Tag Archives: court of appeals

20 Work Comp Issues to Watch in 2016

In an “Out Front Ideas with Kimberly and Mark” webinar broadcast on Jan. 12, 2016, we discussed our thoughts around the issues that the workers’ compensation industry should have on its radar for 2016. What follows is a summary of 20 issues that we expect to affect our industry this year.

  1. Election Cycle

Everyone knows that this is a presidential election year. But election time also means governor and insurance commissioner seats are available. State insurance commissioners are elected in 11 states and appointed in the other 39. In the coming election, there are 12 gubernatorial seats and five insurance commissioner positions to be decided. The workers’ compensation industry needs to be paying attention to these elections because the insurance commissioners can have significant influence over procedures, policies and enforcement in their states.

  1. Viability of Workers’ Compensation

It is important for all of us to consider the continuing viability of workers’ compensation. Is the grand bargain still doing what it was established to do? There is a growing debate around the gaps and shortcomings of workers’ compensation. Our industry needs to engage in a critical analysis of these issues.

  1. Federalization

In October 2015, 10 high-ranking Democrats on key Senate and House committees sent a letter to the Department of Labor asking it to conduct a critical review of state workers’ compensation systems. Some are concerned that this is a sign we could see federal government involvement in state workers’ compensation systems.

In some ways, the federal government is already involved in workers’ compensation. For instance, OSHA has a tremendous impact on workers’ compensation. Medicare Secondary Payer Compliance is another example of federal law affecting the system.

Recent criticisms of workers’ compensation have focused on the vast benefit differences between states. There is also growing concern that workers who are permanently disabled are pushed off workers’ compensation and onto Social Security disability. With Social Security raising solvency concern, lawmakers will be receptive to discussions on how to keep workers’ compensation from shifting long-term claims to the federal government.

This is a substantial issue to watch in the coming years, and there is a significant chance that the federal government will suggest minimum benefit recommendations to the states at some point. This could especially affect states that have hard caps on the total amount of indemnity benefits that an injured worker can receive.

  1. Affordable Care Act

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) will continue to be a subject of discussion in 2016.

The implementation date of the high-cost, employer-sponsored health plans tax, dubbed the “Cadillac tax,” was recently delayed from 2018 to 2020. It imposes an excise tax of 40% on health plans whose value is more than $10,200 for individual coverage and $27,500 for a family. Regardless of the delay, employer-sponsored benefit plans have evolved over the past five years in preparation to avoid the additional tax. The formerly rich benefit plans were dropped in an effort to provide benefit plans within ACA’s requirements and often replaced by higher-deducible plans with reduced benefits.

NCCI and WCRI have both conducted studies on how the ACA has affected workers’ compensation. Results have not conclusively tied treatment delays or actual cost shifting to workers’ compensation. We believe continuing studies by these organizations and others are important to evaluate the impact of ACA on workers’ compensation.

Other issues that should be monitored include consolidation of health systems, providers and insurers. In 2015, there was more than $700 billion of consolidation in the healthcare marketplace. This is driven, in part, by the ACA, because scale and size assist providers with efficiency, purchasing power and the need to provide a continuum of care.

Another issue where the ACA could affect workers’ compensation is changing reimbursement models. Medicare is looking to shift into a value-based reimbursement model, and many state fee schedules are based on Medicare rates.

Although not specifically related to ACA, a healthcare topic to keep an eye on is drug pricing. Drug pricing will continue to be a topic within the media, PBMs, employer benefit managers, health plan experts and the political arena. Prescription drug pricing increased more than 10% in 2015, and this trend is expected to continue. This has an impact on the cost of workers’ compensation claims.

  1. Holes in Workers’ Compensation

What many people do not realize is that workers’ compensation protections are not available to all workers within the U.S. In 14 states, smaller employers with five employees or fewer do not have to secure coverage. In 17 states, there is no legal requirement for coverage of agricultural workers. Half of the states do not require coverage for domestic workers, and five states specifically exclude coverage for these employees. There are also states that create exceptions for certain types of workers, such as state employees in Alabama. Finally, we have seen from court cases around the country that occupational diseases that take several years to develop are often barred by the statute of limitations, leaving workers with no recourse for benefits.

These holes are yet one more thing that critics point to when talking about the inadequacy of workers’ compensation. The occupational disease issue is particularly concerning because it is very easy to question the fairness of barring a claim under the statute of limitations and, at the same time, denying the injured worker the ability to pursue a claim in civil court under the exclusive remedy protections of workers’ compensation. This is another area where we will not be surprised to see the federal government give recommendations.

  1. Blurred Lines Between Workers’ Compensation and Group Health

The employee health model is evolving. Employers are finding the need to provide a consistent healthcare experience for their workforce and plan members. Employers would like to find a model that provides both quality care and consistency for their employees, regardless of whether the need for treatment arises from a work injury or at home. Because a healthy workforce is a productive workforce, employers also feel that there is a need to tie health and productivity together.

