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Top 10 WC Predictions for 2017

2016 was a hectic year here at the Cluttered Desk. That is due in part to the fact I wasn’t behind it much of the time these past 12 months. Travel demands this last year exceeded all before it, and I spent a fairly significant amount of time away from the office. This makes foretelling the events of 2017 difficult; mostly because I am still trying to accomplish the tasks I was supposed to finish way back in 2015.

Now that I think about it, predicting the past would be much easier.

At any rate, I wanted to lay out for you EXACTLY what will be occurring as the year 2017 unfolds. I wanted to do that, but have absolutely no clue as to what the future will exactly be. Instead I will make these Top Ten Predictions and hope for the best.

1. The president will appoint a federal commission on workers’ compensation

President Trump will appoint a federal commission to identify and recommend improvements for the workers’ compensation system. The 142-member group, composed mainly of fellow students from Ivanka’s Hot Yoga class, will toil for 10 months trying to identify the most pressing issues for the industry. They will ultimately be overwhelmed by the system’s current complexities, causing complete work stoppages for the panel. Originally intended as a key part of the “drain the swamp” campaign, workers’ comp will ironically instead “swamp the drain,” causing chaos and confusion throughout the government. The commission’s final report will be issued via Twitter, with seven characters left to spare.

2. A federal emergency guest worker program will be established

Construction of the long-awaited “Great Wall Numero Dos” will begin along our southern border just four weeks after the new administration is in place. Unfortunately, it will be discovered that in the third week of new management the country deported all the people willing to perform the back-breaking labor in the middle of the desert Southwest. An emergency guest worker program will be established to allow people to return to the country to build the wall designed to keep them out of the country in the first place.

3. Florida will successfully reform its workers’ compensation system

Florida legislators will pull out all the stops to fix the state’s ailing workers’ compensation system this year. When the dust of reform settles, the system will be housed in a large canvas tent with three rings, and there will be shiny new cages for all the animals. Caretakers will be allocated glistening new poop-scooping shovels. The job of Chief Deputy Judge of the Office of Judges of Compensation Claims will be retitled “Ringmaster.”

See also: 10 Predictions for Insurtech in 2017  

4. The state of California will opt out

Unhappy with the fact that much of the rest of the nation did not agree with it in the recent presidential election, California will push for and ultimately be successful at separating itself from the U.S. The effort will get a huge boost when petitions supporting the measure gain 162 million signatures from people living outside the state. The move will not quite be complete, however, as most of the inland and southernmost regions will choose to remain a part of the U.S. This will leave Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay area to go their own ways. They will have screaming internet and cutting-edge technology but no food, because all of that is grown inland. Additionally, most LA commuters will have to register as foreign workers, because their three-hour commute means they now reside on foreign soil. The newly formed country of Los Angelinos will have an immediate crisis in workers’ comp, because their outrageous injury costs will no longer be subsidized by what used to be the rest of the state. The chairperson of the Los Angelinos People’s Politburo will embark on a reform effort modeled after Florida efforts. The new system will look quite similar, with the exception that the tent will be resistant to earthquakes, and all bathrooms will be gender-neutral.

5. Healthcare reform will meet medical marijuana

As Republicans dismantle the Affordable Care Act, they will strive to develop an affordable alternative to ensure prompt medical care for the dozens of people who actually paid for health insurance they obtained through the government exchanges. It will be discovered that locally sourced, organically grown and affordable medical marijuana will be the singularly stellar solution for the country’s medical ills. Free marijuana will be distributed to all persons with any illness or ailment and will serve as the single authorized medicine listed on the new health systems formulary. No one will really recover from anything, but no one will really care, either. The national anthem will be changed to Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” (Everybody must get stoned).

6. Artificial Intelligence will make inroads into workers’ compensation

The first rounds of automation will be employed in the workers’ comp industry in 2017. Artificial Intelligence will make inroads in claims management, transportation and the medical industry. Surprisingly, artificial intelligence will make the most dramatic advances in the online publishing arena; notably, many workers’ comp blogs will be taken over by these wunderkind computers. This will be ironic, as it will represent the first time actual intelligence of any kind has been applied to that sector.

7. Workers’ compensation will almost be named workers’ recovery

Long a personal goal of this prognosticator, the industry will come perilously close to being renamed “workers’ recovery” this year. The International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions (IAIABC) will commit to the cause and put the full power of its influence behind it. The effort almost succeeds, but falters slightly in the final moments. The German representatives on the Industry Rebranding Committee insist on a slight change to the word “Recovery.” The final result is the industry will be called “Nur die Klappe Halten und Arbeiten,” which essentially means, “Just Shut Up and Work.” All is not lost, however. The people at WorkersCompensation.com successfully obtain the domain name www.nurdieklappehaltenundarbeiten.com, ensuring that these inane predictions can continue for years to come.

