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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.

Stop Overpaying for Pharmaceuticals

Legislators in all jurisdictions have attempted to rein in the cost of pharmaceuticals in workers’ compensation in an effort to reduce insured employers’ workers’ compensation premiums.

California, in particular, passed legislation between 2002 and 2007 to reduce pharmaceutical costs, yet expected reductions have not been forthcoming. Attention needs to focus on whether claims administrators have taken full advantage of this legislation and whether they could be doing more to help reduce the cost of pharmaceuticals.

A recent Workers Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) study titled “Are Physician Dispensing Reforms Sustainable?” found that the average price paid in California for 5mg and 10mg Cyclobenzaprine, a muscle relaxant, ranged from $0.35 to $0.70 per tablet (from the first quarter of 2010 through the first quarter of 2013). An independent study of Medi-Cal pharmaceutical prices used for California Workers’ Compensation found, however, that since 2009, 10mg Cyclobenzaprine has been priced at $0.10 per tablet and as low as $0.05, while 5mg Cyclobenzaprine has been priced at $0.16 per tablet and has also been as low as $0.05. The comparison suggests that claims administrators have overpaid.

The 2006 California Commission on Health and Safety and Workers’ Compensation (CHSWC) study titled “Impact of Physician-Dispensing of Repackaged Drugs on California Workers’ Compensation, Employers Cost, and Workers’ Access to Quality Care” also showed significant cost differences. For example, an insured employer’s estimated total cost for each tablet dispensed at the correct Medi-Cal price of $0.10 was $0.29 per tablet. For each tablet dispensed at a price of $0.35, estimated total costs increased by between $0.70 and $0.99. When dispensed at $0.70 per tablet, estimated total costs increased by between $1.69 and $1.98 per tablet. This significant increase is directly caused by claims administrators paying far more than the published Medi-Cal price.

What can claims administrators do to ensure they do not overpay for medications?

First: Monitor medications dispensed. Second: Ensure that no more than the legislated maximum price is paid.

The California Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) website provides a medication pricing inquiry screen requiring entry of a National Drug Code (NDC) and other details taking approximately 10 seconds to obtain the price of a medication on the date it was dispensed. In addition, current pharmaceutical pricing data is available that can be loaded into a claims administrator’s computer system or program, such as a spreadsheet. To complement the DIR’s offerings, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website also provides NDC inquiry and download facilities, plus a downloadable file of suppliers of medications showing their labeler code(s) along with their company name. The labeler code is the first of three parts associated with the NDC identifying the supplier of the medication. For claims administrators wanting to know more about medications, the FDA offers the “Orange Book” for download, listing all FDA-approved medications along with therapeutic equivalence evaluations. With all this free information, California workers’ compensation claims administrators have no excuse for overpaying.

For jurisdictions that utilize the average wholesale price (AWP) to set their maximum price for a medication, claims administrators will need to license pricing information from sources such as Medi-Span (Wolters Kluwer Health) or Red Book (Truven Health Analytics). Both offer extensive pharmaceutical information for download into a claims administrator’s computer system or, alternatively, use of the vendor’s inquiry facilities.

The passing of legislation in California that set the same prices for medications regardless of dispenser (i.e. pharmacy, mail order/PBM or physician) has provided opportunities for medications to be dispensed by a physician without paying a higher price and for more accurate and timely details relating to medications being available to claims administrators.

The invoice a physician submits (either paper or electronic), includes services rendered at the person’s medical appointment with a report outlining their current medical conditions and other pertinent information, including the date of their next medical appointment. Receiving billing details on the same invoice for medications dispensed, which would include the NDCs, quantities dispensed and prices charged, provides the claims administrator with an excellent opportunity to review the appropriateness of the medication against the diagnosis and treatment plan as well as the prices charged, all in one step. In addition, there is the opportunity to review any physician treatments that differ from the norm (i.e. guidelines), which may be necessary so as not to interfere with any non-work-related treatments under the control of the person’s own physicians.

In cases of pain management and where step-therapy is used, the claims administrator can ensure that physician-dispensed medication quantities are limited to the next medical appointment and assist in determining when the person may be able to either return to work or stay at work during their recovery. In many cases, acute pain is treated with acetaminophen (aka paracetamol) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), allowing a person to either stay at work or return to work earlier. At times, however, narcotic analgesics may be required to control pain that blocks pain receptors to the brain, slowing the person’s cognitive function and reaction times, possibly restricting their ability to either stay at work or return to work early.

Claims administrators also have the opportunity to monitor a physician’s pharmacy formulary to ensure they are dispensing medications from suppliers with the lowest or the average lowest price for a medication. Claims administrators should never have to pay the “no substitution” price for a physician-dispensed medication. For some medications, the Medi-Cal “no substitution” price can be much higher than the regular price.

Considering that claims administrators currently perform some form of medical bill review, to include pharmacy price and utilization verification would add minimal additional effort to the overall medical bill payment process, regardless of whether the physician’s invoice is received on paper or electronically.

