Report 2002-018 Summary - April 2004

Workers' Compensation Fraud:

Detection and Prevention Efforts Are Poorly Planned and Lack Accountability

HIGHLIGHTS

Our review of the State's program to reduce workers' compensation fraud revealed that:

  • Although employers are assessed annually to pay for efforts to reduce fraud in the workers' compensation system—an amount that has averaged about $30 million per year for the past five years—the Fraud Assessment Commission (fraud commission) and the insurance commissioner have not taken steps to measure fraud in the system or develop a statewide strategy to reduce it.
  • Neither the fraud commission nor the insurance commissioner has acted to ensure that the assessments employers pay are necessary or are put to the best use for reducing the overall cost that fraud adds to the workers' compensation system.
  • Shortcomings also exist in the process used to distribute fraud assessment funds to county district attorneys in a way that maximizes their effectiveness in fighting fraud.
  • Because the fraud division has not conducted adequate strategic planning, it has not met all its noninvestigative responsibilities and spends a significant portion of its workers' compensation antifraud resources investigating suspected fraud referrals that do not result in criminal prosecutions by county district attorneys.
  • The fraud division does not facilitate an effective system to obtain referrals of suspected fraud from insurers and other state entities involved in employment related activities.
  • The fraud division's special investigative audit unit lacks a program that effectively targets insurers to achieve maximum compliance with suspected fraud reporting requirements, a standardized approach to conducting audits, timely reports and follow-up, and effective penalties to promote compliance.
  • Improvement is needed in sharing information between the Department of Industrial Relations (Industrial Relations) and the fraud division to identify potential workers' compensation fraud.
  • Industrial Relations has not implemented three statutory programs intended to identify and prevent workers' compensation fraud.
  • The formulas Industrial Relations uses to calculate and collect the workers' compensation fraud assessment surcharges have, in recent years, consisently resulted in insured employers being overcharged.
  • Although Industrial Relations suspects that some insurers do not report and remit all of the fraud assessments they collect from employers, it states it does not have the authority, nor has it established a process, to verify that insurers remit all of the fraud assessments they collect from employers.

RESULTS IN BRIEF

The Fraud Assessment Commission (fraud commission) and the insurance commissioner have not adequately implemented a strategy to ensure that funds assessed against employers—averaging approximately $30 million for each of the past five years—are required and are used in the most effective manner to reduce the costs that fraud adds to the workers' compensation system.

The California Constitution authorizes the Legislature to create and enforce a workers' compensation system that requires employers to compensate workers for job-related injuries and illnesses. Employers must pay for these benefits to injured workers either by purchasing workers' compensation insurance from an insurer or directly through self-insurance. The total cost of California's workers' compensation system has more than doubled recently—growing from about $9.5 billion in 1995 to about $25 billion in 2002—giving rise to sharp increases in employers' workers' compensation insurance premiums and prompting several efforts to reform various aspects of the system. Some of these reform efforts have been targeted at combating the fraud alleged to exist in the workers' compensation system, including fraud perpetrated by workers, medical and legal providers, insurers, and employers.

One of the reform efforts, Senate Bill 1218 passed in 1991, created an annual assessment collected from employers and paid into a fund dedicated to increasing the investigation and prosecution of fraud in the workers' compensation system. This legislation also established the fraud commission, which is responsible for determining the annual assessment after considering the advice and recommendations of the Department of Insurance's Fraud Division (fraud division) and the insurance commissioner.

However, neither the fraud commission nor the insurance commissioner has acted to ensure that the assessments employers pay are necessary or are put to the best use for reducing the overall cost that fraud adds to the workers' compensation system. Specifically, no meaningful steps have been taken to measure the extent and nature of fraud in the system. Instead, the fraud commission, the insurance commissioner, and the fraud division rely primarily on anecdotal testimony from stakeholders in the workers' compensation community, unscientific estimates, and descriptions of local cases involving fraud included in county district attorneys' applications for antifraud program grants. The Coalition Against Insurance Fraud has pointed out that the most common rationale for measuring fraud is that finding an effective solution to the problem requires knowing its extent. According to the fraud division chief, lacking the necessary resources and expertise, the fraud division cannot measure the extent and nature of fraud in the workers' compensation system or determine the effectiveness of activities to deter it.