8. Illinois will dramatically simplify and improve its workers’ comp program

In a completely unforeseen move, Illinois legislators will totally scrap their currently chaotic workers’ compensation system and replace it with a simplified, recovery-centric program based on an advocacy-based claims model. Injury durations decrease, litigation ceases to exist and everyone benefits from what is now considered the model workers’ compensation program in the nation. On a completely unrelated note, pigs will fly, and hell will freeze over.

See also: 5 Predictions for the IoT in 2017  

9. Amazon will sell workers’ compensation insurance

Online retailing behemoth Amazon will start to sell workers’ compensation insurance via their Prime “One Click Order” system. Alternately, Amazon Echo owners will be able to order a policy by saying, “Alexa, buy me workers’ compensation coverage.” Policy paperwork will be delivered within one hour via drone. When an injury occurs, employers will simply be able to return the broken worker to Amazon by generating a return authorization and shipping label from within their account area.

10. Bob Wilson will lose 50 pounds – again

Suffering with chronic knee issues and having been told to lose weight by his orthopedic surgeon, Bob Wilson will try in vain to find a new orthopedic surgeon, preferably one who weighs 300 pounds and smokes. Failing in that attempt, he will lose 50 pounds. Again. This will bring his total lifetime weight loss to more than 1,750 pounds.

And there you have it. We will look forward to returning at year’s end to see how accurate I was. Until then, have a great 2017!

This article first appeared at www.workerscompensation.com. 

Fixing Illinois’ Outdated Workers’ Comp

The American workplace has changed dramatically since Illinois created its workers’ compensation system in 1911. But the workers’ compensation system, especially in Illinois, has not kept pace. Not only does the current system do a poor job of serving the majority of workers, especially parents and other workers who need flexibility to work hours outside the traditional workday and in off-site locations such as their own homes, but it also prioritizes the financial interests of groups such as lawyers and workers’ compensation doctors over the needs of both workers and employers.

The system needs to be reformed. Illinois policymakers should allow workers and employers to opt out of the state-run workers’ compensation system and to craft their own agreements around their particular circumstances – rather than forcing all workers and employers to adhere to rigid regulations that often no longer serve their purpose.

The early 20th century origins of workers’ compensation

At the turn of the 20th century, increasing numbers of Americans found themselves in new, hazardous working conditions in the jobs created by the Industrial Revolution. But few protections existed for workers who might be unable to support their families if they became injured at work. Workers’ compensation was designed to remedy that situation by providing medical care and income replacement to injured workers. The system, however, has not evolved to meet the needs of today’s workers and employers and is ill-suited to address the problems of the modern workplace.

Changes in the modern workplace

Far fewer people work in inherently risky jobs today. The industrial sector employed nearly a third of the workforce in 1900, but employed just 19% in 1999. And even today’s dangerous jobs have become less hazardous. Deaths per 100,000 workers fell more than 93% to just four by the end of the 20th century, down from 61 deaths per 100,000 workers at the start.

But workers also face new challenges. In the middle of the 20th century, just 30% of women were part of the workforce. That number has risen to nearly 60%. Increasing numbers of Americans must now balance work responsibilities with caring for a child or elderly relative: 82% of parents are in families where both parents work. Many employers have met those challenges by offering more flexible work environments such as telecommuting and flexible schedules. But workers’ compensation – a system supposed to protect workers – increasingly stands in the way of new work arrangements to meet workers’ needs.

See also: How Should Workers’ Compensation Evolve?  

Workers’ compensation was designed for an industrial workplace. Yet, it applies equally to a telecommuter working from home. A professor who slips on papers in his home office or an interior designer who trips on her dog can claim workers’ compensation.

That makes businesses less likely to give workers flexibility to work at home or, when employers do, to let workers set their own hours. A worker who answers email at night, after taking time to pick up children from school and prepare dinner, could still be considered in the workplace as though the distinction between work and home could be drawn as simply as when workers punched a time card. Employers have little control over possible costs if the employee is injured at home, and the broken workers’ compensation system gives employers an incentive to take away flexible working arrangements for fear of legal liability.

These problems are not unique to Illinois, but the Prairie State is unusual both in having one of the most costly workers’ compensation systems in America and in not having exemptions for small businesses or domestic workers. The absence of an exemption for domestic employees hurts increasing numbers of workers who must balance work with child or elder care. As with telecommuting, this can affect all workers, but it disproportionately affects women, who tend to spend more time caring for children. And, while not everyone can afford a live-in nanny, reducing impediments to hiring domestic help makes it easier for women to hold more senior positions.

