July 04--A middle ground was agreed upon by Gov. Bev Perdue and lawmakers before they left town Tuesday to address concerns that a bill to reform workers' compensation had ended up restricting public access to information about which companies carried workers' compensation insurance.
The legislation followed an investigation by The News & Observer in April that found that tens of thousands of employers do not hold workers' compensation insurance and that many injured workers never receive compensation for their injuries.
The Industrial Commission, which administers the Workers' Compensation Act on behalf of the state, often first learns a company is out of compliance when someone is hurt and appealing for help because it relies on information provided by the Rate Bureau. The Rate Bureau is a group of private insurance companies that among other things sets the rate of workers' compensation insurance and maintains policy data for all insured employers in the state.
House Bill 237 creates a task force to study the problem and recommend reforms, but one provision proved controversial: The information provided to the Industrial Commission by the Rate Bureau -- which enabled The N&O's report -- was poised to be removed from public record
That put a worker's ability to find out if his or her employer had workers' compensation insurance at risk. Currently that information is on the Industrial Commission's website.
Sue Taylor, director of insurance operations for the Rate Bureau, described the change as an effort to protect confidential and proprietary information. Among the information shared with the commission is Social Security numbers, names, addresses and payroll details, she said in an interview.
"It's all confidential, and the information we collect is not covered under public records law," Taylor said. "We share it with the commission, but that doesn't mean it should become public record."
Members of the press, including The N&O, The North Carolina Press Association and North Carolina Association of Broadcasters, said those concerns were not legitimate and called on Perdue to veto the bill or for a compromise to be reached.
Perdue signed the bill earlier this week after agreeing with House and Senate leaders on a technical amendment to address the public records concerns. That amendment, which passed both the House and Senate on Tuesday, ensures that employers' insurance policy information will remain public record while the other information will no longer be disclosed.
"This allows public access to the records and keeps investigations like the one (by The N&O) in April possible," John Bussian, a First Amendment lawyer who represents the North Carolina Press Association, said.
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