Your Biggest Unmeasured Cost

Workers' comp claims often have a psychological overlay that creates huge, subtle problems. There are four ways to tackle the issue.

Some claims resolve unremarkably. People heal, they go back to work, they resolve their claim around permanent impairment, if any, and adapt to their post-injury circumstances. We don't focus on those claims. They simply pass through the system, without fuss and without remark. There are no water cooler conversations about the claimant who did what was expected of him or her. This group represents about 80% of our claims, but only about 20% of our resources in loss costs and processing headaches. There's another much smaller group that do attract our time, attention and concern. They are the claims, often with similar injuries to those that heal unremarkably, that fail to resolve, demand disproportionate amounts of time to administer, result in serial disputes and cost significantly more. They cause considerably more wear and tear on claims personnel and demand more time from our dispute resolution systems. They are the 20% who represent 80% of the claims costs, and most of the excess stomach acid for system administrators, claims managers and regulators. The difference is often the development of a secondary condition that focuses claimants on what they have lost, on their symptoms and on their "new identity" as injured (and often disabled) persons. Sometimes, this secondary condition is explicitly claimed as a compensable injury, but, in the U.S., psychological conditions are generally not compensable without a direct causal connection to a discernible traumatic incident. Harm that occurs as a reaction to the experience of the compensation system is often dismissed as malingering, secondary gain behavior or personal weakness, and you may thinking, "We don't compensate that." Think again. To be sure, you may not be using the words, "exacerbation of primary claims due to secondary psychological overlay," but you are still paying for it. The research evidence is now overwhelming. Psychological conditions, whether pre-existing or acquired after a claim arises, affect the physical healing as well as the probability that an injured person will return to his pre-injury life. You are paying for secondary psychological overlay, whether or not your systems are set up to detect and measure this cost driver. It is very likely your largest unmeasured cost driver. All of these conditions are attributable to secondary psychological overlay:
  • Unexplained failure to thrive and return to work;
  • Functional syndromes that have neither explained cause nor effective treatment;
  • Unexplained chronic pain (and all the expensive treatments and addiction problems that go with it); and
  • The appearance of secondary physical symptoms that complicate recovery
There are indirect repercussions, as well. Some people seem to develop the attitude that they are entitled to whatever treatment or benefits that they request, or that they deserve special treatment by the system. There is burnout, desensitization and turnover among staff, with the very significant attendant costs of recruitment and training of new personnel. These claims drive (and are driven by) lawyer behavior that enables "victimhood" and doctor behavior that "medicalizes" symptoms and sets inappropriate patient expectations.  The list of cost centers goes on and on. We haven't done a very good job of measuring this cost driver. Partly, that's because our analytics are limited by the data we've collected. If we haven't collected the right data (or haven't even asked the right questions in the first place), then it's hard to directly analyze the phenomenon. Partly, it's a matter of the complexity of the calculation. Factoring personnel costs and systemic behavior changes by lawyers and doctors makes things a lot more complicated. We avoid useful thinking about these claims. In fact, we habitually avoid thinking about anything psychological. Effective treatment is elusive, and we have too many examples of ineffective treatment stretching into lifelong periodic sessions with "the shrink." We can't see the injury associated with these claims, and tend to think that they aren't "real" in the same way as physical injuries. This outmoded approach isn't serving us well, as increasing claims severity in many jurisdictions clearly demonstrates. And there's an element of fear of the unknown -- if we acknowledge those claims, we just might have to learn different approaches to claims management and develop different substantive knowledge that we've needed in the past. Unfortunately, this avoidance of all things psychological is a holdover from "person as a machine" thinking -- the idea that we can fix the broken part, and the mechanism will go back into the production cycle. Alternatively, the thinking may presume that the difficulty with the worker is a disease, for which discovery of the right medication or treatment will restore equilibrium. Either way, it's gotten much harder to maintain these simplistic views of injury and disability, given the overwhelming evidence that people are significantly affected by factors that have to do with their biopsychosocial environment and experience. But that's the trouble. How do we deal with this relatively small cohort of expensive claims without opening the proverbial Pandora's box? On the one hand, acknowledging the biopsychosocial elements of the claims process may open the door to psychological claiming, which in the past has been a nightmare of unending expensive interventions with few or no positive