Bedford fights to control expenses

BEDFORD – With Bedford County and its connected agencies recently assessed as some of the highest workers’ compensation risks in a statewide insurance system, county officials are working to control expenses as they ride out a yearslong peak in claims.

According to 2014 data from PComp, an insurance system controlled by the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, Bedford County is ranked No. 3 of 46 members for a risk modification based on past claim history. The Huntingdon-Bedford-Fulton Area Agency on Aging is ranked No. 2, while the Bedford-Somerset mental health service is No. 7.

This year, a hike in the county’s annual insurance premium took a $40,000 bite from the planned budget. The county is set to pay more than $225,000 this year for the insurance, which covers employees’ on-the-job injury claims.

“We look at it as, oh my gosh, $40,000 – that’s 1 1/2 people, maybe two people in some jobs,” Commissioner Chairman Kirt Morris said. “That’s another person we may not be able to hire.”

The Area Agency on Aging, funded by a combination of county, state, federal and lottery money, is set to pay more than $104,000 this year for its premium – an amount far surpassing the money all its three counties allotted it this year, combined. Bedford-Somerset Mental Health/Mental Retardation, also a recipient of county money, is set to pay $215,000 for insurance.

The expense hasn’t always been this high: Until 2011, the aging agency had a lower-than-average “experience modification” number, calculated as a prediction of future risk based on recent claims, Morris said.

In 2009, the county hovered near the state average.

But the last few years have brought an increase, with county sites like the jail tallying more claims than before. While recent efforts have brought workers’ compensation claims there under control, Morris said, the risk assessment is still passing through a set of particularly bad years.

The price tag could go up again next year before officials hope it declines, he said.

Jails, with frequent physical work and occasional staff interactions with violent inmates, are likely sites for workers’ compensation claims. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics study, local government remains the most common source of injury. And within local government, the “justice administration” field records the most injuries per 100 workers.

The source of the other county authorities’ high premiums is less clear. Officials at the aging agency refused to comment, and an executive with the mental health agency was not available Friday.

Noting that he didn’t have specific data on cases, Morris said the Area Agency on Aging has noted claims from drivers of CARTs – the vans that transport older residents, many with disabilities.

“A push-pull-strain is very easy to do” when offloading a passenger on a gravel driveway, for example, he said.

The agency also employs some seniors, who might be more susceptible to falls and strains, Morris said.

While counties and agencies can’t do much to reduce current premiums, Bedford County authorities are taking steps this year to stem the problem before it grows worse.

At a meeting Tuesday, the commissioners announced that they’d appointed Chief Clerk Jill Gordon as the go-to official for workers’ compensation information. Some county departments had no clear system for reporting claims; others had outdated information, they said.

A streamlined, centralized system and a faster claims process could cut premiums, they said.

And under Warden David Kessling, the county jail has taken steps to cut claims, Morris said. During cell extractions – in which guards pull uncooperative prisoners from their cells by force – officers with a history of injury will be avoided, he said.

Grant money might also be used this summer to repair winter-damaged sidwalks, which can also hike the county’s liability insurance, Morris said at the Tuesday meeting.

Buckling and cracked sidewalks only contribute to the risk of a county worker tripping on the job and filing another expensive claim. Slips and falls are the No. 1 cause of compensation claims, he said at the meeting.

“And that’s not one of the things I want Bedford County to be noted for,” he said. “I would like to be lower on that list.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.