Claims administrators with computer systems that monitor medications through the NDC have the opportunity through physician dispensing to invoke timely automated processes based on the NDCs shown on the physician’s invoice. For example, if claims administrators use an adaptation of the biopsychosocial and shared-decision making frameworks (i.e. collaboration) to address a stay at work (SAW) or early return to work (ERTW), a more empathetic approach to claims handling is required. This SAW/ERTW approach can be enhanced through invoking processes based on the physician’s submitted NDCs, which may include: a pre-defined questionnaire associated with distress and risk, focusing on somatic and emotional symptoms: a pre-existing anti-depressant medications questionnaire that establishes whether the person is already taking anti-depressants’ as well as a cultural sensitivity questionnaire relating to a person’s religious or spiritual beliefs and their cultural and language preferences. The results from these questionnaires can directly influence the medical treatment pre-authorized by the claims administrator as well as assist in determining when the person is likely to return to “normality.” All this information directly influences the cost of the claim, which in turn determines the future premiums paid by the insured employer. For claims administrators who do not have capabilities such as these in their computer systems, there are systems available.

Having physician-dispensed medications billed in a timely way on the same invoice as other medical services improves both transparency and accountability. This recent WCRI study has highlighted that insured employers in California may have paid higher premiums for policy periods from 2011 through 2014, caused by claims administrators overpaying for the 5mg and 10mg Cyclobenzaprine medications, which was only brought to the attention of the workers’ compensation community in 2015.

Considering that expected savings from the enacted California legislation relating to pharmaceuticals have not been forthcoming, it is only a matter of time before insured employers conduct their own studies investigating how much has been overpaid for dispensed medications and how much this overpayment may have increased their premiums since 2007. Depending on the findings from this type of study, a possible outcome could result in California workers’ compensation insurers being forced to restate their claims costs associated with pharmaceuticals and all pharmaceutical overpayments by their claims administrators to be treated as an expense outside of their workers’ compensation insurance portfolio.

California Workers' Compensation Self-Insurance Update

Under the new requirements of SB 863, California private (non-public entity) workers’ comp self-insured employers and self-insured groups (SIGs) starting this year are required to submit an actuarial study and an actuarial summary form to the Department of Industrial Relation’s Office of Self-Insured Plans (OSIP). Private self-insured employers’ actuarial submissions are due on May 1 and SIGs are due on April 15. The new actuarial study and summary form must both be prepared by a qualified actuary, as defined by OSIP.

Under SB 863, the method for calculating OSIP’s required security deposits has changed from the old method involving the Estimated Future Liabilities (EFL) formula (multiplied by a factor of 1.35 – 2.00) to the new actuarial methodology. This is considered the “gold standard” by insurers, captives, and other state Guaranty Funds as well. Self insurers are still required to submit their self-insured employers’ annual reports to OSIP as they have always done. This annual report covers the self-insured entity’s open workers’ comp claims by calendar year.

Those 340+ self-insured entities in the Alternative Security Program (ASP) of the Self-Insurers’ Security Fund (SISF) are part of the annual composite deposit program wherein SISF provides OSIP with their security deposit guarantee. They post nothing. Therefore, their security deposits are “notional” since SISF covers them. SISF’s ASP member assessments in July, 2013 will be adjusted (i.e. rebalanced) to reflect the new actuarial standard. Some ASP entities may experience increases or decreases in their annual assessments as a result of their restated open claim liabilities using a uniform actuarial standard. Currently, SISF member security deposits are based on factors of 135% to over 200% of their total EFL.

SISF's excluded entities are those that are required to post collateral (cash, LOC, securities, or security bonds) with OSIP. The 25 active California SIG's already post security deposits based upon an actuarial figure, but in 2013 SIG security deposits — like individual self-insureds — is at the undiscounted “expected level” versus the previous standard of an 80% confidence level.

Each self-insured's actuarial report must include: Incurred But Not Reported (IBNR) liabilities, Allocated Loss Adjustment Expense (ALAE), and Unallocated Loss Adjusted Expense (ULAE), less any credit for applicable excess insurance. Each of these amounts will be reported on the actuarial summary form. There are currently 55 single-entity self-insureds that will now be required to post their OSIP security deposit based upon their 2012 actuarial report submittal.

The new OSIP self-insured actuarial summary form was just placed on the OSIP website on February 14, 2013. (Note: These new requirements do not apply to government entities and JPA's).

The actuarial valuation report of the self-insured's open workers' comp claims must be as of December 31 of the previous year (i.e. 12/31/2012). Actuaries may roll forward liabilities to the December 31 date instead of having a separate study performed if the self-insured already has actuarial studies that use a different valuation date.

It's important to note that with nearly 500 self-insured entities being impacted in 2013 by SB 863 changes, exceptions to the requirement to file an actuarial summary are being developed and will be contained in a regular rulemaking package that should be publically announced within the next four to six weeks. The proposed exceptions will most likely only pertain to self-insurers that have a few open claims or a very low total ELF.

David Axene, a healthcare actuary and an Insurance Thought Leadership author and advisory board member, recommends Jeffrey R. Jordan and Frederick W. Kilbourne as actuaries who would be able to help you with the actuarial study and actuarial summary form now required as a result of the passage of SB 863:

Jeffrey R. Jordan, FCAS, MAAA
Phone: 818.879.1299
Send Jeffrey an Email

Frederick W. Kilbourne, FCAS, MAAA, FSA
Phone: 858.793.1300
Website: www.thekilbournecompany.com
Send Frederick an Email

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