We will continue to see health systems build accountable care organizations (ACO) and enter the health plan, insurance and risk-bearing arena with the goal of directly selling to and partnering with employers. ACOs are an attractive model for employers supporting a healthier workforce by extending the culture of health philosophy from work to the home for their employees and their families.

Mental health is a top driver for absence across employers and not simply a health cost concern. Mental healthcare should be as important as physical healthcare and is currently a focus of population health and employer programs. Employers are looking for healthcare models, which consider the person as a whole and offer consistent, engaging behavioral health and wellbeing programs for the workforce.

Workers’ compensation key stakeholders should be a part of the evolving health model discussions and early stage planning so as not to be left in the dark as health models change.

  1. Options to Workers’ Compensation

We all know that Texas has a unique system that allows employers to completely opt out of workers’ compensation benefits. The term “opt-out” refers only to the Texas system. Employers in Oklahoma have an option to workers’ compensation that allows them to develop a private benefit plan that replaces state-mandated workers’ compensation. It is this concept of an option that is looking to spread to other states. Bills on this issue will be reintroduced in Tennessee and South Carolina this year, and other states have begun preliminary discussions.

Some employers feel that they can provide better benefits to their injured workers at a lower cost with these option programs. Others are concerned that these programs lack the controls and oversight of state workers’ compensation. One thing is certain: This issue is not going away any time soon. Perhaps these discussions around options to workers’ compensation can lead to discussions about workers’ compensation reform, including employer medical control, increasing thresholds of compensability and reducing the bureaucracy of the workers’ comp system.

  1. Evolving Claims Model

There are significant discussions around the evolving claims model. The industry realizes that we need to focus more on the injured worker as a consumer. The model needs to focus more on advocacy, but what does this really mean? Should there be a person who assists the injured worker in understanding the claims process, or is there a need to change the culture of our industry to be less adversarial?

Other parts of the evolving model involve who actually touches the claim. Are there elements that could be automated? Should there be more specialization with different individuals performing different tasks instead of the current model where the claims adjuster is a generalist performing multiple tasks across multiple jurisdictions?

The claim handling model also needs to adapt to new technology and the way in which different generations want communication. Some injured workers prefer text instead of e-mail or phone calls. Some like to access claims information in an app on their mobile device or simply, 24/7, as they want it that moment. The model must evolve to take full advantage of new technology and communication methods.

The March 15 “Out Front Ideas with Kimberly and Mark” webinar will focus on the evolving claims model and include guests who are passionate about an advocacy-based design.

  1. Florida Supreme Court

Over the last two years, four cases challenging the constitutionality of various aspects of the Florida workers’ compensation statutes have made it to the state’s Supreme Court. The first of those cases, Padgett, ended in late December when the Supreme Court declined to review it. That case had been thrown out on procedural grounds during the appeal process, so the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court never addressed the underlying constitutional challenge.

There are three cases still to be decided:

  • Westphal, which deals with caps on temporary disability benefits.
  • Castellanos, which addresses limitations on attorney fees.
  • Stahl, which focuses on post MMI medical co-payments and the elimination of permanent partial disability payments.

The expectation is that the Florida Supreme Court will address all of these cases in 2016, but nobody knows when that will occur.

  1. Bureaucracy

Workers’ compensation is one of the most highly regulated lines of insurance, and regulators are increasingly aggressive in pursuing fines and penalties. Every form filed and every payment transaction is an opportunity for a penalty. EDI allows regulators to automate the fines and penalties. Some states perform retrospective audits on activity five to 10 years in the past. The IMR process in California adds administrative cost to claims without necessarily improving outcomes, and states with self-imposed penalties may be driving up the cost of doing business beyond the benefit of the penalty payment. Lobbying is becoming an increasingly important area for payers and service providers to consider.

The significant costs associated with the bureaucracy of workers’ compensation regulations are not improving the outcomes on claims. Most of the money collected from the fines and penalties is paid to the states. The programs may cover the operating costs of state workers’ compensation division and not be paid to the injured worker or medical provider.

This topic is an important issue to watch in 2016 and will be the topic of our Feb. 9 “Out Front Ideas with Kimberly and Mark” webinar.

  1. Regulatory Change

There are four states in particular that we should be keeping an eye on in terms of potential regulatory reforms in 2016:

New York

Employers in New York are continuing to push for additional workers’ compensation reforms to reduce their costs because the savings projected with the last round of reforms never fully materialized. Whether there is enough momentum to get a bill through this year remains to be seen, but the efforts are there.

Florida

In Florida, the situation is going to depend on what the state Supreme Court does with the cases mentioned earlier. If any of those cases punch holes in the constitutionality of the workers’ compensation law, then the legislature is going to need to address this. Again, this is a waiting game.

Illinois

Illinois Gov. Rauner has made it a priority to enact workers’ compensation reforms to reduce employer costs. But his efforts have been blocked by the state legislature, and there is a budget stalemate in the state. There has been much political back-and-forth on this budget and the workers’ compensation reforms. It remains to be seen if the governor has the political muscle to get his legislation passed.

