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March 19, 2014

Healthcare Reform’s Effects on Workers’ Compensation

Summary:

While effects will be uncertain until the ACA has been fully implemented, employers can take steps now to lessen any negative impacts and increase the value of the positives.

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Since its passage in 2010, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) — commonly referred to as healthcare reform — has been the subject of intense political debate and a source of anxiety for many employers. Although most employers have focused on the law’s health benefit requirements, the ACA is also expected to affect how they manage their workers’ compensation costs. Employers should understand how reform will affect the quality of care available to their employees, the calculation of workers’ compensation premiums and claims filings — and what employers can do to manage those effects.

Workers’ Health Proponents of the ACA say it will lead to a healthier society. Because more people will have access to healthcare, advocates say, there will be a reduction in comorbidities — additional diseases or disorders that individual patients often have along with a primary disease or conditions. For example, diabetes and hypertension are typical comorbid conditions of obesity. These comorbidities can frequently complicate workers’ compensation claims. Consider that a California Workers’ Compensation Institute analysis of claims from 2005 to 2010 found that average benefit payments on claims for employees with obesity as a comorbidity were 81% higher than those without. There is, however, no significant evidence to support the contention that an employee is less likely to file a workers’ compensation claim simply because the employee is insured. For example:

  • A recent Assured Research study examining health insurance penetration rates and workers’ compensation loss ratios in individual states from 1999 to 2011 showed little correlation between the two measures.
  • Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the U.S. and that the percentage of Americans with a high body mass index has steadily climbed over the last 50 years — two trends that are not confined to the uninsured population.

Cost Shifting Employers have long been concerned that injuries from non-work-related causes will be shifted to workers’ compensation. Doing so is tempting because of workers’ compensation’s combination of higher reimbursement rates for medical providers and lack of deductibles and copayments for employees. There is significant evidence to show that treatment for the same diagnosis costs more under workers’ compensation than under group health insurance because of higher reimbursement rates and greater utilization of services. A recent Workers’ Compensation Research Institute study of 16 large states, for example, showed that workers’ compensation payments for shoulder surgeries were often significantly higher than group health medical payments for the same procedure. Some have speculated that the greater access to health insurance promised by the ACA will reduce this shift to workers’ compensation. However, it has become clear that the law will not result in all Americans having health insurance coverage. With the ACA requiring that employers offer coverage to all employees working 30 or more hours per week starting in 2015, one in 10 large companies are planning to cut back on hours for at least a portion of their workforce, according to Mercer’s National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans 2013. Other employers are using higher copayments and deductibles to help offset cost increases. It appears, therefore, that the financial incentive for employees to shift treatment toward workers’ compensation will continue under the ACA.

Access to Care Probably the most predictable outcome of the ACA is that it will increase the number of individuals in the U.S. with health insurance coverage. Despite the potential benefits, this could put additional stress on a health are system that is already short on doctors. Among the 34 member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, the U.S. ranks 27th in physicians per capita (see Figure 1). And this problem does not appear to be going away: The Association of American Medical Colleges forecasts that physician demand will dramatically outpace supply over the next decade, leading to a shortage of more than 90,000 physicians in the U.S. in 2020. This is particularly troubling as it relates to specialists — for example, orthopedic surgeons — and the potential for delays in obtaining diagnostic tests and scheduling elective surgeries and other procedures. Longer periods of disability and complications as a result of such delays would ultimately drive workers’ compensation costs up. With this added pressure on a limited number of medical providers, it becomes more important than ever for employers to develop medical networks that focus on quality of care and outcomes — even if it means paying more on a fee-for-service basis. Employers that pay their medical providers fairly and quickly will have more timely access for their injured workers and should ultimately have lower workers’ compensation costs.

Standards of Care Traditionally, the healthcare industry’s focus has been on volume; more patient admissions, tests and procedures translated to higher revenues. Post-reform, however, the industry has shifted its focus to improving standards of care and achieving better patient outcomes. If this transition results in less emphasis on costly procedures, which often produce questionable results, workers’ compensation costs could be reduced. Although it remains to be seen whether the standards of care developed under the ACA for group healthcare would be enforced under workers’ compensation, this is a promising development for employers.

Premium Refunds The ACA provides for insurers to rebate premiums to employers that have better than expected performance with their healthcare programs. Employers can either refund such premiums back to their workers or use them to offset future premiums. The National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) has indicated that if premium refunds are given to employees, this would be considered payroll under workers’ compensation premium calculations. In other words, having a good performance on its group health program could increase an employer’s workers’ compensation program costs because premium calculations are tied to payroll. Employers should keep this in mind when deciding what to do with healthcare premium rebates that may be received.

Managing the Effects of Healthcare Reform There is little doubt that healthcare reform will have an impact on workers’ compensation costs and claim trends. And while the extent will not be known until the ACA has been fully implemented, employers can take steps now to lessen any potential negative impacts, and increase the value of the positives. For example, employers should:

  • Increase efforts to identify medical providers that can provide the best quality care for injured workers and take the necessary steps to ensure the workforce has access to these providers.
  • Carefully manage the approach to healthcare premium rebates, which could affect how payroll is calculated under workers’ compensation.
  • Closely monitor any shifts in injury claims to workers’ compensation. Despite the ACA’s promise of greater access to health insurance coverage, there remains a financial incentive for employees to seek treatment under workers’ compensation rather than group health.
  • Remain committed to loss-control efforts. Don’t let concerns over the ACA cause a loss of focus on this key area.
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About the Author

Mark Walls is the vice president, communications and strategic analysis, at Safety National. Mark is also the founder of the Work Comp Analysis Group on LinkedIn, which is the largest discussion community dedicated to workers’ compensation issues.

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