North Carolina officials have found a way to resolve media groups’ concern over public access to some employers’ workers’ compensation information while maintaining the confidentiality of other records.
Media groups had called for Gov. Bev Perdue to veto a bill that keeps private all information showing if an employer is complying with the state’s workers’ compensation law but Perdue signed the bill.
Under state law, employers are required to inform the state-run Industrial Commission when they purchase, renew or cancel a policy. However, that information is collected by the North Carolina Rate Bureau, a non-profit entity set up by insurance companies for the purpose of setting rates.
The Rate Bureau had initially convinced lawmakers to enact a law based on the argument that since its information is proprietary it should remain that way despite being forwarded to the state, which has an open public records law.
But after a lobbying effort by the North Carolina Press Association, the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters and others, Perdue and lawmakers changed course and agreed to modify the law she approved just two days earlier by placing an amendment in a S847, a legislative conference committee report generally used to correct technical statutory errors contained in other bills.
Under the change, media groups will continue to have access to an employers’ coverage information.
John Bussian, an attorney who specializes in First Amendment cases and represents the North Carolina Press Association, said getting Perdue and lawmakers to make the change did not come without the continued opposition.
“This was a lot of moving heaven and earth and do something so simple,” Bussian said. “Why these people would fight so hard to keep this information so secret is beyond me.”
Bussian said that it came down to a matter of “political brinkmanship.” Faced with the potential veto of the entire law, he said the Rate Bureau and Industrial Commission agreed to the change.
The law also allows the Industrial Commission to adopt by rule fees for medical services and calls for for fees to be charged for witness testimony and communications with health care providers. The law also creates a committee to investigate the state’s fraud and compliance efforts.
“They were sufficiently interested in saving the rest of the law to put the public records language back into law,” Bussian said.
North Carolina Rate Bureau Director of Insurance Operations Sue Taylor said the bureau is satisfied with the latest changes in the law since it will restrict the public information it provides to the commission to an employer’s coverage status.
Other information such as an employer’s Social Security number, experience modification factor or rates will remain proprietary.
“We will let them know when an employer purchased a policy, renewed a policy, and cancel a policy,” Taylor said.
North Carolina’s workers’ compensation system has been under scrutiny since earlier this year when the News & Observer reported that thousands of employers skipped out on purchasing workers’ compensation coverage.
Additionally, reporters found that in cases where the state-run Industrial Commission said that employers failed to have coverage, it rarely penalized the employers who by law could be fined $100 dper day, plus the cost of any benefits and medical expenses the injured worker should have collected.
Media groups said unless employers’ coverage information is open to the public it would stop them from informing the public about these problems.
“If the data from the N.C. Rate Bureau is made private we would have not been able to publish these stories,” said News & Observer Executive Editor John Drescher.