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Settlement of High-Exposure Workers’ Comp Claims, Part Three

Part I (Identification) and Part II (Valuation) of this series provided insight into identifying and correctly valuing the appropriate cases to approach for settlement. In Part III, we will turn an eye toward successful negotiation and resolution. 

Negotiation

Beyond the financial aspect of the negotiation are underlying factors that are not always obvious. The most important aspect to understand is that there is an individual whose life has been seriously affected by an industrial injury. Many times this fact is lost in the volumes of reports, bills and correspondence.

Preparation

After the valuation of the case has been completed, several elements still remain that need to be addressed before proceeding with negotiation.

First, the future indemnity exposure and its value must be evaluated. Next is consideration of the injured workers’ Medicare status. Criteria have been outlined in various memoranda put out by Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS); critical elements include:

  1. Is the individual receiving Medicare benefits?
  2. Is there a reasonable expectation in the next 30 months that the individual will be entitled to Medicare benefits, and the settlement is in excess of $250,000?

If the answer to either question is “yes” then the parties should conduct a Medicare Set-Aside analysis. Is it best to fund the MSA with cash or an annuity? In most high-exposure cases, the MSA is substantial, and the use of an annuity is critical to settlement. Once the MSA is completed, submission to CMS for review and approval should be sought as soon as possible. At present, the turnaround time is approximately four to five weeks, though it sometimes takes considerably longer. 

The next consideration is the value (future and discounted) of items such as home/attendant care, non-covered equipment and off-label medications. These are all the “medical” items that cannot be paid for through the MSA and would become the responsibility of the injured worker. 

Finally, as each case is unique, are there any other factors specific to the individual’s case that must be considered, such as retroactive or unpaid benefits, disputed costs or out-of-pocket expenses?

In most high-exposure settlements, a combination of cash and annuities are going to be the critical elements. At a minimum, most MSAs are funded via “seed” (initial payment) and annual payments via an annuity. The balance in some instances is paid in cash; however, in most cases, some form of future income stream should be created to ensure the injured worker has funds to pay for non-Medicare-covered items as well as some level of income replacement for either a fixed period or for the remainder of his life. 

Human Element

The human element cannot be overlooked. Many times, the individual needs to “vent” by telling his story. This can be a cathartic moment that forms a bond with the injured worker and establishes a level of trust. 

Bringing all parties together face-to-face to lay out the issues from all sides is crucial. This creates an environment of understanding and illustrates a seriousness about resolution, and the intelligence gained is invaluable. Many times, an injured worker makes a seemingly benign comment that is the key to resolving a case. For example: “I want to make sure my family is taken care of after I die.” Or, “All I want to do is move to my house in Oregon and spend the rest of my days bass fishing,” or “I would like better living arrangements for myself and my Rottweilers.”

These are actual comments made during initial discussions that, with a little creativity, let the parties craft a settlement that fit the needs of injured workers. This is not to suggest that these cases could not have otherwise settled, but the key to resolving them was to find what was important and unique to the injured workers.

Many workers are frustrated by the workers’ compensation system and are seeking a way to move on to the next chapter of their lives. 

Creativity

There is no such thing as “one size fits all” in high-exposure claims. Crafting the most beneficial settlement for the injured worker is the key. Gone are the days of a fixed amount of cash plus the funding of the MSA.

For the worker who wanted to bass fish, for example, a settlement was crafted to include a bass boat, a small amount of cash and a lifetime income stream through an annuity. The agreement was reached in a very short time. For the worker who wanted to be sure his family was cared for after his death, a settlement was crafted — again, within the framework of the value of the case — to provide him an upfront sum of cash, an annuity to fund his MSA and a tax-free annuity referred to as a “Joint and Survivor Benefit” that produced income for him and his wife as long as either was still living. For the worker worried about her pets, a creative solution provided for housing accommodations for her and her two very large dogs. 

