CHARLESTON - West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin might remove his "Open for Business" slogan from highway signs on the state's borders, but he won't stop saying it.
Manchin pitched the slogan to insurance executives from around the nation at a Sept. 5 forum on workers compensation at the Marriott Hotel.
He wants the insurers to start writing workers compensation next July 1, when West Virginia introduces competition after 94 years of monopoly.
That same day, reacting to complaints about the slogan, he announced a Web site poll on whether he should pull it off signs at the borders.
In his pep talk for an audience of about 200 at the Marriott, he made it clear that if the slogan doesn't stay on the signs, it will stay on his lips.
"When you push the button for change, you don't know what will happen," Manchin said, noting that West Virginia didn't have the luxury of resisting change.
"We couldn't attract investment. We had to change our whole approach."
He said that when he set out to reform workers compensation, people told him he was crazy and it would never happen.
He said he found out that nobody was happy. He said business objected to the high cost and labor objected to the slow service.
He said the state carried a $3 billion unfunded liability. He said in three years the state has paid down $1 billion of unmanaged debt while reducing taxes by $300 million.
"West Virginia is a good place to do business," Manchin said
He said people asked why he changed the slogan. He said for 15 years there was nothing on the signs.
He said "open for business" didn't mean government would run like a business.
"Government was never designed to run as a business," he said, adding that a business has a single person making decisions and government has three branches.
"It's hard to get consensus when you have three bosses," he said.
He said that at his first meeting of governors he sized up the competition.
"I put them on notice that if you snooze, you lose," Manchin said.
He then addressed the insurers directly.
"Government is going to be your partner, so you better pick a good one," Manchin said. "Does anyone want you to succeed as much as we do?"
They gave him a standing ovation.
While Manchin gave the insurers a few minutes, insurance commissioner Jane Cline gave them the whole day.
Cline and her staff answered every question they could, and for questions they could not easily answer she proposed to arrange another forum.
When someone asked about safeguards against fraud, Cline said, "Fraud has been a huge part of the problems in workers compensation."
She said her department has a fraud unit with undercover vehicles and support from state police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
She said the department publicizes fraud indictments and convictions.
"We want to work to get it out of the system," Cline said.
When someone asked if test auditors scored carriers, Cline said, "No, we are trying to make West Virginia open for business."
That drew laughter.
"We want to have the right amount of regulation and be fair," Cline said.
When someone asked why West Virginia requires officer and owner information, staff attorney Mary Jane Pickens said, "It's highly unusual. We may be the only state that requires it."
Cline said, "We had a very broken system with a lot of fraud and abuse, and so you see a lot of features that you wouldn't see in a normal market."
Cline's medical director, James Becker, said a chiropractor declared 14 percent disability in every case because 15 percent required an independent examination.
He said the state automatically paid each claim and sent the chiropractor $300 for each evaluation.
"That has been stopped," he said. "That's one of many stories of how the system gets all goofed up."
Deputy insurance commissioner Bill Kenny said any insurer with a certificate of authority to write casualty insurance can write workers comp.
He said BrickStreet, the private insurer that the Legislature created, is fully aware that it will not have 100 percent of the market after July 1.
"They have nothing in place that locks any business to them except state agencies, which are mandatory through 2012," Kenny said. "They are not going to hand you the business but it is going to be available to you."
Wednesday's turnout delighted Cline. She said 181 people registered. She said 40 insurance companies sent representatives.
According to a registration roster, Travelers sent nine executives and Wells Fargo Disability Management sent seven.
Charleston attorneys Henry Bowen, Jeffrey Brannon, Mark Grigoraci, Michael Kawash, Ed Oxley and Allen Prunty registered.
So did attorneys John Blair and Kendal Partlow of Logan, Michael Estep and Steve Wellman of Huntington, and Mary Snead of Clarksburg.