Additionally, neither the fraud commission nor the insurance commissioner has made a meaningful effort to establish baselines for measuring the current level of fraud and gauging future changes in that level. If baselines were available, it would be possible to systematically and periodically measure the level of fraud, using available data, to determine the effectiveness of programwide strategies in reducing fraud in the workers' compensation system. Instead, the fraud division collects and publishes discrete statistics showing the number of investigations, arrests, convictions, and restitutions; revealing only that some sources of fraud may have been removed, not whether antifraud efforts are cost-effective—that is, whether they have reduced the overall cost that fraud adds to the system by as much or more than what is spent annually to fight it.

Further, the fraud commission and the insurance commissioner have no overall strategy for using the funds assessed against employers to reduce fraud in the workers' compensation system most effectively and efficiently. Such a strategy could be translated into the goals and objectives, priorities, and measurable targets that state and local entities involved in fraud reduction efforts need to work effectively. These systemwide goals and priorities could be broken down into regional elements to accommodate any unique regional fraud problems. Having a measured level of fraud and a strategy for combating it could provide the fraud commission with criteria to use in arriving at the appropriate assessment to be paid by employers each year and in allocating the fraud assessment funds to state and local entities that are considered most effective in the efforts to reduce fraud.

To assure California's employers that their fraud assessment has been effectively used to reduce the amount of fraud and thereby reduce the overall cost of the workers' compensation system, the fraud commission and the insurance commissioner need (1) a systematic effort to measure the extent of workers' compensation fraud in the system and the types of fraudulent activities most responsible for driving up premiums, (2) an overall strategy to combat them, and (3) a means to periodically evaluate the effectiveness of the efforts (at both the state and local level) to reduce the occurrence of those types of fraud. Neither the fraud commission nor the insurance commissioner has met these three requirements. Simply put, they cannot justify the amount employers are assessed each year to combat fraud. According to some members of the fraud commission, one of the motivations behind the chosen funding level is to levy an assessment that allows both the fraud division and county district attorneys to maintain their current effort in pursuing workers' compensation fraud. However, at the December 2003 meeting to determine the fiscal year 2004-05 aggregate fraud assessment, one member of the fraud commission voiced her concern that the commission was voting without enough information to make an informed decision.

Shortcomings also exist in the process used to distribute fraud assessment funds to county district attorneys in a way that maximizes their effectiveness in fighting fraud. A review panel comprising fraud commission members, representatives of the fraud division and the Department of Industrial Relations (Industrial Relations), and an independent criminal expert makes recommendations to the insurance commissioner regarding how to allocate fraud assessment funds to district attorneys who have applied for grants. In making its recommendations, the review panel evaluates grant applications and uses the recommendations it receives from fraud division staff who also conduct a review of the grant applications. However, both the fraud division and the review panel fail to consistently apply criteria or document the rationale they use in making funding recommendations. Rather, each review panel member uses a personal, subjective set of criteria when developing recommendations for grant awards, without retaining any evidence of the basis of any decision. Further, the panel members do not share their decision-making criteria or rationale with the district attorneys or with other review panel members. Nor does the fraud division retain documentation showing the reasoning it used to arrive at its funding recommendations to the review panel. As a result, neither the review panel nor the fraud division staff can provide evidence justifying their decisions to recommend specific grant awards, leaving the process open to the perception that it may not be equitable.

Controls intended to restrict how county district attorneys use their grants of fraud assessment funds to pay for indirect costs are not always effective. Department of Insurance regulations allow county district attorneys three options for charging counties' indirect costs to fraud assessment grants; each option is intended to place a limit on these charges. However, one option is based on cost rate proposals approved under requirements of the United States Office of Management and Budget, without any input from the fraud commission or insurance commissioner, and does not provide the control of charges of indirect costs provided by the other two options. As a result, one county district attorney charges county administrative costs to the grant at a rate equal to 43 percent of the total salaries and wages charged to the grant.

Because the fraud division has not conducted adequate strategic planning it has not met all its noninvestigative responsibilities and spends a significant portion of its workers' compensation antifraud resources investigating suspected fraud referrals that do not result in criminal prosecutions by county district attorneys. The fraud division pays for its workers' compensation antifraud activities using its share of the fraud assessment funds—averaging more than $13 million per year over the five years ending with fiscal year 2002-03—that are levied on California employers.

Comprehensive strategic planning would require that the fraud division (1) take specific steps to identify all its responsibilities for the workers' compensation antifraud program, (2) establish and prioritize goals and define the necessary objectives to accomplish them, (3) establish timelines and action plans for completing each objective and allocate the available resources based on its priorities, and (4) define benchmarks for each activity that can be used to evaluate performance outcomes and reset targets. The fraud division has largely left all these tasks undone.

