Tag Archives: centers for medicare & medicaid services

It’s Time to Rethink WCMSA Legislation

A fresh approach may be needed to address how best to protect Medicare’s interest in a workers’ compensation settlement.

Today, the Workers’ Compensation Medicare Set-Aside Arrangement (WCMSA) is a routine part of most settlements. The WCMSA takes a part of the workers’ compensation settlement and allocates it specifically for future medical expense. If this is done correctly, the Medicare beneficiary is then free to spend the non-allocated portion.

The widespread acceptance of the WCMSA is based on a recommendation by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the agency responsible for the administration of the Medicare Trust Fund.  The WCMSA has become the de facto rule because CMS can ignore a workers’ compensation settlement agreement between parties if it believes there has been an attempt to shift responsibility to pay for future medical care to the Medicare Trust Fund.

In recent years, however, some have objected in certain types of claims because changes to the review process have increased the dollar amounts that need to be set aside for the WCMSA, to preserve the Medicare Trust Fund. Some feel that the amounts have become unreasonable.  The result has been some failed settlements, contrary to a public policy that favors settlements.

In establishing a WCMSA, information is submitted to the Workers’ Compensation Review Contractor (WCRC), and it is evaluated to provide an allocation number for the set-aside that CMS will accept. There are obvious tensions. For instance, the contractor may require extensive documentation for medical care that goes beyond what is necessary for the workers’ compensation claim. This requirement can delay the process or even require the parties to the workers’ comp claim to start over. The contractor may also increase the amount that has to be allocated for the WCMSA, as medical treatment that is unrelated to the workers’ compensation claim can make it into the set-aside.

CMS allows for the use of structures to fund the allocation that can save some money by avoiding the need for an up-front, lump sum payment. However, there is little flexibility to discuss disputes over treatment, prescription use and costs.

H.R. 1982 is the legislation, supported by the insurance industry, that represents the present attempt at reform. Introduced on May 5, 2013, by Republican Congressman Dave Reichert from Washington’s 8th Congressional District, and co-sponsored by Democrat Congressman Mike Thomas from California’s 5th District, the bill was immediately referred for consideration to two House Committees with jurisdiction over Medicare issues:  Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means. But little else has occurred. Today, as the close of the 113th Congress draws near, H.R. 1982 has 14 co-sponsors, evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, but no companion legislation exists in the Senate.

It is difficult to imagine a path for this bill to become law. Members are getting ready for the August recess, to campaign. When they return, larger issues of foreign policy and immigration will take center stage.

Passage is not impossible, and it is important to continue support through the end. It is also important to plan ahead, as about 9,170 bills are currently pending, and only about 5% are expected to become law when this congressional session ends on Dec. 31. Revisiting the strategy of H.R. 1982 is important to improve chances of success should re-introduction be necessary.

Revision would necessitate assembling likely stakeholders. This meeting should take place as early as possible to allow for an early introduction in the 114th Congress. The process should follow that adopted by the Medicare Advocacy Recovery Coalition (MARC), which led to the successful SMART (Strengthening Medicare and Repaying Taxpayers Act) at the close of 2012. Broad-based support is critical to success in a Congress that is expected to be even more divided in the next session.

The purpose of H.R. 1982 is to increase the number of workers’ compensation settlements with Medicare beneficiaries. This must be an important goal of any rewrite. Because H.R. 1982 is designed to amend the Medicare Secondary Payer Act (MSP), already considered to be “one of the most impenetrable texts within human experience” (Parra v. Pacificare of Arizona, Inc., 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 7861), another goal must be to have it be easy to understand. A third objective must be to avoid unintended consequences, by clearly defining terms and reconciling conflicts with existing MSP terms.

There can be no doubt that H.R. 1982 favors the workers’ compensation plan. The workers’ compensation industry would go from having no ability to raise legitimate disputes to being freed from constraints. CMS, neutered by the proposed law, could do very little to seek increased protection for the Medicare Trust Fund. This is most likely the Achilles heel of the present legislation.

Congress enacted the MSP law in 1980 to stem the red ink of the Medicare Trust Fund. Congress passed the Medicare & Medicaid SCHIP Extension Act of 2007 in furtherance of that objective. Any succeeding legislation must be consistent with such protections.

This can be achieved and still provide immense benefit for all stakeholders. To see how, here is a look at the major areas covered by H.R. 1982 and how they could be revised to increase the likelihood of adoption:

Thresholds

H.R. 1982 may be too aggressive in codifying what is already well-established CMS policy for situations where Medicare’s interest need not be considered. Already, in situations where the claimant’s treating physician does not reasonably expect continuing medical treatment, the parties are free to settle without an allocation for a set-aside. All that is required is documentation from the treating physician. Similarly, no allocation can be required if medicals, as alleged or claimed, are not being released (in other words, if the medical portion of the claim is not being settled).