California

Ever since the Schwarzenegger workers’ compensation reforms in 2004, and continuing with SB 863 passed by Gov. Brown, the California legislature has been trying to undermine these workers’ compensation reforms. Every year, multiple bills are passed by the legislature, and every year both Gov. Schwarzenegger and Gov. Brown have vetoed those bills. Gov. Brown is committed to preserving his workers’ compensation reforms, and there are three years left on his term. Once he is gone, there is concern about what could happen with workers’ compensation in California. But, for now, significant change is not expected.

  1. Talent Acquisition

Talent acquisition and retention is probably the biggest issue facing the entire insurance industry. Consider:

  • 25% of insurance industry workforce will retire by 2018 (McKinsey)
  • There are 2.3 million workers in the insurance industry. More than 1 million will retire in the next 10 years, and 400,000 positions will be left open by 2020 (Deloitte and Jackson Group)
  • Workers over the age of 45 represent 48% of the insurance workforce

Are we doing enough with colleges to show the career opportunities in the insurance industry? Although more colleges and universities are offering risk management programs, the reality is that there are very few of these programs nationwide. Our industry needs to support these programs with both grants and internship opportunities.

In workers’ compensation, we need to be looking at the role of the examiner. Are there tasks that we could automate and reduce workload need? Millennials say they want to work with purpose. The role of the claims adjuster is to assist injured workers in their recovery. Could we be doing more to highlight the positive aspects of the claims adjuster role to make it more attractive to millennials?

We also need to be looking at ways to be flexible with work schedules and at whether someone is tied to the home office or able to work from a remote location. Finally, we need to continue to focus on promoting diversity and inclusion within our workforce.

In May, we will be doing an “Out Front Ideas with Kimberly and Mark” webinar devoted to this topic.

  1. Market Conditions

You cannot forecast the coming year for the workers’ compensation industry without talking about rates. Recently, for the first time in years, the Fed increased interest rates. This is good news, but the change is still insignificant and will not have a material impact on the workers’ comp industry. Because investment opportunities are limited for carriers, they continue to be very diligent with their underwriting. What does this mean for rates? Right now, the market is relatively stable. Accounts with good loss histories could see steady to slightly decreased rates, while accounts with poor loss histories will likely see slight increases. Overall, significant rate changes across the nation are not expected in the coming year.

  1. Predictive Analytics

Predictive analytics have been a buzz word in our industry for a number of years. Most data models identify at-risk claims, which may benefit from additional intervention in terms of nurse case management or a more skilled adjuster. The goal of the intervention(s) is to change the trajectory of the claim, to do something different than in similar prior claims, so the result is improved over the past experience. Although most payers reflect having predictive analytics and a variety of models available, there are limited published results on the outcome and effectiveness. Watch in 2016 to see if organizations begin sharing outcomes as a way to market their business or provide industry thought leadership on what is working and should be considered to drive success.

There is a need to evolve predictive analytics and big data models so that some human tasks are automated. Instead of just identifying cases where intervention is necessary, we should also identify claims where minimal intervention is needed. This approach frees resources and allows attention on claims, which will benefit from the touch. Future claims models will benefit from analytics using learning models similar to IBM Watson-type smart analytics.

  1. OSHA

OSHA continues to be a challenge for employers. Going into 2016, OSHA has increased reporting and recordkeeping requirements. It is also increasing its focus on certain industries, including healthcare, and employers are seeing a significant increase in fines. This is an area that is constantly evolving.

Our April 5 “Out Front Ideas with Kimberly and Mark” webinar will focus on these continuing developments and discuss the continuing issues that employers should track.

  1. Utilization Review

There is industry buzz and sidebar conversations around utilization review (UR) and the current approach deployed by employers, payers and service providers. Physicians are asking more than ever how they can help streamline treatment requests, obtain decision outcomes electronically and more quickly and provide timely, appropriate care for patients.

Utilization review should ensure that injured workers receive appropriate care within the right setting and for the correct duration. But what is the right UR model? Should all treatment be subject to UR or select treatment requests? Is UR a process strictly addressing the request for treatment and medical documentation submitted against guidelines of care or collaborative with adjusters, providers and the injured workers? Are denials of care driving up litigation unnecessarily? Do utilization review referral triggers change if the physician providing care is part of a high-performance network or known to be a top-performing physician? These are questions being raised by industry veterans and newcomers alike and are likely worthy of a review and further dialogue.

In the consumer-driven health world where we find ourselves, there is greater interest from injured workers to understand treatment options and outcomes. If not a part of UR, is your case management or claim model providing medical treatment option education, inclusive of outcomes awareness? Transparency is becoming increasingly important to consumers.

  1. Exclusive Remedy

Plaintiff attorneys are always trying to find ways around the exclusive remedy protections of workers’ compensation, and these efforts are becoming increasingly successful. In early January 2016, the District Court of Appeals in California allowed an injured worker to pursue a civil claim against a utilization review provider because the provider failed to warn him about the potential risks of medication withdrawal.

