined as a share of payroll. After 1990, workers' compensation cash payments to workers declined and Social Security disability insurance payments rose as a share of payroll.
“The difference in the trends in workers' compensation and Social Security disability insurance payments suggest that retrenchment in one program may cause injured workers to turn to the other program for benefits to replace their lost wages,” said John F. Burton, Jr., chair of the panel that oversaw the study.