Rather than have legislation codify where Medicare’s interest need not be considered, a better approach would be to require CMS to adopt regulations.

One issue that can only be addressed through legislation is a value-based threshold that involves a release (or settlement) of medicals. The H.R. 1982 threshold value includes settlements of as much as $25,000; below that level, Medicare’s interest would not have to be taken into account. Today, CMS does not review such settlements but expects that they will “consider” Medicare’s interest. The necessary analysis can be expensive and so time-consuming that contractors will exceed CMS limits on workload. A way around the analysis of smaller settlements could be for Congress to authorize the CMS actuary to determine a threshold based on the cost to the government of review. The threshold should work out to at least $25,000.

Qualified Medicare Set-Aside

The term “Medicare Set-Aside” is not currently codified in the MSP law. Stakeholders should study the potential unintended consequences of codifying the term in ways that have the force of statute. CMS has established policy and procedures that it recommends on when to submit a WCMSA for approval. H.R. 1982 does not add any benefit by adding definitions and can be simplified by omitting them.

The critical component that should be discussed by stakeholders is whether the rewrite should establish a “safe harbor” settlement amount in which a certain percentage is paid to CMS by lump sum or stream of annuity payments that legally “considers” Medicare’s interests. This approach prevents codification of the WCMSA and still achieves the objective. The percentage of the settlement amount would need to be analyzed to maintain cost-neutrality of the bill. As a starting point to demonstrate neutrality, Medicare Set Aside stakeholders should be able to provide Congress data on the ratio of the MSA allocation to the amount of the settlement.

Authorizing CMS to Receive Allocation Amount

This is long overdue. While it sounds like such a feature would add revenue to Medicare, helping the bill to pass, government accounting won’t recognize this approach. The Congressional Budget Office must score each bill to determine if it costs or saves money, and the CBO doesn’t count as revenue money that is received in advance of when it needs to be paid out. This method is counterintuitive, but stakeholders must take it into consideration. Nonetheless, for the benefit of the injured worker, and non-interruption of Medicare or Social Security benefits, letting CMS receive the WCMSA allocation amount is important and would make sense to Congress.  It is important to have the legislation authorize both a lump sum and stream of annuity payments.

Limiting Conditional Payments to the Fee Schedule

Stakeholders should discuss the issue of healthcare providers that, under present CMS regulation, may collect more than is allowed under the fee schedule. H.R. 1982 is designed to deal with considering Medicare’s interest in workers’ comp settlements, and it might be wise to limit legislation to that area rather than also taking on the issue with fee schedules. Simplifying the legislation might avoid drawing unintended adversaries who might lobby against it.

Applicability of Fee Schedule

CMS already accepts the workers’ compensation fee schedule or, in its absence, the usual and customary rate. H.R. 1982 would like to extend the use of the workers’ compensation fee schedule, but some plans may already have better rates. Stakeholders should discuss how medical services and items, including pharmacy, should be priced. There must be no cost to the Trust Fund because of any legislation. In fact, there are ways in which the fee schedules could benefit the fund.

Right of Appeal

Last year, the Strengthening Medicare and Repaying Taxpayers Act (SMART) became law, providing for an appeals process for workers’ compensation laws or plans. The legislation requires appeals over any “determinations” by CMS. Because an approved WCMSA is a CMS “determination,” it would logically be subject to the appeals process. But, because the WCMSA process is recommended and not required, the appeals process may not be triggered. When parties use the WCMSA, they also waive any right of appeal. The appeals process specified by SMART therefore has no applicability unless the WCMSA is required by an actual law. Stakeholders should consider adding legislation to strengthen the SMART right of appeal. A fair, two -way process to discuss legitimate disputes is essential to increasing settlements.

Respecting State Decisions

Recently, CMS issued an updated user guide for WCMSA submissions. A section was added that has resulted in confusion on the application of state law. Section 4.4.1 states that CMS will respect the allocation of non-medical portions of a settlement by a board with appropriate jurisdiction, after a hearing on the merits. By implication, what’s left over in the settlement is for medicals, and CMS likely would respect that allocation, as well. But CMS may disagree. Stakeholders should discuss clarification of how state law should work with the Medicare Secondary Payer Act. This may require an analysis of pre-emption rules, as well as defining the types of hearings.

H.R. 1982 has both positive and negative implications, creating mixed support. CMS will most likely oppose it if it moves in the present Congress, as it prevents CMS’ ability to enforce the MSP and protect the Trust Fund. Providers, MSP compliance companies and structured-settlement companies would also line up to oppose the bill. It is not clear where beneficiaries and beneficiary organizations will line up – while, in the short run, H.R. 1982 would cause more cases to settle, the adverse impact to the Trust Fund may result in delay in the delivery of benefits as well as their reduction. Nonetheless, there are positives to H.R. 1982.