Lacking a sound strategic plan, the fraud division dedicates too few of its workers' compensation fraud resources to the noninvestigative activities that its statutory responsibilities demand. For example, the fraud division has put little effort into conducting the research necessary to measure the magnitude of the various types of workers' compensation fraud, a yardstick that could help the fraud division guide its antifraud approach and measure its actions and effectiveness in reducing the fraud problem. Further, the fraud division has not developed the information on fraud needed to prepare reports for individuals and entities overseeing the antifraud program, such as the insurance commissioner, the Legislature, and the fraud commission. However, the fraud division's ability to successfully identify goals and objectives is somewhat limited because, as previously discussed, the fraud commission and the insurance commissioner have not established a statewide strategy for the antifraud program.

In addition, our review of workers' compensation fraud cases in its case management database reveals that the fraud division could manage its investigative efforts more effectively. For example, 87 percent of the referrals of suspected workers' compensation fraud the division receives do not end up in the hands of district attorneys for prosecution. Between September 2001 and December 2003, the fraud division spent more than 16 percent of its investigative hours on cases that it closed and did not submit for prosecution. Moreover, based on past trends, one-third of the hours charged to open cases as of December 2003 will probably be spent on cases not submitted to district attorneys for prosecution. Similarly, during the same time period, the division closed 83 percent of the high-impact, high-priority cases referred to it without submitting the cases to district attorneys, frequently citing insufficient evidence as the reason.

Because the reporting requirements established by the Department of Insurance are ambiguous, independent audit reports submitted by county district attorneys participating in the antifraud program do not assure the fraud division that the district attorneys use grants of fraud assessment funds appropriately. Although an audit unit within the Department of Insurance conducts reviews of district attorneys' use of workers' compensation fraud assessment funds that are effective and have resulted in the detection and recovery of questionable expenditures, the audit unit's limited resources hinder its ability to audit all district attorneys, including those receiving the largest grants. As a result, the fraud division cannot verify that county district attorneys receiving grants use the funds in accordance with state law, Department of Insurance regulations, and the terms of the grant agreements.

The fraud division does not offer insurers an effective system for referring suspected workers' compensation fraud to the fraud division. An effective fraud referral system is important to the fraud division because its ability to investigate is dependent on the number and quality of referrals it receives. Despite a legal requirement to investigate suspected fraud and to report cases that show reasonable evidence of fraud, insurers' frequency of reporting varies significantly. In fact, some of the larger insurers in the workers' compensation system reported no suspected fraud referrals in 2001 and 2002. The chief of the fraud division stated that past regulations poorly defined when insurers should refer suspected fraud to the fraud division. The Department of Insurance and the fraud division have recently adopted emergency regulations in an attempt to better define when reporting is required. Additionally, the fraud division is currently working to increase and improve its monitoring of insurers' special investigative units, which are responsible for reporting fraud. Included in the fraud division's planned improvements is developing a new method for auditing the special investigative units.

Nonetheless, the fraud division's efforts to ensure that it receives referrals of suspected fraud from insurers still have many internal weaknesses. A lack of strategic planning has left the fraud division's special investigative audit unit without a program that effectively targets insurers to achieve maximum compliance with reporting requirements, a standardized approach to its audits that will ensure an adequate review, timely reports and follow-up on audit findings, and effective penalties to promote compliance.

Improving its ability to gather information from other departments could also help the fraud division identify potential workers' compensation fraud. Specifically, the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) within Industrial Relations investigates violations of certain labor laws, including the failure to provide workers' compensation insurance and benefits to employees. However, the DLSE does not routinely refer its findings to the fraud division for consideration of possible criminal prosecution. During 2003, the DLSE cited nearly 1,300 employers for failing to provide workers' compensation insurance and benefits for their employees. Having information on some of these cases, particularly those involving repeat offenders, might have alerted the fraud division of noncompliance with the law and helped it detect potentially fraudulent activities. The fraud division chief told us he has sought to improve information sharing between the fraud division and divisions within Industrial Relations.

Further, Industrial Relations has not implemented three mandated programs that would enhance efforts to identify and prevent workers' compensation fraud. Recent legislation required the DLSE, in conjunction with the Employment Development Department and the Workers' Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau, to establish a program to identify employers that fail to secure workers' compensation insurance for their employees. This requirement is similar to a pilot project that demonstrated that such a program provides an effective and efficient method for discovering illegally uninsured employers. Industrial Relations' Division of Workers' Compensation (DWC) is also required by recent legislation to implement a protocol for reporting suspected medical provider fraud and a program to annually warn employers, claims adjusters and administrators, medical providers, and attorneys who participate in the workers' compensation system against committing workers' compensation fraud. Notification of the legal risks is regarded as an important step in deterring fraud.