More and more, judges are allowing such litigation to survive a motion to dismiss on summary judgement because of workers’ compensation exclusive remedy protections. This creates enormous costs for employers and carriers, which then must spend hundreds of thousands of dollars or more defending such lawsuits and face the risk of a jury award that could be worth millions. In addition, an employer’s liability award based on the “intentional actions” of the employer may have issues with insurance coverage. The entire industry should be paying close attention to this area of increased litigation around exclusive remedy.

  1. ICD-10

The ICD-10 medical classification came along last year with a lot of hype and a significant amount of work effort to update systems and train teams. There was concern that the new diagnosis codes would result in slowed claims processes and treatment decisions. Thus far, workers’ compensation key stakeholders report little to no impact from the change. This may be because states did not mandate the use of ICD-10 for workers’ compensation and most organizations continue to accept ICD-9. Bill review receipt to pay timeframes have not lengthened, and e-billing rejections did not increase, which were two areas to watch after the ICD-10 go-live.

In 2019, Medicare plans to roll out an incentive-based reimbursement model tied to patient outcomes (MACRA). The American Medical Association believes this will be a significant reimbursement change for physicians. Changes to Medicare reimbursement could impact workers’ compensation because some state fee schedules are Medicare based.

History has proven Medicare does not always follow through with what it says it is going to do in terms of changing reimbursement models, but the MACRA implementation is an issue worth monitoring.

  1. Marijuana

Thus far, New Mexico has been the only state allowing medical marijuana for treatment under workers’ compensation. But as the use of medical marijuana spreads, it is inevitable that we will see other states take on this issue. The answer is simple –if states put something in their statutes barring medical marijuana under workers’ compensation, then that solves the problems. Some medical marijuana states have already indicated that insurance is not responsible covering medical marijuana. State legislators and regulators can stop this before it becomes a legitimate problem.

The bigger issue is employment practice concerns. Many expect the federal government to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule 2 drug, possibly by the end of this current administration. Once that happens, it will no longer be an “illegal” drug. Employers are going to need to adapt and drug test for impairment rather than just testing the presence of the drug. Standards are going to need to be developed on what constitutes “impairment” with marijuana. The science needs to catch up with the realities of this new normal when it comes to marijuana in the U.S.

  1. On-Demand Economy

The on demand economy is creating new concerns about what constitutes an employee/employer relationship. Is an Uber driver an employee of Uber or an independent contractor? What about a repair person you hire through Angie’s List?

While the on-demand economy is a newer dynamic, determining what constitutes independent contractor vs. an employee has been a challenge for the workers’ compensation industry for many years. In July 2015, the Department of Labor issued an interpretive memorandum indicating that the DOL feels “most workers classified as independent contractors are employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act’s broad definitions.”

So perhaps the issue to watch here is not so much the on-demand economy, but instead whether we are going to see the Department of Labor push for fewer and fewer workers to be classified as independent contractors. This could have a significant impact on many industries as well as significantly changing the business model of services like Uber and Lyft.

Appeals Court Settles Key Work Comp Issue

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has issued its long-awaited decision in the Angelotti Chiropractic Inc. v Baker case. In what can only be considered a resounding win for both the legislature’s power to create the workers’ compensation system and the Department of Industrial Relation’s authority to enforce the provisions of SB 863, the appeals court has, in its 32-page decision, upheld the portions of the lower court’s decision that were favorable to the DIR and reversed the portion that had challenged the validity of the statutory scheme. The result is a knockout, but not necessarily final, victory for the legislature and employer community’s efforts to rein in lien litigation madness.

One of the hallmarks of the most recent reforms to the worker’s compensation system in SB 863 was the adoption of both lien filing and lien activation fees. The intent of the fees was to filter out some of the less valid liens, encourage realistic settlement of liens before litigation and ultimately reduce the backlog of pending liens. Under the structure legislatively created, liens filed before Jan. 1, 2013, (the effective date of the statute) would be subject to an “activation fee” of $100 to actively pursue the lien before the W.C.A.B. Additionally, all pending liens as of Jan. 1, 2013, were required to have paid an activation fee by Jan. 1, 2014, or else be dismissed by operation of law. The second prong of the effort to reduce the backlog was to require lien claimants filing after Jan. 1, 2013, to pay a $150 filing fee. The challenge in this case was to the lien activation fee only, but the case has been watched carefully as similar arguments have been made in opposition to the lien filing fee. For many, Angelotti was considered a bellwether case on the lien fee validity.