The point is to pay close attention and understand what is important to an injured worker. While we all may have opinions about the best way to craft a settlement, ultimately it is the injured worker who has to live with it. Providing workers with settlements that meet their specific needs and wants will not only engage them in the settlement process but will leave them with the satisfaction that they got what they wanted.  

Resolution

Once terms are agreed on, we arrive at the resolution phase. At this point, jurisdictional requirements need to be considered, and they are quite variable. 

The first issue is to ensure that Medicare’s interests have been adequately considered. Then, aside from any conditional payments by CMS that may exist and will need to be addressed post-settlement, the remaining issue is to ensure that settlement documents are drafted that meet the requirements of the specific jurisdiction (state, federal, etc.). Typically, this is handled by defense counsel.

Conclusion

If the parties are prepared, the negotiation and resolution phase moves rather quickly from an initial discussion to an agreement of terms, to the preparation of settlement documents and finally to submission to the appropriate entity for approval. Beyond preparedness, the keys to success include understanding the human element and being creative about addressing the needs and concerns of the worker while staying within the value of the case.

Addressing the three elements covered in this series on high-exposure workers' compensation claims — Identification, Valuation and Negotiation/Resolution — will benefit all parties. The carrier/self-insured will reduce projected exposure. For the injured worker, while a settlement cannot replace what he lost, it will let him move forward with his life based on an adequate, fair settlement. 

Settlement of High-Exposure Workers’ Comp Claims, Part Two

(Part I of this series focused on how to identify high-exposure claims and on the factors that drive cost and duration. Part II focuses on approaches to establish the value of a case, to determine if it is a good candidate to settle.)

Three numbers are critical in the valuation and determination of whether a case is a good candidate for settlement: future value, present value and settlement value.

Future value

The analysis of future valuation provides, by reserve category, a value for the indemnity, medical and expenses projected for the future of the case. 

The indemnity exposure is driven by statutory requirements for both permanent partial and permanent total disability. Typically, permanent partial disability is a fixed number of weeks multiplied by a weekly benefit. Likewise, permanent total disability benefits are calculated at a fixed rate; however, in most instances the benefit is payable for the life of the injured worker. A complication is that each jurisdiction views permanent partial and permanent total disability differently.

Determining the future medical exposure can be even more complicated. In many instances, a calculation will be made based on the average spending on the case over the past three years, but a more thoughtful analysis is necessary to determine the true future value. The analysis should be calculated based on the normal, expected treatment that an injured worker will need over the course of the claim but also consider the irregular treatment modalities necessary or requested by the physician. These may be surgeries, replacement of motorized wheelchairs, conversion vans, etc., which occur on an irregular basis; for example, a replacement van would be required every eight to 10 years, or a motorized wheelchair may need to be replaced every five to seven years. By parsing out these items, a much more accurate and appropriate analysis will be developed. 

Even once you understand the future exposure and the present value of a case, you still should consider other factors, such as co-morbidity and the reduction in the life expectancy of an injured worker because of both industrial and non-industrial conditions (factors discussed in Part I: Settlement of High-Exposure Claims Part I). 

Co-morbidity factors can indicate whether an injured worker’s life expectancy suggests there will be a need for, perhaps, a second knee surgery (at the 30-year mark). Will the injured worker’s condition deteriorate to either create a need or expand the existing exposure for home/attendant care? 

The most significant costs in high-exposure claims typically are medical, and a calculation of settlement value should also take into account that great savings can be achieved. In many instances, savings can be realized through turning the Medicare Set Aside, presuming one is necessary, into an annuity. Assessing non-Medicare type items such as home/attendant care and “off label” medications can also produce savings.

Expenses are also sometimes difficult to quantify. Allocated expenses such as legal fees and record subpoena services may diminish over time as issues begin to resolve. Depending on the jurisdiction, continuing litigation costs may be incurred if a defendant denies a treatment modality or procedure. In addition, consideration should be given to “other” medical expenses such as bill review, utilization review and nurse case management services. These typically continue through the life of the claim and may cost thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars. 