A fresh approach is needed with all stakeholders involved to secure broad-based support to resolve problems for the injured worker, CMS and the workers’ compensation law or plan.

With the right legislation, a fix can happen, and one is sorely needed.

What An Employer Can Do To Reduce Soft Tissue Injuries In The Transportation Industry

The trucking industry accounted for nearly 20 percent of all days-away-from-work cases in 2011. Correspondingly, trucking was among the seven occupations which had an incidence rate greater than 300 cases per 10,000 full-time workers and who had greater than 20,000 days-away-from-work cases.

OSHA defines a Musculoskeletal Disorder (MSD) as an injury of the muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, joints, cartilage and spinal discs. They identify examples of Musculoskeletal Disorders to include: carpal tunnel syndrome, rotator cuff syndrome, De Quervain’s disease, trigger finger, tarsal tunnel syndrome, sciatica, epicondylitis, tendinitis, Raynaud’s phenomenon, carpet layers knee, herniated spinal disc, and low back pain.

The average cost of a work-related soft tissue injury in the trucking industry exceeds any other industry. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Musculoskeletal Disorders nationwide typically account for 33% of work-related injuries, while the incidence of Musculoskeletal Disorders in the transportation industry is 60-67%. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also noted that there were 1.4 million total transportation workers, and each year 1 in 18 is injured or made ill by the job.

These higher rates of injury can be attributed in part to several factors. Due to the nature of their work, many drivers maintain a poor diet, rarely get enough sleep, and are sedentary. As a result, they find themselves more susceptible to heart attacks and diabetes, as well as a myriad of strains, sprains and various other Musculoskeletal Disorders.

Additionally, the percentage of older workers is higher in transportation than in most industries, with the Transportation Research Board estimating that up to 25 percent of truck drivers will be older than 65 by 2025, translating into more severe Musculoskeletal Disorder claims.

These factors are contributing to more workers’ compensation claims for drivers which increase employers’ costs. As part of the job, many truck drivers are required to unload the goods they transport, leading to serious sprains and strains. Heavy lifting after long periods of sitting can increase the likelihood of severe sprains and strains. In addition, drivers often rush at the delivery site in an effort to meet the demands of tight schedules. This combination contributes to 52% of the non-fatal injuries in this industry, with trunk and back claims accounting for 70% of these cases.

Due to its unique workplace circumstances, the commercial transportation industry is at higher risk for increased frequency of injuries and costs to the industry. The following describes the framework of this dilemma:

  1. Commercial transportation jobs expose workers to high physical demands and extended hours of exposure.
  2. The transportation industry experiences one of the highest work-related injury rates among all workplace sectors.
  3. The transportation industry experiences a high level of turnover on an annual basis, which results in a high number of newly hired employees exposed to unfamiliar and physically demanding tasks.

While this is an industry-wide issue, we will focus on California in order to illustrate how problematic it truly is. In March of 2010, the California Workers’ Compensation Institute (CWCI) issued its latest scorecard for the California Trucking Industry. Over eight years, $480 million dollars was paid in medical and indemnity costs alone. The study found that, even though this industry accounted for only 1% of all California industrial claims, they accounted for 1.8% of the state’s workers’ compensation paid benefits. It was also found that medical and indemnity payments were higher than any other industry. The average lost-time direct claim cost at $18,587 is 41% higher than the industry average in California. The indirect costs in this industry range from a 2x to a 10x multiple, and in an industry known for low profit margins, controlling costs is critical.

It should also be noted that California can retain jurisdiction of a workers’ compensation claim even if the injury did not occur in that state; the employee only has to live in California, drive through California or have been hired out of California. This is such a significant problem that in 2010 the U.S. Department of Transportation initiated the Compliance Safety Accountability measure of driver’s fitness. This is specific to transportation, is publicly available, and the ratings are tied to insurance rates and letters of credit.

With the numerous reforms taking place in 2013 and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Mandatory Reporting Act, it is now essential that employers become proactive and only accept claims that arise out of the course and scope of employment. Medicare has mandated all work-related and general liability injuries be reported to CMS in an electronic format. This means that CMS has the mechanism to look back and identify work comp-related medical care payments made by Medicare. This is a retroactive statute that will ultimately hold the employer and/or insurance carrier responsible for these payments.