Opting out of the state-run workers’ compensation system

While Illinois has one of the most restrictive workers’ compensation systems, Texas has one of the least restrictive, even allowing employers to opt out entirely. Critics of the Texas system allege this has led employers to cut services, but the evidence suggests employers prefer to save money by cutting areas prone to fraud, while often increasing benefits that employees value. Employers often provide better benefits than required for the same reason they offer flextime: to recruit the best employees at the lowest cost.

Special interests benefit from the current workers’ compensation system to the detriment of workers and employers

The government-imposed workers’ compensation system has also been far more susceptible to co-option by special interests. While workers and employers use the workers’ compensation system only when there is an injury, lawyers interact with workers’ compensation every day. As a result, although the workers’ compensation system is supposed to provide quick resolution to workers’ claims, the powerful lawyers’ lobby helped create a system that can stretch claims out over years. This costs businesses money and denies injured workers rapid settlement of their medical bills.

Medical providers, too, have benefited from a system that unnecessarily prolongs treatment and facilitates the overprescription of certain medications, including addictive opioids.

See also: The Pretzel Logic on Oklahoma Option  

Employers and workers both have an incentive to design a better system, but the false presumption that the government-run system is better prevents them from doing so. Interestingly, Texas employers who opted out of the state-run workers’ compensation system have all but eliminated opioid overprescription.

Fixing Illinois’ workers’ compensation system means government must step back and allow workers and employers to reach agreements that make sense in their specific situations – arrangements that suit the needs of workers and employers, rather than line the pockets of special interest groups benefiting financially from the current system.

Taking a New Look at the ‘Grand Bargain’

Workers’ compensation was established more than 100 years ago as a “grand bargain” between employers and labor. Injured workers gave up their right to sue employers in civil court for workplace injuries, making workers’ compensation the “exclusive remedy” for such injuries. In exchange, injured workers received statutory benefits in a no-fault system. Over time, we have seen a number of different challenges to this grand bargain.

Is Exclusive Remedy Exclusive?

The answer to this question is clearly no. Nearly every state has a very narrow statutory exception to exclusive remedy if the injury was caused by an “intentional act” of the employer. Some states have a lower threshold if it is determined that the employer’s actions were “substantially certain” to cause injury. In both of these cases, lawsuits filed by injured workers against their employer rarely succeed, and most suits do not survive past summary judgment.

However, there are many other ways in which the exclusive remedy of workers’ compensation can be circumvented. These include:

  • Statutory Exceptions – New York employers in the building trades are still exposed to civil litigation in addition to workers’ compensation under the Scaffold Law. This allows workers in the construction industry to file suit against their employer if the injury arose from an “elevation-related hazard.” New York is currently the only state that still has such legislation in place, with Illinois repealing its Structural Work Act in 1995.
  • Third-Party-Over Actions – Some states allow civil litigation surrounding a work injury under a third-party-over action. In such cases, the employee sues a third party for contributing to the injury and then the third party brings in the employer on a contributory negligence action. For example, if an accident involves machinery, the machine manufacturer can bring the employer into the suit, alleging that it trained employees inadequately, that the machine was not properly maintained or that it was modified by the employer.
  • Dual Capacity Suits – Dual capacity suits allow the employee to sue the employer as supplier of a product, provider of a service or owner of premises. For example, if a worker is injured using a machine manufactured by the employer, some states allow that injured employee to file suit against the employer based on its negligence as the manufacturer.
  • RICO Suits – Filing claims under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) is a more recent method to attempt to avoid exclusive remedy protections. This federal law was originally designed to fight organized crime. In Michigan, Colorado and Arizona, the courts allowed injured workers to pursue a RICO complaint against their employer on the grounds that the employer “conspired” to deny medical treatment to injured workers by limiting physician referrals and prescribing practices and exercising undue influence over treating physicians.
  • Constitutional Challenges – Constitutional challenges are the latest avenue for attempting to circumvent exclusive remedy protections. There was much attention given to the Padgett case in Florida, where a judge ruled that the workers’ compensation statutes were unconstitutional because statutory changes that reduced benefits to workers and raised thresholds of compensability had eroded the “grand bargain” to the point that it was no longer valid. This case was reversed on appeal because of a technicality, so the higher courts never ruled on the merits of the argument.

Is No Fault Really No Fault?

Again, the answer is clearly no. Many states allow for a workers’ compensation claim to be disputed if it is proven that the injured worker was intoxicated at the time of the accident. In addition, some states allow for a reduction in benefits if the accident occurred because the worker violated a safety rule, such as not following lock-out/tag-out procedures or not using protective gear.

