[caption id="attachment_62187" align="alignright" width="379"] (Clockwise from top left) Mark Stokes, Lynn Wallace, Bill Merget, Mike Ryan and David Weinstein[/caption]

Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed a bill that aims to control increasingly higher costs on workers' compensation premiums, but that won't stop a roughly 15 percent to 30 percent rate hike for employers in the immediate future, according to insurance brokers in the North Bay.

Although many view the reforms in Senate Bill 863 positively, the cost-saving measures won't take effect until Jan. 1. And with Oct. 1 being a major renewal date, employers will essentially have to wait and see if the measures bring their costs down.

"The market is just at a point where it's kind of a perfect storm," said Mark Stokes, managing director of Wells Fargo Insurance Services in Petaluma. Employers in certain sectors such as construction could be hit particularly hard. "It won't be a surprise to see some of them double. They're all just going to get hammered."

After Gov. Brown signed the reform bill, which aims to lower costs for employers while raising benefits for injured workers, the early response from carriers seemed to be skeptical at best.

Liberty Mutual, by most accounts a solid bellwether among carriers, filed for a 21 percent rate increase for eight of its California companies with the Workers Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau of California just three days after the reform bill was signed. Some experts think that signals the reforms would do little to stem rate hikes that have steadily plagued employers the past few years.

But the rating bureau itself altered its previous rate increase suggestion of 12.6 percent, first to 9.2 percent then to zero over average filed rates of $2.38 per $100 of payroll. That would equal a 1.2 percent decrease over the 8.6 percent advisory premium rate approved by Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones in May.

The pure premium rates are advisory and carriers are largely free to set rates.

Still, brokers said carriers can no longer underwrite policies at rates that were kept artificially low throughout the recession. In 2011 carriers paid out $1.26 on every $1 of premiums, according to the rating bureau.

"There are carriers out there that seem to be hungrier," said Lynn Wallace, president of Vantreo Insurance Brokerage in Santa Rosa. "I would say that the workers' comp market is definitely tighter than is has been in the last several years."

The 15 percent to 30 percent premium hikes that employers can expect is a conservative estimate and doesn't factor in an employer's experience-modification factor, the formula used to calculate the amount of claims made on a policy, according to Bill Merget, a principal with Edgewood Partners Insurance Company (EPIC) in Petaluma.  Those employers with that have had more claims will be hit particularly hard.

Mr. Stokes agreed, noting that certain industries like construction and trucking are facing increases of 40 percent to 50 percent.

"There's a segment of the business that is going to be impacted extremely," he said. Carriers are either limiting their underwriting or leaving the comp market entirely. "The supply of carriers and the capacity has shrunk."

While workers' comp is perhaps the most visible sign of the hardening insurance market, other lines of insurance such as property/casualty and liability are seeing similar, although less severe, rate hikes, according to Mike Ryan, a principal at EPIC in Petaluma.

"It's not just comp, in my opinion," Mr. Ryan said. "This is a correction, definitely in the work comp arena, but to a similar degree in property casualty. California is a huge insurance market, but (carriers) need to make a profit."

David Weinstein, who heads Vantreo's Comp Zone Division, said that one response to the hardening market could be an increase in alternative policy structures such as per-claim deductibles, similar to those in health insurance.  

"I think, clearly, if the prices continue to harden, we'll see more alternative plans being considered," he said.

Senate Bill 863 seeks to save businesses $1 billion next year and allow increased payments to disabled workers.

It attempts to so by changing how benefits are calculated for injured employees. It creates a binding-arbitration process to resolve disputes over coverage and eliminates coverage for certain conditions prone to more litigation, such as mental health issues and insomnia. The bill also seeks to prevent disputes with providers over payment -- known as liens.

"They're trying to bring down systemic costs enough that they can pass on savings to employers," Mr. Weinstein said. "It will be interesting to see if it plays out that way."

It could take years to determine if the reforms are effective, he said. "Right now, I would say, 'to be determined.'"Examples of workers' comp premium rate increases Pure premium rate

(per $100 of pay) Job classification20112012ChangeVineyards$3.06$4.8056.86%Wineries$3.18$3.9925.47%Electrical wiring (under $26/hr.)$4.03$5.9447.39%Truckers and forklift operators$7.48$12.0460.96%Merchandise warehouses$8.35$12.0344.07%Analytical/testing labs$1.01$1.3331.68%Professional/scientific instruments$1.21$1.6838.84%

Source: Workers' Compensation Rating Bureau