Not surprising, shortly after its passage, the issue of the validity of the lien fee provisions in SB 863 was attacked in court with various challenges. In a ruling with what appeared to have the most potential for the challengers, a lower court had previously ruled that the plaintiffs in the Angelotti litigation had demonstrated a substantial likelihood of prevailing in their efforts to have the lien activation fee provisions declared unconstitutional. While by no means final, the resulting decision was accompanied by a temporary restraining order prohibiting the DIR from enforcing the lien activation fee provision. In its decision, the lower court rejected some of the plaintiff’s arguments that the lien activation fee violated constitutional prohibitions under the takings clause and the due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution. That part of the claim was dismissed. The lower court, however, was much more impressed with the equal protection arguments advanced by the plaintiffs, finding that the different treatment of institutional lien claimants vs. direct medical providers did not constitute a rational distinction. As a result of the temporary injunction, the DWC suspended its enforcement of the lien activation fee provisions but appealed the ruling.

In its decision, the appeals court upheld the district court’s rulings dismissing the plaintiff’s causes of action based on the takings and due process arguments, finding that the lower court’s rationale was well-founded. (The dismissal of those issues had been sought by the Angelotti plaintiffs.) However, in response to the defendant’s appeal of the restraining order and the failure to dismiss the equal protection claim, the court soundly rejected the lower court’s ruling that plaintiffs had established a probability of prevailing on an equal protection argument, reversing that holding and vacating the existing restraining order prohibiting the DIR from enforcing the lien activation fee provisions. That argument was based on the different treatment between institutional lien claimants (such as insurance companies) and private lien claimants (such as individual practitioners).

In reversing the lower court, the circuit court found the distinctions created by the legislature were both rational and within the wide latitude of the legislature to create:

“The legislature’s approach also is consistent with the principle that ‘the legislature must be allowed leeway to approach a perceived problem incrementally.’ Beach Commc’ns, 508 U.S. at 316; see also Silver v. Silver, 280 U.S. 117, 124 (1929) (stating that ‘[i]t is enough that the present statute strikes at the evil where it is felt and reaches the class of cases where it most frequently occurs.’). Targeting the biggest contributors to the backlog-an approach that is both incremental, see Beach Commc’ns, 508 U.S. at 316, and focused on the group that “most frequently” files liens, see Silver, 280 U.S. at 124,-is certainly rationally related to a legitimate policy goal. Therefore, on this record, ‘the relationship of the classification to [the Legislature’s] goal is not so attenuated as to render the distinction arbitrary or irrational.'”

The appellate court further noted it was the plaintiff’s burden to negate “every conceivable basis” that might have supported the distinction between exempt and non-exempt entities. The circuit (appellate) court said the district court did not put the plaintiffs to the proper test in this regard, instead rejecting the argument made by the defendants (DIR) that the activation fee was aimed at clearing up a backlog of liens. The circuit court found multiple flaws with the lower court’s analysis on this argument, including that it failed to give proper deference to the legislature’s fact finding. Instead, the court held the proper application of correct legal principles demonstrated the plaintiffs, rather than showing a likelihood of success, actually showed no chance of success:

“…that plaintiffs have no chance of success on the merits because, regardless of what facts plaintiffs might prove during the course of litigation, ‘a legislative choice is not subject to courtroom fact-finding and may be based on rational speculation unsupported by evidence or empirical data.’ See Beach Commc’ns, 508 U.S. at 315. Thus, the presence in the commission report of evidence suggesting that non-exempt entities are the biggest contributors to the backlog is sufficient to eliminate any chance of plaintiffs succeeding on the merits.”

While the plaintiffs in this matter have further appeal rights, it does not appear that under this decision the plaintiffs will be entitled to a trial at the lower court. The court not only vacated the injunction but took the unusual step of reversing the trial court’s denial of defendant’s petition to dismiss the equal protection cause of action. As noted in the above quote, the legislative authority to fashion a remedy effectively eliminated any chance of plaintiff’s prevailing.

Comments and Conclusions:

While the decision in this appeal took some time to come, the finality of the decision, and the tenor of the court’s ruling, will undoubtedly be considered well worth the wait. By reversing the lower court’s failure to dismiss the equal protection clause, the appellate court left very little opening for preservation of this lawsuit. While the plaintiffs can both ask for a rehearing and appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, those levels of appeal come with rapidly diminishing probability of success.

With the DIR no longer hamstrung by the restraining order, we can anticipate a rapid enforcement of the lien regulations requiring activation fees. What will be a fascinating sideshow to this will be what happens to the provisions of Labor Code § 4903.06(a)(5), the requirement to pay the activation fee on any pre-1/1/13 lien claim on or before 1/1/14, a date long since passed. The DWC stopped collecting activation fees pursuant to the now vacated restraining order shortly after the TRO issued. Interestingly the language on the W.C.A.B.’s website indicated lien claimants were not obligated to pay the activation fee to appear at a hearing or file a DOR. However, it makes no mention of the dismissal language in 4903.06.

It is highly likely that few if any lien claimants paid activation fees by 1/1/14. It also seems unlikely, though not necessarily impossible, that the DIR or W.C.A.B. will be able to enforce the dismissal by operation by law provisions without allowing some kind of grace period for lien claimants to comply with the activation fee requirement before lowering the boom on liens without such fees. Lien claimants are now in something of a no man’s land with the faint hope that a further appeal may save them from the lien activation cost, but the compliance clock will probably be ticking, and once it stops the jig will be up on their liens.

