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The workers’ compensation market is seeing encouraging signs. Premiums grew for the second consecutive year, the combined ratio declined and claim frequency continued to improve at a pace slightly greater than its long-term historic rate of decline. According to the summary in the Insurance Journal, In 2012, the workers’ comp calendar combined ratio dropped six points from 2011, coming it at 109. The drop in combined ratio marks the first decrease since 2006, according to the State of the Line workers ‘compensation market analysis published by NCCI.|”By many measures, the industry condition is indeed improving,” said NCCI President and CEO Steve Klingel. “While we are pleased to see that the positives are beginning to outweigh the negatives, there remains great opportunity for improvement.”

Long-term challenges still linger over the future of workers’ comp, says Klingel. External forces such as the economy, healthcare reform, and new legislation could still negatively affect the market. “But for now, we view the overall industry condition as encouraging,” he says.

Net written premium (including state funds) also improved, increasing to $39.63 billion in 2012. The NCCI reports this is a 9 percent increase from 2011. Net written premiums increased 8 percent in 2011. The premium increases follow a cumulative 27 percent decline in premium from 2006-2010.

The report also revealed that lost-time claim frequency improved significantly in 2012 – down 5 percent on average in NCCI states. The 5 percent decline is slightly larger than NCCI’s long-term annual estimate of a of 2 to 4 percent decline per year. Previous NCCI research indicated that distortions in the calendar year premium data resulting from the recession and subsequent recovery affected our measure of claim frequency for 2010 and 2011. Current research indicates that those distortions are no longer significant for 2012.

Despite the improving conditions, the workers’ compensation line continues to deal with a variety of significant challenges, says NCCI Chief Actuary Dennis Mealy. “These include poor underwriting results, low investment yields, and continued uncertainty regarding the impact of the implementation of the federal healthcare reform bill,” he said.

Even so, the fact that the industry is seeing a return to a long-term pattern of declines in frequency and premiums are on the rise suggests that the underwriting performance of the industry, while still not good, is not as bad as it has been over the last two to three years, says NCCI’s Chief Economist Harry Shuford. “For the last three years the operating gain, which basically measures the overall profitability in workers’ compensation, has basically been zero for three years in a row,” Shuford said. “Investment income has been just sufficient enough to cover underwriting losses and there was nothing left over. This year there is some positive return due primarily from the improvement in underwriting results.” Like Mealy, Shuford told Insurance Journal that he sees investment yields as a concern for the future health of the workers’ comp market.