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CAMBRIDGE, Mass.-Change may be inevitable, but it is still eye-opening to see workers compensation go from poster child to positive role model in a half-dozen years.

"Not only is there no widespread talk of crisis, but workers comp is becoming innovative," said Richard A. Victor, executive director of the Workers Compensation Research Institute in Cambridge, Mass.

About 260 people gathered at the WCRI's annual issues conference March 5 and 6 in Cambridge to hear researchers discuss a variety of topics, including return-to-work, reducing litigation and the future of managed care in the comp system.

The not-for-profit research group, which analyzes issues but does not take positions on them, is funded through contributions primarily from insurers, employers and individual workers comp administrative agencies from the United States and the United Kingdom.

At the beginning of this decade, employers complained of soaring workers comp costs, Mr. Victor noted. They sought solutions in legislative halls as well as in greater scrutiny of their own business practices and those of workers comp service providers, he said.

Insurers, faced with regulatory suppression of insurance rate hikes, left some markets and questioned the long-term survival of the private workers comp market.

A half-dozen years later, it's "a relatively active time and innovative time in the area of disability management," Mr. Victor said.

Disability managers are looking to workers compensation for lessons in return-to-work, use of networks and other managed care approaches, he said.

Insurers and product vendors also are interested in exploring profit-making opportunities; the National Council on Compensation Insurance is considering converting to a for-profit entity from a non-profit one.

"How novel. Our sleepy backwater of workers comp being an innovator that others look to," Mr. Victor said. "And, it is certainly a time of great change for those involved with workers compensation data and research using that data."

The WCRI's goal is to shift the way state workers comp systems typically improve themselves from the historic cycle of crisis-reform-crisis "to a more continuous improvement, mid-term correction, early-warning methodology," he said.

To help accomplish this, the WCRI launched two major research programs in January (BI, Nov. 4, 1996).

The institute's "CompScope" program is designed to measure the performance annually of state workers compensation agencies in meeting their goals. The WCRI has developed some special statistical methods that will allow for meaningful interstate comparisons, so states can benchmark their performances in their searches for best practices.

In the first year of the program, Minnesota and Pennsylvania will be joined by two additional states that will be chosen from among California, Massachusetts, Texas and Wisconsin, Mr. Victor said. Within the next few years, the WCRI's goal is to have about 20 of the largest states, representing 80% of the benefits paid to injured workers, participating in the program.

The WCRI's second program will emphasize finding "what works" by standardizing the measurement of outcomes and quantifying savings. Its aim is to identify system components, such as useful guidelines, that achieve the best results given the goals of workers comp: prompt, quality medical care focused on return to work and affordable costs for employers.

In addition, the WCRI will analyze state advisory boards as a change agent in addition to performing its traditional studies.

The WCRI plans to hold its next

annual issues conference March 4 and 5, 1998, in Cambridge, Mass. For

details, contact convention planner Karen Holt, 101 Main St., Cambridge, Mass., 02142; 617-494-1240, ext. 233.