Unintended Consequences of Statutory Change and Litigation

Courts in Missouri, Illinois and Pennsylvania have ruled that, if a work injury is excluded under the workers’ compensation statutes, the employee can bring a civil suit against the employer. The courts are hesitant to provide no means for an injured worker to pursue compensation, so when statutory language is tightened up and certain conditions are excluded from workers’ compensation coverage it opens the door for potential civil action.

This issues also arises when the workers’ compensation claim is denied because the worker is not in “course and scope” of employment. If the worker falls on the employer’s premises, and the employer denies the claim under workers’ compensation, then the employee can sue under civil liability.

Not All Workers Are Protected

In many states, there are workers who are not required to be covered under workers’ compensation. 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. Finally, half the states do not require coverage for domestic workers, and five states specifically exclude coverage for these employees.

Opt-Out Legislation

Opt-out legislation, by its very nature, allows for an option to the grand bargain of traditional workers’ compensation. What many do not realize is that workers’ compensation has always been optional in Texas. Both employers and workers can choose to opt out of the workers’ compensation system and, instead, be subject to civil litigation in the event of employee injuries.

Oklahoma now allows employers an “option” to traditional workers’ compensation. Plans must be approved by the state and must provide the same level of benefits as workers’ compensation. Such plans provide employers greater control over choice of medical providers.

Opt-out legislation is currently being considered in Tennessee and South Carolina, and it is likely that similar legislation will be introduced in additional states in the future.

Causation Thresholds

There is significant variation among states in the threshold for a condition to result in a compensable workers’ compensation claim. In Tennessee, the injury must “primarily arise” from work (50% or greater). However, in California and Illinois, if the work is a contributing factor (1% or greater), the employer is responsible for that condition under workers’ compensation. Employers argue that these low causation thresholds undermine the grand bargain by greatly expanding what is considered a workers’ compensation injury.

Conclusion

As workers’ compensation has evolved, there have been many exceptions to the original premise behind the “grand bargain.” The courts have continued to allow exceptions to exclusive remedy and expanded causation standards. Statutory reforms have also resulted in classifications of employees and work conditions that are excluded from workers’ compensation. These trends are expected to continue.

Loophole for Doctors on Drug-Dispensing

After 18 states enacted reforms to limit the prices paid to doctors for prescriptions they write and dispense, a new study from the Workers Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) finds that physician-dispensers in Illinois and California discovered a new way to continue charging and to get paid two to three times the price of a drug when compared with pharmacies.

“When prices are reduced by regulation, the regulated parties — in this case physician-dispensers — sometimes find new ways to retain the higher revenues they had prior to the reforms,” said Dr. Richard Victor, WCRI’s executive director. “Although this study uses data from two large states, it raises questions for all states where physician-dispensing prices are regulated.”

The study — Are Physician-Dispensing Reforms Sustainable? — identifies the mechanism that allows doctors in Illinois and California to dispense drugs from their offices at much higher prices when compared with pharmacies. It involves the creation of an opportunity to, once again, assign a much higher average wholesale price (AWP) to a physician-dispensed drug – a practice targeted by the earlier reforms enacted in many states using language limiting reimbursement to a price based on the AWP assigned by the manufacturer of the original drug.

Consider a drug where the most common strengths are 5 milligrams and 10 milligrams. If a new strength, say 7.5 milligrams, comes to market, the manufacturer of that new strength can assign a new AWP. According to the report, the AWP of the new strength was much higher than the 5-milligram and 10-milligram AWPs set by their original manufacturers.

In Illinois, the average prices paid for cyclobenzaprine HCL of 5 and 10 milligrams ranged from $0.99 to $1.74 per pill. Before 2012, 7.5-milligram cyclobenzaprine HCL was rarely seen in the market. The 7.5-milligram product was introduced in 2012, and almost all were dispensed by physicians at an average price of $3.79 per pill in post-reform Illinois. The market share of physician-dispensed cyclobenzaprine HCL of 7.5 milligrams increased from 0% in the third quarter of 2012 to 21% in the first quarter of 2013.

Similarly, in California, before 2012, 7.5-milligram cyclobenzaprine HCL was rarely seen in the market. The average prices paid for 5- and 10-milligram cyclobenzaprine HCL, the two common strengths, ranged from $0.35 to $0.70 per pill. Since the introduction of the 7.5-milligram product in 2012, the market share of physician-dispensed cyclobenzaprine HCL of 7.5 milligrams increased from 0% in the fourth quarter of 2011 to 47% in the first quarter of 2013, when it became the strength of the drug most commonly dispensed by physicians. The average price paid for the new strength was $2.90 to $3.45 per pill.

