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April 27, 2016

Ending Cost-Shifting to Workers’ Comp

Summary:

Doctors can't always know if an injury is work-related, but a test can provide a baseline for evaluating each worker.

Photo Courtesy of liz west

An April 2016 study by the Worker’s Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) titled, “Do Higher Fee Schedules Increase the Number of Workers’ Compensation Cases?” found that, in many states, workers’ compensation reimbursement rates were higher than group health reimbursement rates. The study stated that cost shifting is more common with soft tissue injuries, especially in states with higher workers’ compensation reimbursement rates. The study found that an estimated 20% increase in workers’ compensation payments for physician services provided during an office visit is associated with increases in the number of soft-tissue injuries being called “work-related” by 6%.

This study goes hand-in-hand with another study by the WCRI called, “Will The Affordable Care Act Shift Claims to Worker’s Compensation Payors” (September 2015), which said that if only 3% of group health soft tissue conditions were shifted to workers’ compensation in Pennsylvania, costs could increase nearly $100 million annually — in California, this cost shifting to workers’ compensation could increase costs more than $225 million.

See Also: What Will Workers’ Comp Be in 20 Years?

Soft-tissue injuries typically defined as musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) are typically muscle or nerve conditions that primarily affect the neck, back and shoulders and can include conditions such as cumulative trauma, neck, back sprain/strains or any damage to the muscles, ligaments and tendons. They are often difficult to diagnose and treat because there are very few reliable objective tests that demonstrate soft tissue injuries. The diagnosis is often based on the patient’s history and the doctor’s physical examination of the patient. Therefore, the diagnosis frequently depends on the individual’s subjective complaints of pain, as well as the individual’s compliance and genuine effort during the musculoskeletal and neurological phases of the exam. Historically, in workers’ compensation, both the patient’s subjective complaints and his or her effort during the physical exam are often unreliable. Inaccurate histories and poor effort on physical exams can, more often than not, lead to misdiagnoses and ineffective or inappropriate treatments, which increase the cost, shifting burden to the employer even more.

In many states, the burden to determine causation of a soft tissue injury and to determine if the medical necessity of treatment falls under workers’ compensation or group health resides solely with the treating physician. In fact, states like Florida place an extra burden on doctors because of an apportionment law that states that the individual is responsible for the non-work-related treatment. If there is a major discrepancy in reimbursement between workers’ compensation and commercial insurance, the treating physician is tempted to accept the patient’s history of the event and does not have an incentive to investigate history that may place the causation of the patient’s symptoms in doubt. If clear-cut evidence documenting a pre-existing condition is lacking or not reviewed, the physician’s decision can be affected by secondary gain, and the physician is more likely to state that the soft tissue injury is work-related.

In these economic times, the cost-shifting issue is hard to resist for physicians. That is coupled with the fact that soft tissue injuries are often hard to demonstrate radiographically or with objective testing. In addition, radiographic tests are unreliable at timing injuries. X-rays and MRIs can show chronic changes like osteophytes and severely collapsed discs that usually take years to develop, but if a patient states that all of the pain began after a work-related injury, the treating physician may be tempted to attribute causation to the work-related event despite conflicting (yet unclear) radiographic findings. If this trend continues and remains uncontrolled, employers’ workers’ compensation costs can skyrocket.

The key to this issue is only accepting claims that arise out of the course and the scope of treatment. The law in each jurisdiction has one simple common theme: The employee needs to be returned to baseline.

An electrodiagnostic functional assessment soft tissue management (EFA-STM) program can resolve the issues. It is a bookend solution that measures current and new employees before and after a work-related event is reported. It assists in determining if an injury arose over the course and scope of employment (AOECOE) and helps in providing better care for the work-related condition.

EFA-STM is non-discriminatory. It objectively determines pre-injury status and whether there is a change in condition after a reported occurrence. A baseline assessment is performed and the unread data is immediately stored in a secure database. When a work-related event is reported, a post-injury assessment is conducted and compared with the baseline test to determine whether there is a change in condition. Without a pre-injury exam for comparison, no radiographic test (including an MRI) can accurately time a soft-tissue injury and, thus, the ultimate opinion on causation of injury can be subject to bias.

In addition, it is commonly accepted that an MRI, for example, shows structural abnormalities that are common in asymptomatic patients. The EFA-STM program allows physicians to more accurately determine if structural changes on an MRI are causing nerve/muscle irritation and disturbance. Therefore, more accurate diagnoses are made and more appropriate treatments are recommended. Unnecessary, costly and invasive tests (e.g. discography) and treatments can be avoided.

See Also: 25 Axioms of medical Care in Workers’ Comp System

The EFA-STM program is specifically designed to allow better treatment for the work-related condition and has proven invaluable to prevent cost shifting to workers’ compensation. The program provides objective information that enables doctors to more accurately establish causation and to avoid the potential temptation to shift the burden to a work comp carrier if a soft tissue injury is not work-related. Finally, the EFA-STM program minimizes false positive structural abnormalities that are commonly seen on an MRI and allows for more accurate diagnoses so that safer, more cost-effective treatments can be rendered.

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About the Author

MaryRose Reaston is the co-founder, CEO and chief science officer of Emerge Diagnostics, which focuses on better outcomes for musculoskeletal disorders via early resolution and enhanced treatment options for soft-tissue injuries.

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About the Author

Frank J. Tomecek, MD, is a clinical associate professor of the Department of Neurosurgery for the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine-Tulsa. Dr. Tomecek is a graduate of DePauw University in chemistry and received his medical degree from Indiana University. His surgical internship and neurological spine residency were completed at Henry Ford Hospital.

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