Passing of Torch at California Workers’ Compensation Institute

By Don Jergler | March 7, 2013

Workers’ compensation wonk Alex Swedlow will become the fourth president of the California Workers’ Compensation Institute in 50 years following the announced retirement on Monday of J. Michael Nolan as president of the group.

Nolan’s retirement is effective May 1. CWCI’s board of directors named Swedlow, CWCI’s executive vice president for research, as his successor.

Nolan said the retirement comes at a time when he wants a sabbatical and it follows a busy and highly public period during which CWCI served as an information provider and consultant as California lawmakers and worker’s comp stakeholders worked to revamp the state’s unwieldy system.

“I feel in some ways I’m going out after you win the World Series,” Nolan said, adding that he’s happy to be passing along the reigns to Swedlow. “It’s his time to step up to the plate.”

Effective April 2 Swedlow becomes the fourth president at CWCI in nearly 50 years. Swedlow formally joined CWCI in 2000 as executive vice president of research, where he focused on data development and research on cost drivers, evidence-based medicine, opioid utilization, litigation and alternative dispute resolution, access to care, return-to-work and key performance indicators of the 2002-2004 and 2012 California workers’ compensation reforms.

Prior to that, Swedlow was an independent consultant to CWCI from 1988 to 1999. In 1998, he served as the systems architect and project manager for the Industry Claims Information System Project.

Like Nolan, Swedlow’s message on the leadership change was focused on California’s new workers’ comp law, Senate Bill 863, and ensuring CWCI stays out in front on tracking changes and trends created by the sweeping reform as well as changes coming to the healthcare system from the implementation of the Affordable Health Care Act.

“I think what the board has signaled in asking me to step into this role is a doubling down on our research and data development,” Swedlow said. “There’s an increased emphasis on being able to track and trend various aspects of our California workers’ compensation system. It’s a time of system-wide change and with that a need for better data and more timely analysis.”

He added, “Michael is a tough act to follow. It’s been great working with him these last 12 years and he leaves us in a strong position.”

Nolan joined the Institute in 2001 as successor to former president Ed Woodward. His insurance career spans more than 40 years, including 10 years at Argonaut Insurance, where he was senior vice president, general counsel and secretary.

At CWCI Nolan served on a number of government and private advisory committees, including working groups of the California Division of Workers’ Compensation, the Commission on Health and Safety and Workers’ Compensation, the Department of Insurance, the California Workers’ Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau and RAND Corp.

Nolan also testified on workers’ comp issues at public hearings of the California State Legislature and administrative agencies, including last year’s workers’ compensation reform hearing that culminated in the enactment of the 2012 reform bill SB 863.

“It’s been an amazing ride, but the ride has been a cycle,” Nolan said. “We’ve had the worst of times and the best of times. And depending on which stakeholder community your from, your best may be somebody else’s worst.”

Not too long after Nolan took the helm of CWCI, workers’ comp combined ratios were reaching epic proportions, hitting roughly $6 per $100 of payroll around 2003 when he steered CWCI through the millennium’s first round of workers’ comp reforms in 2003 and 2004 under Gov. Gray Davis and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“After that the cost per $100 of premium plummeted,” Nolan said, adding, “from the insurance industry standpoint they were good years.”

Good combined rations and frequency declines were good for the industry, but some of those reforms led to drops in permanent disability benefits below what employers and labor eventually decided what they should be, which led to the SB 863 reforms.

After earning his law degree from Georgetown University in 1971 Nolan went to work for a string of insurance groups and holding companies working on securities laws, acquisitions and divestitures, and eventually got licensed to practice law in Maryland, Virginia and California.

Following his retirement from CWCI and a short sabbatical, Nolan intends to reenter the insurance industry or corporate-regulatory law field.

He said he’d consider something fulltime, possibly another post with a nonprofit like CWCI, “if something else comes my way.”

Nolan, who is 67, noted the break in work is allow him to tackle a number or chores his wife has waiting for him, “including cleaning out the garage” of his Danville home.

“It’s that time in my life where one chapter closes and another chapter starts,” he said.

Tom Rowe, president and CEO of State Compensation Insurance Fund and chairman of the CWCI board, hailed Nolan’s leadership.

“We knew this day would eventually arrive, and extend our sincere appreciation to Michael for all his contributions to CWCI, its members, and the California workers’ compensation system,” Rowe said in a statement. “Under Michael’s steady and insightful leadership, CWCI has remained an indispensable resource for our members and the industry by generating reliable data that helps them make informed business decisions, track industry trends, and analyze key issues in the industry.”

CWCI was established in 1964, and is a private, nonprofit organization of insurers licensed to write workers’ comp in California, as well as public and private self-insured employers, who serve as associate members.

Oakland-based CWCI’s primary function is to generate data that can be used to identify and monitor system-wide trends, assist members in assessing their own operations, and to analyze key issues of interest to the workers’ comp community and public policymakers. CWCI members include insurers that write roughly 80 percent of the workers’ comp business in the state, and two dozen public and private self-insured employers.

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