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Stakes high in SAIF struggle


If it needs reform, fine. But don't throw out a system that works well

To the casual observer, the controversy swirling around SAIF Corp. might appear to be a simple case of a public entity, riddled with corruption, using its unfair advantages to control the workers' compensation market to the detriment of policyholders, workers and competitors.

The reality is far more complicated than that, and the stakes are far higher than they appear.

Recent headlines have followed the twists and turns of an ethics complaint, a public records lawsuit and an Oregon State Police investigation. That's one front in SAIF's battle.

The other front ' Ballot Measure 38, which would abolish the public corporation ' has the potential to set Oregon's business climate back decades and cause severe harm to the state's employers and to injured workers.

It is of vital importance that Oregon voters understand the difference between the two, and vote accordingly in November.

SAIF undeniably has some questions to answer regarding its internal operations, including a lucrative consulting contract with a firm headed by former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt and the company's response to a court order directing it to turn over documents.

— Whether any wrongdoing has occurred will be determined by the courts. That process needs to run its course, and if necessary, changes need to be made.

Some of those changes already are under way. Gov. Ted Kulongoski recently asked Oregon Lottery Director Brenda Rocklin to take over as president of the corporation and determine what might be done to make SAIF more accountable.

Meanwhile, SAIF continues to do what it has very capably done for several years: provide excellent workers' compensation coverage to Oregon businesses at some of the best prices in the country. SAIF gets consistently high marks from employers and from injured workers for the quality of its services.

Measure 38 threatens to end that record of success. The initiative campaign is funded by Liberty Northwest, a subsidiary of Boston-based Liberty Mutual and the largest private workers' compensation insurer in Oregon.

Liberty Northwest's motivations should be obvious. It wants a bigger piece of the pie.

Many Oregon businesses and labor unions are united in opposition to the measure, which should be a clue to what's at stake here. If SAIF is dismantled, its policyholders will be forced to find workers' compensation insurance in the private market.

The bottom line: Don't confuse the battle over documents and public accountability with the fight over SAIF's very existence.

The lawyer who has pursued the records case against SAIF is employed by a group funded by Liberty Northwest. His motivations are obvious.

The state senator who filed the ethics complaint is concerned about the corporation's accountability and believes it needs reform, but even she hasn't called for abolishing it.

Our position is this: If SAIF needs reform, by all means, reform it. But don't destroy one of the most efficient workers' compensation systems in the country.