Present value

When analyzing the present value (also referred to as a discounted value) of benefits, it is important to understand the time value of money and current internal rates of returns on investments. The typical internal rate of return for annuities is currently approximately 4%. This rate varies, primarily based on interest rates. Carriers and self-insured employers have greater buying power, so they might expect a return of 6% to 7%.  

Determining present value is a straightforward calculation based on whatever the right discount rate is but requires a detailed understanding of likely expenses. Is the injured worker only entitled to benefits for a specific number of remaining weeks? Or, is the benefit payable for life? Determining the present value of the consistent medical generally is a matter of calculating the average annual cost and applying the appropriate discount rate. With irregular costs, it is necessary to understand the specific items in question and the estimated frequency of each. If an injured worker needs knee replacements and will require two over her lifetime, an estimate is needed as to when those will occur (for example, in 15 years and again in 30 years) and the anticipated cost of the surgery. The present value of the surgeries can be calculated based on how many years off they are. 

Discounting expenses associated with a case is typically handled much like the medical discounting. For the regular, consistent costs, an annual amount can be calculated and discounted for present value. If intermittent litigation and other expenses may occur, estimates are created and discounted for present value.

It is safe to say there is some art associated with determining present value. Variances in the discount rate used, the manner in which exposure is calculated and other factors can greatly affect the calculation. Understanding these variables and analyzing them correctly is imperative to reaching a solid present value calculation.

Settlement value

The nature and type of insurance program (primary vs. self-insured) as well as the manner in which the defendant has analyzed his exposure will greatly affect the settlement value of a case.  Understanding the differences between the future exposure and present value calculations aid in determining the amount of money that a party is willing to spend to bring closure to a file. 

Lacking a crystal ball, reserving practices have always had an aspect of “art” to them; thus the future value will have some variation over time based on changes in treatment course, deterioration in condition and other factors.  Present value calculations are estimations or approximations based upon the changes in value of money over time.

Likewise, the settlement value of a case is the best estimate of where the future needs of the injured worker will be, with consideration of the time value of money and degree of desire to extinguish the exposure now—before there is any further potential for expansion or deterioration in the condition, creating a greater degree of expense and exposure in the future. 

A discussion of settlement value should consider that a settlement of the case-in-chief not only ends direct expenses such as litigation, utilization review and nurse case management but also brings to an end the time and energy expended to adjust the claim. Time and energy are usually disproportionately great in high-exposure cases because of the complexities.

A settlement also helps the carrier/self-insured employer by possibly allowing it to recover reserves set aside for a case and by reducing exposure to any expansion of the claim as the years go by.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the objective is to bring these high-exposure cases to resolution as promptly and cost-effectively as possible because, for carriers and self-insured employers, this small percentage of cases drive the majority of costs associated with a workers’ compensation program.

Part III of this series will cover Negotiation and Resolution.

Settlement of High-Exposure Workers' Comp Claims: Part One

In nearly every workers' compensation program, cases that are referred to as “legacy files,” “dog files” and a myriad of other names (some of which are not appropriate for print) represent high-exposure claims that drive costs. Identifying and resolving these cases early can reduce exposure and overall costs.

The first part of this three-part series will look at what can trigger those important cases. 

Identification

Generally speaking, a few cases represent the vast majority of the cost of a workers’ compensation program. Many are driven by the medical treatment necessary to cure or relieve the effects of the injury. While the indemnity aspect (permanent partial and permanent total disability) can be important, typically it is much easier to quantify these benefits than it is to determine the medical costs.

The high-exposure claims fall into two categories: acute and chronic.

Some examples of acute cases are quadriplegics, paraplegics, severe burns, amputations and head traumas. These injuries are severe and occur immediately as a result of the initial injury. In most instances, there is a significant initial cost, and the continuing care is substantial.