Finally, improvement is needed in the process used to collect the fraud assessment funds that finance increased antifraud activities. Specifically, the formulas Industrial Relations uses to calculate the workers' compensation fraud assessment surcharge rates have, in recent years, consistently resulted in insured employers being overcharged. In addition, Industrial Relations suspects that not all insurers correctly report and remit all the workers' compensation fraud assessment surcharges they collect from employers. Industrial Relations estimates that a range of roughly $8 million to more than $13 million has been unreported and unremitted during 1999 through 2001. However, Industrial Relations stated it does not have the authority, nor has it established a process, to verify that insurers remit all of the fraud assessment surcharges collected from employers.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To better determine the assessment to levy against employers each year for use in reducing fraud in the workers' compensation system, the fraud commission and the insurance commissioner should direct the fraud division to measure the nature and extent of fraud in the workers' compensation system. To establish benchmarks to gauge the effectiveness of future antifraud activities, these measures should include analyses of available data from insurers and state departments engaged in employment-related activities, such as Industrial Relations and the Employment Development Department. In addition, the insurance commissioner should consider reactivating an advisory committee comprising stakeholders focused on reducing fraud in the workers' compensation system to contribute to the data analyses, provide input about the effects of fraud, and suggest priorities for reducing it. This advisory committee should meet regularly and in an open forum to increase public awareness and the accountability of the process.

Given the nature and extent of fraud in the system, the fraud commission and the insurance commissioner and his staff should design and implement a strategy to reduce workers' compensation fraud. The strategy should be systemwide in scope and include objectives, priorities, and measurable targets that can be effectively communicated to the fraud division and the county district attorneys participating in the antifraud program. Efforts to achieve the strategy targets should be both a condition for receiving awards of fraud assessment funds and a measure of how well the fraud division and the county district attorneys pursue the systemwide objectives. The strategy should clearly define the roles and responsibilities of the participants in antifraud activities.

To gather the information it needs to determine the annual amount to assess employers to fight fraud in the workers' compensation system, the fraud commission should take the following steps:

  • Revamp its decision-making process so that it includes the best information available, including (1) the results of the Department of Insurance's analyses of the nature and extent of fraud in the workers' compensation system, once they are completed; (2) analysis of the effectiveness of efforts by the fraud division and district attorneys in the prior year to reduce fraud in accordance with their respective antifraud program objectives; and (3) any newly emerging trends in fraud schemes that should receive more attention.
  • Request an annual report from the fraud division that outlines (1) its objectives from the prior year that are linked to measurable outcomes (2) and its objectives for the ensuing year, together with estimates of the expenditures the fraud division needs to make to accomplish those objectives.
  • Request, in addition to the information currently required of each county district attorney planning to participate in the antifraud program, a report listing the district attorney's accomplishments in achieving the goals and objectives outlined in the prior year's application and the goals and objectives for the ensuing year. The report should also include the estimated cost of the grant year's activities to achieve the district attorney's goals and objectives and a description of how those goals and objectives align with the program goals described by the fraud commission and the insurance commissioner.

To better ensure that fraud assessment funds are distributed to district attorneys so as to most effectively investigate and prosecute workers' compensation fraud and increase their accountability in using the funds, the fraud commission and the insurance commissioner should take the following steps:

  • Develop and implement a process for awarding fraud assessment grants that provides for consistency among those making funding recommendations by incorporating standard decision-making criteria and a rating system that supports funding recommendations.
  • Include in the decision-making criteria how well county district attorneys' proposals for using fraud assessment funds align with the strategy and priorities developed by the fraud commission and the insurance commissioner, as well as the district attorneys' effectiveness in meeting the prior year's objectives.
  • Document the rationale for making decisions on recommendations for grant awards.
  • Change the past policy of awarding the base portion of fraud assessment grants to county district attorneys exclusively on whether they submit a completed application by required deadlines and instead, make recommendations for total grant awards, including the base allocations, on evaluations of county district attorneys' plans that include how they will use the funds, as required by Department of Insurance regulations.
  • Continue current efforts to establish performance measures to use in evaluating the effectiveness of the fraud division and participating district attorneys in reducing workers' compensation fraud. The measures can also assist in determining recommendations for grant awards to the county district attorneys and the fraud division.

