I received an email Thursday night from BJ Dernbach, Division Administrator for the Wisconsin Workers Compensation Department of Workforce Development. Mr. Dernbach politely informed me that our recent survey of jurisdictional workers’ compensation forms missed an important fact in his state. He also rightly requested that I correct the record for our readers.

With my apologies for the error, the record will now stand corrected.

We originally listed Wisconsin as having the highest percentage of total workers’ compensation forms requiring the entry of a social security number. It turns out that only 4 of their forms require the social security number. The remaining 25 forms with that field contain a notation that inclusion of the number is voluntary, but will speed processing of the claim. Our review missed that notation.

While their percentage of total forms that contain the field is still the highest, the voluntary designation earns them the same acknowledgment we gave other states with that policy. They officially come off the bad list.

They’re going to have to return their trophy. Something tells me that won’t be a problem. Please note my living room window is not the portal through which it should be returned.

This has been a balancing act of sorts, as the attempt here has been to criticize the process without criticizing the people behind it. As I’ve written previously, I don’t blame the regulators for the problems we have across the nation regarding the potential exposure of social security numbers. I’ve had the privilege of meeting numerous regulators over the years, primarily through my affiliation with SAWCA and the IAIABC. Some of them I now consider friends. They are all, to a person, very good people attempting to perform a very difficult job. This current topic is literally the best example of the adage “This is how we’ve always done it”; every regulator in position today inherited a system where dependency on this number is fully ingrained. In many cases the process is defined by statute. My efforts here are to raise awareness to the flaws of that method and spur a change for the better.

With that in mind, I do have a bit of advice for the states still dependent on the social security number for “efficient” management of a claim.

Regarding Wisconsin, we do acknowledge that we missed the voluntary notation. As we were reviewing why that may be, we observed that the notation, which reads, “Provision of your Social Security Number (SSN) is voluntary. Failure to provide it may result in an information processing delay”, is generally included in a block of instructions and other text at the top of the forms. It is somewhat easy to miss (and we were looking for it). A less important observation is that it tells the user “your social security number” is not mandatory, when the person filling out the form is often not the injured worker – the one with the number at risk.

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Massachusetts, another such state with a voluntary SSN policy, includes an asterisk in the social security number field that signals to a user that a special instruction exists for that area. If Wisconsin were to simply add an asterisk or other notation symbol within the SSN field, it would make their voluntary status much more visible to the everyday user.

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Bottom of MA Form View

Another example where form design can make a difference is in Pennsylvania, where they accept either a SSN or an agency generated WC ID. Their forms clearly signify that inclusion is an “either or” proposition.

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Of course, there is a concern with the voluntary methods deployed by Wisconsin, Massachusetts and a few others. Informing users that not providing the social security number will slow the process of the paperwork likely doesn’t discourage actual use of the social security number. This is especially a concern in jurisdictions where late processes can equal big financial penalties.

The best methods are still those in use by the states of Maine and Connecticut. They simply don’t use the numbers on their forms. Georgia, Minnesota and Pennsylvania have developed a very workable alternative. After the submission of the notice of injury, they establish a unique ID, and allow it to be used in place of the SSN. They simply need to work to make that mandatory rather than optional.

I recognize that in many cases, regulators are trapped between limitations of their technology and the design of their statutes. While the change sounds quite simple on the surface, in many states it will take an act of the legislature to allow regulators to move away from dependency on this number. They need to be freed to make the move, and they must be given the systems that will accommodate it.

The sooner that happens, the better off everyone will be.

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