Chronic catastrophic cases, on the other hand, are much more difficult to identify. They typically start off in benign fashion (lumbar strain, knee strain, etc.) and deteriorate into multiple surgeries, lengthy periods of lost time and permanent disability. Chronic cases typically develop about five years after the injury.

A variety of metrics can be used to identify these cases and bring them to the forefront of a settlement initiative. 

Co-Morbidity

A case review can reveal numerous medical conditions that affect potential future exposure, including hypertension, obesity, diabetes, nicotine usage and excessive alcohol consumption. In many instances, these conditions are considered non-industrial and are not identified as cost drivers for the workers’ compensation claim. They are, nonetheless, extremely important in the healing process.

For example, the failure rate of spinal fusions is 20% to 30% in cigarette smokers, nearly double that in non-smokers. The failure of a spinal fusion typically results in one or more additional procedures, including: 1) a repeat fusion; 2) trial/implantation of a spinal cord stimulator; or 3) trial/implantation of an intrathecal pump (commonly referred to as a morphine pump). The costs associated with a failed fusion are payable by the claim, significantly increasing its duration and the cost. 

Similarly, high glucose levels in diabetics can cause poor circulation, diabetic neuropathy and deficiencies in the immune system–all factors in recovering from injuries and surgeries. When an injured worker needs lower extremity surgery (foot, ankle, knee, etc.) and his diabetes is not well-controlled, significant medical problems can develop, including delayed recovery, infections and, in extreme cases, amputation. Again, whether or not the diabetes pre-dated the industrial injury, it can drive medical, indemnity and expense costs. Further, in some jurisdictions, a defendant may become liable for treatment of the diabetic condition if there is evidence that the condition was exacerbated or “lit up” as a result of the industrial injury.

These are just two examples of many nonindustrial co-morbid conditions that can have a significant impact on the cost and duration of a claim.

Life Expectancy and Inflation

In identifying cases that may become high-exposure claims, it is critical to determine the life expectancy of the injured worker. According to the Department of Labor, the median age of the workforce today is 42 years. Based on figures from the National Center for Health Statistics, that would result in a remaining life expectancy of 38 years, on average between men and women. So, it could be necessary to provide medical benefits for an extended period.

The rate of medical inflation is typically 8% a year, so the cost of medical care for an individual will double approximately every eight years.  We refer to this as The Rule of 8.  If an individual is consuming $5,000 a year in treatment today, a doubling every eight years would mean the medical cost would exceed $80,000 annually as he approaches the end of life (see Chart I below). The figures do not consider any deterioration in the medical condition.

Medications

Prescription and consumption of medications is escalating. In severe cases, the individual becomes dependent, and the physician is left with few other treatment options. We see instances where medications are prescribed, then additional prescriptions are viewed as necessary to counteract side effects.

New medications are approved by the FDA on a regular basis and are often prescribed in workers’ compensation claims.  More and more, a physician will prescribe an “off label” medication (one that has been approved by the FDA for a specific condition or purpose not consistent with the diagnosis).  Because of patents, there are no generics, and the medications can be costly. An example is Actiq.  This medication was approved by the FDA for the treatment of pain in Stage IV cancer patients.  But, in recent years, physicians have prescribed Actiq for the treatment of chronic spine pain.  The medication can cost upward of $4,000 to $6,000 a month. 

Addition of Body Parts

We all remember the old “Dem Bones” song: “The knee bone’s connected to the thighbone, the thighbone’s connected to the …”  Well, nothing could be more accurate in the world of workers’ compensation.  In catastrophic cases, additional body parts are almost universally alleged as part of the industrial injury. A cervical injury expands into the upper extremities. A knee injury expands to the back and ankle because of an altered gait.  Medications prescribed for chronic pain cause internal complaints.

Identification Process

These triggers, and others, can make a case spiral into a high-exposure claim.  Part II of this series will discuss, in detail, approaches that can be used to assess these types of cases and focus on strategies to mitigate the exposure and move the cases toward resolution.