outcomes. (Alternatively, focus on biopsychosocial factors exposes underlying matters about which the claim manager often has little or no control, such as the claimant’s prior history or the nature of the person's off-work relationships.) On the other hand, failure to acknowledge the biopsychosocial elements flies in the face of an avalanche of research findings associating a bewildering and seemingly inconsistent array of factors correlated with good or poor outcomes. So what are you supposed to do? First, quit pretending that the biopsychosocial flagging systems that have flooded the market are going to save you. There has never been a published properly controlled study that could show that the identification of people pursuant to a flagging system and subsequent intervention efforts had any more impact than just providing more personalized attention to claimants generally. Flagging systems have value for predicting outcomes for groups, rather than individuals. They are useful for managing reserves and initiating increased scrutiny of behavior. When misused, they also carry a potential for adverse impact through the mechanism of self-fulfilling prophesy. When you tell a well-intentioned claims manager that certain claimants have “flags,” it’s hard to predict the subtle ways in which the manager will treat the claimant differently, but it’s almost certain that the differences will be there. Identification of a person at risk, without more, has never made anyone recover faster or better. Second, acknowledge that the presence of a secondary psychological overlay is very likely to affect the worker’s physical recovery. The research findings overwhelmingly demonstrate that psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety, a sense that personal control has been transferred to others and individual expectations for recovery have significant physical impact on physical welfare and healing of the claimant and the experience of things like chronic pain. The research shows that even the way that we talk to a patient about pain can have significant impact on the clinical outcome. It’s time to stop blaming the worker or assuming that the person is out to take advantage of the system. Just as the medical profession has acknowledged “iatrogenic” (system-created) injury, the workers’ compensation world would benefit from understanding that our compensation systems actually cause additional harm to the people we are supposed to be helping. Our system design should be more focused on preventing that harm than trying to suppress the costs associated with it. Third, find a way of thinking about secondary psychological overlay to original injury that helps you understand how it all fits together. Such a conceptual model will help you to understand the relationship between findings that aren’t obviously related. For example, understanding the relationship between the positive impact of early intervention programs, the negative impact of lawyer representation and the negative impact of sleeplessness may be difficult without an overarching explanatory framework. There are several models out there, but I suggest that most everyone agrees that a very basic place to start is the understanding that the worker's loss of an internalized sense of control over one’s own life is critical to explaining what’s happening to people in the claiming environment. Finally, whatever your model of secondary psychological harm, find the places that you can control or improve the claims environment. Can you encourage early intervention or other activity that maintains the important sense of identity as a “worker” that is endangered by injury and absence from the workplace? Can you institute mechanisms that reduce the time and stress of dispute resolution and attend to the real personal needs of people in dispute? Can you arrange circumstances so that claimants get their calls returned more quickly to preserve their feeling of being valued, or minimize the repetition of their story, to prevent unnecessary entrenchment of a changed view of self? There are literally dozens of systemic changes that you can control that will have a positive impact on the worker and his recovery. It's a different orientation than mere "cost cutting," but it will have a greater long-term and sustainable impact. The complication of claims because of undiagnosed and unmitigated secondary psychological overlays threatens the integrity of workers' compensation generally. Whether you recognize it or not, it is a very significant underlying cost driver. In the absence of understanding this phenomenon, systemic attempts to control costs have led to the increasing perception of a failure of the underlying quid pro quo that is reflected in recent litigation in Florida and changes in the structure of the Oklahoma system.  Most of us have within our control some aspect of the system can lead to the reduced incidence of secondary psychological complication of a claim.  All of us can insist that our policy makers and regulators open their eyes to this hidden source of complexity and poor outcomes, and that they respond to it in a meaningful way.

Robert Aurbach

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Robert Aurbach

Robert Aurbach is an experienced lawyer and workers' compensation system designer. He spent 15 years as the chief legal officer for the New Mexico Workers' Compensation Administration. Robert is the editor (since 2003) of the only peer-reviewed international professional journal devoted to workers' compensation issues.

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