It is said that all politics are local, and that both politics and politicians often drive change in workers' compensation programs across the nation. I suspect that both axioms are true. A Missouri politician's “letter to the editor” addressing the workers’ comp concerns of their modest fire district tends to lend credibility to those standards. Jane Cunningham does not appear to be your average “Jane Q. Public” citizen who chose to run for a local Fire District Board because she tired of the PTA. No, she is in fact a former Missouri State Senator with an accomplished track record, and appears to have run for the Monarch Fire Protection District Board position on a platform of identifying and eliminating egregious waste in that system.

The Monarch Fire Protection District serves 62.7 square miles and is an independent taxing authority. It serves a large portion of the City of Chesterfield, and areas of neighboring communities Ballwin, Clarkson Valley, Creve Coeur, Maryland Heights and Wildwood. It also serves portions of unincorporated St. Louis County.

Chesterfield's letter, published today, directly addresses issues her district has with exorbitant workers’ compensation costs. In it, she discloses:

Monarch spends over $1 million annually on the workers' comp insurance premium alone, about 5 percent of our total $20 million budget and 65 percent more than the Mehlville Fire District that has seven firehouses compared to Monarch's five firehouses. Monarch's workers' comp experience is bad enough that the Missouri Fire and Ambulance Districts' Insurance Trust (MoFAD) is forced to add a 10-percent penalty onto the premium. Although recently there have been some fewer claims, clearly this problem cries to be addressed.

She goes on to explain that her district provides training, equipment and compensation levels that should contribute to much lower costs. She says:

Monarch provides its first responders with excellent training, top-notch fire equipment, exceptional workout facilities at each house, a safe district with strong building codes and comparatively few major fires. Our very well-paid firefighters – with well over $100,000 compensation packages, who are not overworked with 9-10 days of on-duty time per month – have exceptional medical providers available to them. Our area is the last place one would expect to have the poor workers' comp record we do.

Ms. Cunningham does not detail where the costs are, or what types of claims and how many they are dealing with. If I were to speculate, and regular readers will know I am a big fan of uninformed speculation (my way of saying I could be wrong here), but I would assume they are dealing with a disproportionate number of soft tissue injuries such as strains, sprains and invisible injuries that go bump and hurt in the night. They may also, being a public entity employing a unionized public servant work force, have additional compensation benefits that might actually incentivize extended disability.

Color me shocked if this turns out to be the case. Information on Cunningham’s election website indicating the fire fighters union vehemently opposed her election just affirms to me that I am sniffing about in the right area. Besides, it is in my disclaimer that while I am not always right, I am never in doubt, so I state this assumption with absolute confidence. 

In reality, this open letter describes workers’ comp issues on a national scale, as we continue the seemingly endless struggle to refine process, control costs and improve outcomes. Egregious waste, both through endless delay and circular processes that accomplish little, as well as benefits and resources awarded lavishly to those who do not deserve them, sap the strength and vitality of the system and prevent it from being everything it could be for the people truly in need. The Monarch Fire Protection District’s very local issue represents a much larger national concern.

Cunningham ends her letter by assuring her constituents that she will get to the bottom of this, and fix the problem for her district. With costs that are 65% greater than a larger neighboring district I would say she has her work cut out for her. I wish her well, and hope she is successful.

When she finds the solution, she should let us know what it is. An entire nation hangs in the balance, anxiously awaiting the outcome of the Monarch Fire Protection District workers’ compensation fix. Godspeed, Ms. Cunningham. We’re behind you all the way.


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