To ensure that it fulfills all aspects of its role in the workers' compensation antifraud program, the fraud division should take the following steps:

  • Recognize its responsibilities beyond investigating fraud: (1) conducting the research needed to advise the fraud commission and the insurance commissioner on the optimum aggregate assessment needed by the program annually to fight workers' compensation fraud, (2) using documented past performance and future projections to advise on the most effective distribution of the funds assessed to investigate and prosecute workers' compensation fraud, and (3) reporting on the economic value of insurance fraud and making recommendations to reduce it.
  • Modify its business plan to meet noninvestigative responsibilities, including establishing appropriate goals and objectives, activities, and priorities.
  • Establish benchmarks to measure its and the district attorneys' performance in meeting goals and objectives and to determine whether the antifraud program is operating as intended and resources are appropriately allocated.
  • Reevaluate the process it has established for insurers and other state entities involved in employment-related activities to report suspected fraud. The fraud division should identify the type of referrals and level of evidence it requires to reduce the number of hours it spends on referrals that it ultimately does not pass on to county district attorneys for prosecution.
  • To justify the use of fraud assessment funds, the fraud commission and the insurance commissioner should require the fraud division to conduct a return-on-investment analysis for the workers' compensation antifraud program as a whole and to annually report the results to the fraud commission and the insurance commissioner.

To improve the level of assurance contained in the independent audit reports submitted by county district attorneys regarding fraud assessment funds being spent for program purposes, the fraud division should do the following:

  • Clarify its expectations for the independent audits by seeking a change in the Department of Insurance regulations that require audit reports to provide an opinion on county district attorneys' level of compliance with key provisions of the applicable laws, regulations, and terms of the fraud assessment grants.
  • Ensure that county district attorneys comply with the independent audit requirements and submit their audit reports in a timely manner.

To ensure that it receives the suspected fraud referrals it needs from insurers to efficiently investigate suspected fraud, the fraud division should continue its efforts to remove the barriers that prevent insurers from providing the desired level of referrals. Additionally, the Department of Insurance should seek the necessary legal and regulatory changes in the fraud-reporting process. Barriers to adequate referrals include the following:

  • Lack of a uniform methodology and standards for assessing and reporting suspected fraud.
  • Regulations that poorly define when insurers should report suspected fraud to the fraud division.
  • Perceived exposure to civil actions when criminal prosecutions of referrals are not successful.

Given the number of referrals of suspected fraud cases by insurers that the fraud division has decided not to investigate because of a perceived lack of sufficient evidence, the fraud division should work with insurers to reduce the number of referrals that are not likely to result in a successful investigation or prosecution, thereby preserving limited resources. It should also work to ensure that the referrals that insurers do make contain the level of evidence necessary for the fraud division to assess the probability of a successful investigation and prosecution.

Once the fraud division has determined the level of evidence included with the suspected fraud referrals it needs from insurers, it should implement a strategy for its special investigative audit unit to focus the unit's limited resources on determining whether insurers are following the law in providing the referrals the fraud division needs.

To help the fraud division investigate employers that fail to secure payment for workers' compensation insurance for their employees, the DLSE should track employers that do not provide workers' compensation insurance for their employees and report to the fraud division any employer that repeatedly fails to provide workers' compensation insurance.

To ensure that it effectively targets employers in industries with the highest incidence of unlawfully uninsured employers, the DLSE should establish a process that uses data from the Uninsured Employers Fund, the Employment Development Department, and the Workers' Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau, as required by law.

To provide a mechanism to allow reporting of suspected medical provider fraud, the DWC should implement the fraud-reporting protocols required by law.

To help deter workers' compensation fraud, the DWC should warn participants in the workers' compensation system of the penalties of fraud, as required by law.

To avoid overcharging the State's insured employers for the workers' compensation fraud assessment, Industrial Relations should work with the Workers' Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau to improve the accuracy of the projected premiums for the current year, which it uses to calculate the fraud assessment surcharge to be collected from insured employers.

To make certain that insurers do not withhold any portion of the fraud assessment surcharge, Industrial Relations should seek the authority and establish a method to verify that insurers report and submit the fraud assessment surcharges they collect from employers.

AGENCY COMMENTS

The insurance commissioner, Fraud Assessment Commission, and the Labor and Workforce Development Agency generally agree with our recommendations and each provides comments on our findings. Our comments follow their respective responses.


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