It would certainly make sense for any current lien claimants, especially those who are set for hearings, to start looking into complying with the activation fee requirements. Showing up at the W.C.A.B. on a pre- 1/1/13 lien claim without having paid the activation fee may very well result in dismissal in the very near future. For defendants, with the TRO no longer in force, it is game on as far as activation fees are concerned. I intend to start raising the issue tomorrow…(or at least at my next hearing with a pre-1/1/13 lien claim).

On a side note, a similar case in state court, Chorn v Brown, was also recently decided in an unpublished decision. In that case, a lien claimant had challenged the lien statutes on both activation and lien filing fees. The case has been dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction in the superior court. As a practical matter, the dismissal is really more of a procedural issue than a substantive one. The court of appeal noted the proper remedy for Chorn was to pursue a petition for writ of mandamus in the court of appeal, a step Chorn has actually initiated. However, a petition for writ of mandamus requires an appellate court to decide the issue has merit, a rather dubious proposition at this point. However, it is one more step to finally clearing up the DIR/DWC/W.C.A.B.’s authority to deal with the lien morass that, while somewhat abated in the past couple of years, continues to plague the system.

A Catch-22 on Hiring the Disabled

In the Missouri Court of Appeals' recent decision in Stewart v. Second Injury Fund, the facts were not in dispute: Ms. Stewart worked at Subway for a few months, suffered a moderately severe injury at work and could not return to any type of employment.

Here’s where the story becomes interesting: The claimant qualified for Social Security disability in 1997 — more than 10 years before she started working at Subway. 

Her Social Security disability was awarded based on confirmed medical conditions including arthritis, reflex sympathetic dystrophy, degenerative joint and bone disease and carpal tunnel syndrome. She continued to receive Social Security disability benefits even while she was working at Subway.

After her work injury in 2009, she filed for workers' compensation benefits, claiming that she was permanently and totally disabled.

Was the claimant permanently and totally disabled before her injury at Subway? Apparently not, because she was able to obtain that job and perform the duties associated with that job. In the absence of her injury, she would have presumably been able to continue working. 

Why would she be entitled to Social Security disability benefits if she was able to compete in the open labor market? If she was disabled in 1997, should she be entitled to more benefits when she was injured at a job that she should not have been able to obtain?

What if Subway had told the claimant during her initial job interview that she could not be hired because of her multiple disabilities? She could have sued Subway under the Americans with Disabilities Act, arguing that Subway was discriminating against her. Subway, not wanting to be sued, could have been forced to hire the claimant only to face the prospect of being liable for permanent total disability after only a few months of work.

I’m not attempting to disparage the claimant. She obtained benefits that are legally provided. My question is this: Is it fair to place employers in no-win situations where they face litigation if the employee is not hired, yet still face litigation if the employee IS hired?

This situation arises because of the myriad of state and federal laws that regulate every facet of the workplace. Every employer must wade through an alphabet soup of overlapping laws every single day (ADA, FMLA, COBRA, EFCA, EAD, ERISA, FLSA, FCRA, INA and a host of others). 

One cannot swing the proverbial dead cat without hitting five politicians giving a speech focused on creating jobs. Yet, can jobs be created by strangling the very companies that create these jobs?

Workers' Compensation No Longer The Exclusive Remedy: RICO On The Radar

Workers' Compensation origins can be traced to the late Middle Ages and Renaissance times in the Unholy Trinity of Defenses, the doctrine that first outlined that work-related injuries were compensable.  This doctrine began in Europe and made its way to America with the Industrial Revolution.  There were so many restrictions with it that changes occurred and led to the doctrine of Contributory Negligence which outlines that employers are not at fault for work-related injuries. This principle was established in the United States with the case Martin vs. The U.S. Railroad. In this case, faulty equipment caused the injuries, but the employee did not receive compensation, as it was deemed that inspection of equipment was part of his job duties. Additionally, the case Farnwell vs. The Boston Worchester Railroad Company led to the “Fellow Servant Rule” where employees did not receive compensation if their injuries were in any way related to negligence from a co-worker.

For awhile, in the United States, we had the Assumption of Risk Doctrine that held employers were not liable for injuries because employees knew of job hazards when they signed their work contracts. By agreeing to work, they assumed all risks. These contracts were often nicknamed Death Contracts. The only recourse an employee had was civil litigation or tort claims. As the nineteenth century continued, employers were faced with increasing civil litigation and employee verdicts.

The basis of our exclusive remedy workers' compensation system had its roots in Prussia with Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, who, in 1884, pushed through Workers' Accident Insurance which contained the exclusive remedy provisions for employers.  The first Federal Workers' Compensation law was signed in 1908 by President Taft, protecting workers involved in interstate commerce.