From these patterns, the study’s authors infer that the shift in strength was unlikely to be driven by new evidence about superior medical practices. Rather, it is likely that financial incentives drove some physicians to choose the strength for their patients. The study cites several reports that provide evidence of behavioral changes in response to price regulations.

For more information about this study, visit http://www.wcrinet.org/result/are_phy_disp_reforms_sustainable_result.html.

The data used for the report came from payers that represented 46% for California and 51% for Illinois. The detailed prescription transaction data were organized by calendar quarter so that, for each quarter, all prescriptions filled for claims with dates of injury within 24 months of the observation quarter were included. On average, for each of the quarters reported, WCRI included 219,572 prescriptions paid for 60,448 claims in California. The same figures were 43,034 prescriptions paid for 12,714 claims in Illinois. The detailed prescription data cover calendar quarters from the first quarter of 2010 though the first quarter of 2013.

 

Has OSHA Become a Friend to Insurers?

It may be possible for employers to take a whole new approach to workers’ comp cost containment based on an OSHA regulation that allows an employer to require injured workers to undergo a prompt medical exam outside of the workers’ comp system and to obtain the release of prior medical records.

Most employers are unaware that they can utilize this little-known and virtually untried regulation that allows for employers to pay for second medical opinions under OSHA recordkeeping requirements and regulations.  The regulation can be found in §§ 1904.7(b)(3)(ii) and (b) (4)(viii).

There are two major facets to this statute. First, employers must pay 100% of the medical exam costs outside of the workers’ comp system. Second, insurance companies and third-party administrators (TPA)s cannot schedule such exams or pay for such exams because they cannot work outside the state workers’ comp system.

The costs of such exams are not included in an employers’ overall workers’ comp claim costs, nor are they included in experience modification calculations. The costs for such a program would have to come out of another budget, like risk management or safety.

Of major significance is that, while the regulation states such exams are outside workers’ comp regulations, with proper procedure they and the related medical records are discoverable. They may be released and used in workers’ comp claim adjudication.

This approach would not necessarily require any change in how medical professionals provide exams for injured workers. What would change is how these exams would be scheduled and paid for, outside workers comp.

A key issue is that these employer-directed exams would have to be contemporaneous.” OSHA defines this as, “no change in workers’ condition” between the medical exams.

There would be a very short window, in my opinion, to utilize this OSHA prompt medical exam. These exams would need to be scheduled at the same time as the initial injury reporting.

The intent of OSHA is to allow employers to choose between two conflicting medical opinions (employee medical provider vs. employer medical provider) as to whether an injury or illness is “recordable” under OSHA regulations based on “authoritative” medical opinion.

OSHA regulations are silent on two fronts:  1) the actual timelines beyond “contemporaneous” and 2) whether these medical exams and prior medical records can be used through subpoena to question the need for continuing medical treatment and lost time under state workers’ comp.

But I see no reason why the results of such an exam could not be used even after a claim is determined to be “recordable” under OSHA regulation, because the prompt medical exam and second medical opinions and reports are “discoverable” under proper procedure in state work comp systems, according to OSHA.

The employer can simply say, “We paid for a prompt medical exam under OSHA regulations, and this is what we found out.” The employer would then have the right to share this information with its insurance company or TPA because the injured worker must agree to the exam and release of prior medical records.

This approach would be a great tool for employers in states such as Illinois whose workers’ comp laws allow the employee to select the medical provider.

The recent federal court case in Illinois decided against Fed Ex may well have had a different outcome if the company had used federal OSHA regulations to support its policy of requiring employees to promptly report medical care.

Illinois state workers’ comp law, among many others, clearly gives the employee the right to select the treating medical provider. Most people in the industry would say, “case closed!” But OSHA regulations (federal law) clearly also give employers the right to schedule a prompt medical exam and to choose between two conflicting medical opinions to determine the “most authoritative.” OSHA also refers to Department of Transportation exams as an example of intermediary exams available to employers. Those exam records and results are not part of the comp record, but, with proper procedure and use of subpoena, records may become discoverable in work comp cases.

Employers have always felt powerless in states that allow the injured worker to select the treating medical provider, such as Illinois and New York. By using OSHA regulations, employers may very well have a powerful management tool in their arsenal that they didn’t even know about to address potential fraud, abuse and inappropriate medical care and lost-work time.

Hence, I believe a little-known, rarely utilized outside of state workers’ comp is available to employers under OSHA and could be very powerful.

Stay tuned.