BrickStreet remains king of workers' comp market
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- More than 240 insurance companies have filed to carry workers' compensation insurance in West Virginia, but one company maintains half of the business in the state.
That would be BrickStreet Insurance, the Charleston-based company formed as a quasi-private company when the state decided to privatize its workers' comp business.
For a couple of years, BrickStreet was the only game in town, and all of the state's workers' comp business went there. Since July 2008, other companies have been allowed to participate in the workers' comp market. As of mid-August, 241 workers' comp carriers had filed with the state Insurance Commission.
But as of the end of last year, BrickStreet still handled 50 percent of the workers' comp premiums in the state, according to the Insurance Commission.
BrickStreet officials say the privatization has been a rousing success. They say employers' workers' comp costs have been cut in half, and workplace injuries are reported more quickly.
"Claimants are also receiving quicker care and better care today," said Greg Burton, BrickStreet's president and CEO.
"In 2006, only 10 percent to 15 percent of claims came in within 48 hours after the accident. Today, it is 50 percent," Burton said. "Medical costs are also going down. BrickStreet is working with health-care providers to get people back to work more quickly."
T.J. Obrokta Jr., BrickStreet's senior vice president and general counsel, said, "The old system generated a lot of litigation. Today, that litigation has dropped by 70 percent."
Protests about claims decisions have also dropped, Obrokta said, from about 25,000 protests in 2006 to only a projected 5,000 this year.
Both Burton and Obrokta worked for the old state Workers' Compensation Division, and moved to BrickStreet under privatization. The move was initiated under former Gov. Bob Wise and completed under former Gov. Joe Manchin.
Sue Howard, a Wheeling lawyer who has represented workers' comp claimants for many years, believes privatization "has become problematic for claimants dealing with Workers' Comp insurance carriers who are out of state and not well-trained in West Virginia law.
"It has been a nightmare for certain claimants who get claims mangers who don't properly administer their claims.
"There needs to be more information provided to injured workers about how to file complaints with the Insurance Commissioner when conduct is improper," Howard said.
"When BrickStreet started operating [in 2006], it was able to hire a lot of claims adjusters from the old West Virginia Workers' Compensation Commission, who had more experience and training. I see fewer problems with BrickStreet than with other private carriers. I think it is a training issue," Howard said.
BrickStreet also has its critics. Charleston lawyer James Humphreys, a former Democratic state senator and congressional candidate, opposed the privatization of workers' comp in the Legislature.
"BrickStreet has made an ungodly amount of money," Humphreys said. "Workers' compensation should not be about profits for a corporation. It should be about protecting and supporting injured workers.
Last year, BrickStreet collected $250.6 million in premiums and incurred $102.3 million in losses, according to its annual statement filed on Dec. 31, 2011. The company's net income was $47.1 million
In 2010, BrickStreet reported $263.8 million in premiums, $171.1 million in losses and $52.8 million in net income.
In the 2011 annual report, Burton said the A.M. Best Co., a credit-rating group that helps the financial services industry, gave BrickStreet an A-minus rating. He said that "places our company among the most financially secure insurance providers in the nation."
"Most of the lawyers who were representing injured workers seeking workers' comp have gotten out of it today. They don't do it anymore," Humphreys said.
But Ross Johnson, who owns Mountain State Insurance in Charleston, praises the company.
"The primary thing BrickStreet has done is to reduce the cost of workers' compensation. It has done that in three ways. They reduced premiums, improved workplace safety and improved claims outcomes."
Johnson, whose company has been in business since 1917, said BrickStreet's "adjusters are focused on minimizing the cost of claims and expediting medical care. They also work to create safe workplace environments.
"If there is a person gone from work, it slows production down. If employers can avoid claims to begin with, and have the claims that do happen have a shorter duration, it makes the business run more seamlessly.
As other companies make inroads into the West Virginia workers' comp market, BrickStreet has expanded its business to other states.
In April, the company acquired a small workers' comp insurer headquartered near Pittsburgh. BrickStreet has an office in Chicago and is opening up another regional office in Charlotte, N.C.
"A West Virginia business may have a plant or a mine in Kentucky or Virginia," Obrokta said. "We have to be licensed in those states to sell them workers' comp coverage."
He said BrickStreet is licensed, or has applied to be licensed, in Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.
"But we are domiciled in West Virginia. This is our core business," Burton said. "We are writing $250 million in insurance in West Virginia. Between $60 million and $65 million is out of state."
Obrokta believes BrickStreet has done better than many people thought it would after it started back in 2006.
"The state gave us a $200 million loan and 10 years to pay it back. We paid it off in 3 1/2 years," he said.
Reach Paul J. Nyden at email@example.com or 304-348-5164.