One of the great things about attending an event held by the IAIABC (International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions) is the fact that you have direct access to many of the nation’s workers’ compensation regulators. This certainly was the case this past week during the annual IAIABC Spring Forum in Kansas City. As I have found in the past, the regulators there were highly approachable.

And if you have wine in your hotel suite, you will have to chase some of them out at 12:30AM because you have a very early flight in the morning. But that is another story altogether….

Part of every annual IAIABC event is a session called the “Regulators Roundtable”, where administrators from the US, Canada, Germany and Australia review changes and challenges within their jurisdictions. At the end of this session, there is time for questions from Associate Members and other attendees at the conference.

And it just so happened that this year I had a question, and it was related to the recent disclosure that my identity has been stolen.

That ongoing experience has me thinking about jurisdictional workers’ compensation forms. As I wrote last week, we routinely maintain over 3,600 state forms representing 53 WC jurisdictions. Many of those forms mandate that the injured worker’s social security number be included with their use. Almost 1,100 of our forms contain special programming for a forms auto-population service we provide. Of those programmed forms, I know that 505, or 46%, have a field designated for an injured worker’s social security number. There is no doubt that many more in the broader collection also require it, but without a form by form review it has been impossible to know how many.

These forms are shared with TPA’s, carriers, state agencies, law offices, doctors’ offices, support vendors and more. Each transaction point represents real risk that a breach may occur and injured workers’ identities may be exploited. My question to regulators was, essentially, do we really need to continue doing this? Can’t we remove this field from most of the forms we use?

The couple regulators that responded to my comments acknowledged the concern, with one indicating they had already started the removal process on their forms. Another indicated the importance of the social security number for identification purposes; that in a world of changing addresses and names the SS# is the one constant that can identify people and their past history in comp. It was a valid point, but I think we can do better.

I understand the need for a state agency receiving the social security number of an injured worker. Once a claim number has been assigned, however, that new designation should become the primary identification tool ongoing for the life of that claim. Even previous history searches could be conducted with that claim number, when posted against a database that associates the underlying social security number within its records. The SS number still can be used for broader identification needs; it just does not need to be shared with God and everybody.

I do not blame the regulators for this situation. If ever there was an example of inheriting a cultural process, the use of social security numbers in workers’ compensation is it. Nowhere will you find a better example for the phrase, “Because we’ve always done it this way.” I do think, however, that the current batch of WC leaders need to recognize the issue and wrestle a solution out of their agencies.

One person associated with a major state agency told me privately that they had looked into removing the SS numbers some time ago, but their technology systems are so antiquated that it would be “impossible” for them to do so. This would be an area to address with the legislature, creating the urgency to get the funding and fix the problem. No politician wants to be told that they may be responsible for the financial destruction of thousands of their constituents.

This is a protracted problem with no immediate fix for many. I can assure you that it is a hot button for me, and regular readers can look forward to more on this in the future. I have asked my associates here to inventory each states group of forms, and will be periodically reporting back which states are most dependent on the social security number within their operations.

We will also let you know of positive steps taken by jurisdictions on the issue.

If we want to fix any problem, you have to be willing to focus on it, shining the brightest light possible on the issue. As an industry, we need to abandon Social Security; at least the numbers on which we currently so depend.

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