Work Reform was slower to progress to America. Early workers' compensation acts were attempted in New York (1898), Maryland (1902), Massachusetts (1908), and Montana (1909) without success.  Finally, in 1911, Wisconsin passed the first comprehensive workers' compensation law, followed by nine other states that same year. Before the end of the decade, thirty other states passed workers' compensation laws. The last state to pass workers' compensation laws was Mississippi in 1948.  The main issue in all the states workers' compensation acts is the no fault system, i.e. employers who participate in the states workers' compensation system are exempt from civil tort litigation, hence the exclusive remedy. In the United States this exclusive remedy for work related injuries has stood, for the most part, until recently.

Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, more commonly known as RICO, is a federal law that provides for criminal penalties and a civil cause of action for acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal organization. This act focuses specifically on racketeering, and it allows the leaders of a syndicate to be tried for the crimes which they ordered others to do or with which they assisted. It was enacted October 15, 1970 and was in widespread use to prosecute the Mafia. It has become more widespread and now plays a significant role in work-related injuries.

RICO on the Radar

One of the most recent significant cases is Brown, et al v. Cassens Transport, et al No. 08a0385. In summary, The United States Court of Appeals, Sixth District (Michigan), acting on a remand from the United States Supreme Court, has held that employees may have an action based on the civil provisions of the RICO Act against not only employers but their agents (carriers and doctors).  This is an important decision which could affect employers in the 6th district, Michigan and Illinois, because it involves a Federal statute where the United States Supreme Court has held that the plaintiffs need not prove reliance that the defendants’ actions resulted in detrimental consequences to the plaintiff.

In the instant case, Brown v. Cassens, decided October 23, 2008, the Supreme Court had merely restated its opinion in Bridge v. Phoenix, decided June 9, 2008, where it originally held that the plaintiff need not prove that it relied on the alleged RICO violation. This case allows the Plaintiffs to sue the Employer (Cassens Transport Company), the TPA (Crawford and Company) and the doctor (Dr. Margules).

The Plaintiffs allege that the defendants engaged in a civil conspiracy and racketeering to deny them workers' compensation benefits. Specifically, the Plaintiffs allege that the employer and TPA hired unqualified doctors to issue fraudulent medical findings to deny them workers' compensation benefits.  The case alleges at least 13 predicate acts of fraud by mail and wire all relating to the fraudulent denial of the workers' compensation benefits under the Michigan Workers' Disability Compensation Act. For more specifics, please refer to the case citations. Suffice it to say here that the Court has allowed this case to proceed forward, taking away the employers exclusive remedy. Furthermore, RICO cases are not covered by insurance, making this very costly for the employer, carrier and physician.

Many say that the this case has a long way to go before employers have to be concerned about  the exclusive remedy position being taken away, but that may no longer be true. In November 2012, a landmark settlement was reached in Josephine et al v.Walmart Stores, Inc., Claims Management, Inc., American Home Assurance Co., Concentra Health Services, Inc.; Defendants. Civil Action No. 1:09-cv-00656-REB-BNB (USDCT Colorado). This RICO case was allowed to proceed against defendants under a state RICO statute in Colorado in March, 2011. In November, 2012, a settlement was reached between the parties for $8 million.

And most recently, June, 2013, the Sixth Circuit heard arguments in Jackson v. Sedgwick Claims Management Serv. This RICO case will determine if Michigan’s workers’ compensation laws provide the exclusive remedy for injured workers, or whether injured workers can sue under RICO for an alleged conspiracy to file false medical reports to cut off workers’ compensation benefits. 

These cases are just the beginning and it appears that the exclusive remedy provision for workers' compensation will no longer serve to prevent costly civil litigation. An employer, insurance carrier/TPA and physician can take several steps to protect themselves. First, evidence-based medicine should always prevail. Objective medical evidence can help protect against claims for fraudulent denials of work-related injuries. Also, employers should accept only claims that arise out of the course and scope of employment (AOECOE). If an employer can objectively document AOECOE issues, then no claim exists, hence no fraudulent denials.

A good approach to determining AOECOE claims is baseline testing, as it can identify injuries that arise out of the course and scope of employment. If a work-related claim is not AOECOE, as proven by objective medical evidence such as a pre- and post-assessment where there is no change from the baseline, then, not only is there no workers’ compensation claim, there is no OSHA-recordable claim, and no mandatory reporting issue. If the baseline testing is evidenced-based medicine and objective, this can further protect employers against RICO claims.

A proven example of a baseline test for musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) cases is the EFA-STM program. EFA-STM Program begins by providing baseline injury testing for existing employees and new hires. The data is interpreted only when and if there is a soft tissue claim.  After a claim, the injured worker is required to undergo the post-loss testing. The subsequent comparison objectively demonstrates whether or not an acute injury exists. If there is a change from the baseline, site-specific treatment recommendations are made for the AOECOE condition, ensuring that the injured worker receives the best care possible.