Should CMS have to pursue the employer in court, the amount owed is doubled. The insured or employer could pay the future medical cost twice — once to the claimant at settlement and later when Medicare seeks reimbursement of the medical care they paid on behalf of the claimant. There is no statute of limitations on compliance with the MSA requirements. CMS can review claims closed last year, five years ago, or even longer to check for compliance. Penalties and fees for noncompliance are $1,000 per day if medical care is not paid within 30 days.

Historically, soft tissue injuries have been difficult to diagnose and even harder to treat due to the broad spectrum of disorders related to soft tissue. Most diagnostic tests are not designed to address Musculoskeletal Disorders and are unable to document the presence of pain or loss of function … two key complaints.

Employers need a way to manage their Musculoskeletal Disorder exposure and provide better care to their injured workers. The key to managing this problem is for employers to obtain the ability to only accept claims that arise out of the course and scope of employment. The only viable solution for employers is to conduct a baseline soft tissue assessment in order to establish pre-injury status. The baseline must be job and body part specific and objective to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008.

The baseline assessments are not read or interpreted unless and until there is an injury. By not identifying a potential disability, employers are able to conduct baseline assessments on new hires as well as existing employees while maintaining compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act. If there is a soft tissue injury, the employee is sent for a post-loss assessment to determine what and if there is any change from the baseline assessment. If no change is noted (no acute pathology), then there is no valid claim. This proven baseline program is known as the EFA Soft Tissue Management Program (EFA-STM Program), which utilizes the Electrodiagnostic Functional Assessment to objectively provide this data.

Repetitive Stress Injury Has Become Cumulative Trauma for Employers

According to the medical dictionary, Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI) is defined as an injury that occurs as a result of over or improper use. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly two-thirds of all occupational illnesses reported were caused by exposure to repeated trauma to workers’ upper body (the wrist, elbow or shoulder). While one common example of such an injury is carpal tunnel syndrome, in the workers’ compensation area RSI can also be claimed for shoulder, and back injuries. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), repetitive strain injuries are the nation’s most common and costly occupational health problem, affecting hundreds of thousands of American workers and costing more than $20 billion a year in workers’ compensation costs.

In the past, if an injury didn’t result from an accident, there was no workers’ compensation claim. Those days are gone and now it is understood that cumulative trauma injuries and occupational injuries that develop over time are eligible for workers’ compensation. Even if an injury cannot be tied to a single event, workers’ compensation benefits can be claimed.

According to the January 2012 joint publication by WCIR and IAIABC, every state allows workers’ compensation claims for cumulative trauma with the following limited exceptions:

Arkansas — limited to rapid repetitive motion for back or neck and hearing

Hawaii — not in the statue but handling like any other claim

Louisiana — only when considered an occupational disease

Tennessee — with limits to carpal tunnel only if it is arising out of the scope of employment

Virginia — only cumulative hearing loss and carpal tunnel are covered as “ordinary diseases of life” and subject to higher “clear and convincing” evidentiary standards as opposed to the “preponderance of the evidence.”

This widespread acceptance of RSI claims is becoming traumatic in in itself for employers, especially when one considers the requirements by CMS that were established to protect Medicare from future medical expenses for workers’ compensation and general liability claims. With these new mandatory requirements that all workers’ compensation and general liability claims be reported in electronic format, CMS has the mechanism to look back and identify workers’ compensation-related medical care payments made by Medicare. When CMS/Medicare learns (and they will) that it has been paying for workers’ compensation-related medical care it will seek repayment. The insured or employer could pay the future medical cost twice; once to the claimant at settlement and later when Medicare seeks reimbursement of the medical care they paid on behalf of the claimant, i.e. the cumulative effect.

Let’s focus on a key state, California, where this has become a pressing issue. Under California Labor Code Section 5412, the date of injury in cases of occupational diseases or cumulative injuries is that date upon which the employee first suffered disability therefrom and either knew, or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should have known, that such disability was caused by his present or prior employment.

The wording of this statute is proving to be very problematic for employers, as there is no clear-cut timeframe to hold an injured worker accountable to report said injuries. Even more so since cumulative trauma disorders are difficult to diagnose and treat and causation plays an important factor in determining AOE/COE. The magic bullet would be to determine if the injury is AOE/COE or to be able to age the injury. One of the only tools that has been proven effective is the Electrodiagnostic Function Assessment. The EFA is the only FDA-registered device that can age and diagnose this type of injury and its definitive registration allows the monitoring of the necessary frequency response that characterizes a repetitive stress injury. Additionally, it is the only device of its kind that has changed the face of RSI litigation.*

* U.S. District Court, 980 F. Supp, 640, 64-48 (E.D.N.Y., 1997): Geressy v. Digital Equipment Corporation. The EFA changed the face of repetitive stress injury litigation when Judge Weinstein overturned what, at that time, was the largest product liability verdict ever for RSI because of the EFA.