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May 15, 2011

Rethinking The Incentives Built Into The Workers’ Compensation System

Summary:

Perhaps we can find a way to reward injured workers for doing the right thing. And perhaps we can use Utilization Review as a tool, and not as a crutch, to make smarter decisions about the treatments we approve. We can shortcut the unnecessary and costly Utilization Review and give injured workers the best possible chance to recover. Its the right thing to do. And its good business, as well.

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A few months ago, my husband began experiencing back pain. First it was nagging, then moderate, and within a couple of days it had reached an intolerable level. I was shocked to see this stoic man with a “mind over matter” approach to his health succumb to such pain. He was completely unable to function.

And so the medical journey began. First came a prescription for opiates, and then came diagnostics (yes, in that order). Next came an epidural injection and then therapy and exercise. At this point, the story sounds much like what we experience in Workers’ Comp on a daily basis. The difference was … this was not Workers’ Comp. My husband is a self-employed realtor. If he doesn’t work, there is no opportunity for pay. There would be no Temporary Disability, no Permanent Disability, no “add on” disabilities, no attorneys. The only motivation was to recover quickly enough to be able to work.

We found the best specialists, in this case opting for a spine clinic that specializes in treating athletes. Diagnostic tests were completed within days, and the epidural was done within a week. No Utilization Review delays. No authorizations. No shopping for discounted diagnostics. No delays … on anyone’s part. It was truly the “sports medicine” approach — excellent up-front treatment, with everyone focused solely on achieving a positive outcome. He cooperated fully with his physician’s advice, doing all the exercises prescribed while at the same time steadfastly refusing to accept any limitations. And his only financial incentive was to be well enough to work. And therein lay my “light bulb” moment.

It would be naïve, of course, to assume that motivations alone can make the difference. Granted, the underlying condition was amenable to quick results. But we all know that much of the time when we see protracted outcomes, it was not the underlying condition that caused the outcome. Many of the outcomes we see are the result of the “system” and those of us who make our living from the system.

Do we do everything in our power to assist the injured worker in his recovery? Do we contribute to the problem unintentionally by incenting the wrong behaviors, or through our application of the very principles meant to protect the injured worker? In particular, do we use Utilization Review as a tool, or as a crutch?

Utilization review allows us to curtail physical therapy at 24 visits. But is that the right thing to do? Likely some circumstances warrant the use of the “cap,” while others do not. While we should use the tool to prevent abuse, shouldn’t we also apply common sense? Research tells us that for people taking opiates, it is critical to keep moving and avoid retiring to the couch. It seems that until we are able to wean the worker off the opiates the therapy is likely actually therapeutic. What about the person who is improving? Should we curtail the therapy before the results are achieved?

It is also fairly common practice to deny gym memberships through Utilization Review. But, for a motivated injured worker, isn’t the gym the most cost-effective way for an injured worker to build strength and restore function? In most cases, a month’s gym dues are less costly than one or two physical therapy treatments.

What about Functional Restoration? Wouldn’t it make sense for us to consider functional restoration in cases that appear amenable? It can be the most effective tool in returning some motivated people to full function and to work!

In addition to the lessons about utilization review, my husband’s injury has heightened my awareness of the issue of cooperation and financial incentives. I believe it’s appropriate to ask ourselves whether the system motivates cooperation or whether it actually motivates “claimant behavior.” Does the person who cooperates fully with the medical rehabilitation plan often end up with a much smaller payday than the person who “works the system?” Is the system fraught with unintended financial consequences?

What if we took a practical approach to Utilization Review, and also offered financial incentives to get well, rather than to sustain ongoing disability? What if we provided incentives to go to therapy, or go to the gym? What about Incentives to cooperate? What about incentives to participate in functional restoration of all different types?

Without turning the system upside down, we can certainly turn our thinking 180 degrees. Perhaps we can find a way to reward injured workers for doing the right thing. And perhaps we can use Utilization Review as a tool, and not as a crutch, to make smarter decisions about the treatments we approve. We can shortcut the unnecessary and costly Utilization Review and give injured workers the best possible chance to recover. Its the right thing to do. And its good business, as well.

Note: In case it occurs to anyone, I did get a HIPPA compliant release from my husband before sharing his story!

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About the Author

Judy Adlam is president and CEO of LWP Claims Solutions, an organization that leverages a culture of teamwork and excellence to consistently deliver results that are far superior to industry standards. She is a chartered property casualty underwriter (CPCU) and a senior claims law associate (AEI).

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