New Laws … New Responsibilities … New Opportunities

SB 863 was signed by California’s Governor back in October but with an official start date of January 1, 2013. For that reason and just because I don’t trust either the legislature or the courts to change their minds, I thought I would wait until now to start talking about what is good, what is bad and what is downright ugly.

Let’s Start With A Good…
In 1917, the first Industrial Accident and Safety Act went into effect. There were lots of pieces, but one that has endured the test of time is the one that allows an injured employee to choose to be treated by his own consulting or attending physician, at the employee’s own expense. The current version of that section is now Labor Code Section 4605 (until 1/1/2013). In my mind, it has been used, or should I say abused, over the past years with an ongoing controversy over this section and what it really means.

There are two major issues surrounding this section of the code. The first has been the question of who is really responsible to pay the bill. The second is whether or not the non-Medical Provider Network doctors’ reports are admissible in court. Well, thanks to an energetic applicants’ attorney (A/A) named Mendoza, both of these issues became ripe for the courts with the recent 2012 Valdez case.

First, I must note that there was a viable Medical Provider Network in place at the time of the injury. The employee initially went to the carrier’s Medical Provider Network doctor, but he also self-procured his own, non-Medical Provider Network doctor.

The carrier objected on the basis that the Medical Provider Network controlled all medical treatment. However, the trial judge admitted and relied totally on the report of the self-procured, non-Medical Provider Network doctor in making his decision as to compensability and the amount that would be due the injured employee. This matter was then taken up by the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board who reversed the trial judge not once but twice.

However, Mr. Valdez’ attorney was not letting go so easily. So the matter was then taken up by the Court of Appeals who agreed with the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board. Mr. Mendoza was still not satisfied and took the matter to the California Supreme Court for consideration. The matter has been accepted by the Supreme Court and we await their decision which I predict will be in our favor.

However, while all of this was going on in the courts, the legislature was in the process of passing SB 863, which has some interesting changes … one of which is directly related to this issue. To put it in perspective, you must understand the current language of 4605 which reads as follows:

L/C 4605 — Consulting or attending physicians provided at employee’s expense. Nothing contained in this chapter shall limit the right of the employee to provide, at his own expense to a consulting or attending physicians whom he desires.

As noted above, one of the problems has been who has been paying the non-Medical Provider Network doctors’ fees. Up to this point in time, the applicant’s attorneys have been burying these costs when they send the injured employees to their doctors. The doctors are instructed to treat and to then file a lien for their fees which are normally dealt with at the time the claim itself is decided. I am sorry to say, that in the end, the carriers have rolled over and have been picking up these costs without a fight. This, even when there is a valid Medical Provider Network in place and all such services by the non-Medical Provider Network doctor should be objected to and paid for by either the injured employee or better yet, his attorney.

Non-Medical Provider Network Doctors’ Reports
The next issue is the admissibility of the non-Medical Provider Network doctor’s report. The argument has been that since the employee is paying for it, it should be allowed to have weight in the final determination of the claim. Needless to say, we have vigorously objected and in many cases have won. However, the issue was still there until the legislature made a significant change to L/C 4605 which clarified whether these reports could or should be admitted. L/C 4605 has been changed to read as follows effective 1/1/2013:

Nothing contained in this chapter shall limit the right of the employee to provide, at his or her own expense, a consulting physician or any attending physicians who he or she desires. Any report prepared by consulting or attending physicians pursuant to this section shall not be the sole basis for an award of compensation. A qualified medical evaluator (QME) or authorized treating physician (read MPN Primary Treating Physician — PTP) shall address any report procured pursuant to this section and shall indicate whether he or she agrees or disagrees with the findings or opinions stated in the report and shall identify the bases for this opinion.

So you can see that the legislature has spoken and the issue of the admissibility of the reports has been addressed and settled. That is why I feel we will win at the Supreme Court as the legislature has already made the necessary changes to make clear their intent with the law.

So You Ask, “How Does All This Affect Me?”
Effective January 1, 2013, when you have a strong Medical Provider Network in place, the “consulting or attending physician’s” reports will be admissible but will be sent only to the Medical Provider Network’s Primary Treating Physician. That doctor will either accept what the non-Medical Provider Network doctor has stated or reject it. If our doctor rejects it, he/she must justify why they disagree with what the report says. And of greater import is that if they reject it, there is now a dispute over the diagnosis and treatment of the injury and the matter will be sent out for a second opinion by our Medical Provider Network doctor and not the non-Medical Provider Network one chosen by the injured employee.

This approach will save both time and a great deal of money by shortening how long it takes to get an acceptable medical opinion. This will allow the claim to be moved forward and closed in a timely manner and at a much reduced cost.

What Your Injured Employee Needs To Know When Reporting An Injury
The most important thing to remember here is that when an injury occurs to one of your employees, you need to make sure that they know and understand their right to secure outside treatment but at their own expense. This has already had the affect of limiting applicant attorneys from sending their clients out to doctors who list every possible body part available and then treat and treat and treat and treat.