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How to Avoid Work Comp ‘Fact-cidents’

Every workers’ compensation claim is not preventable, when you consider that some are deliberate. With due respect to the art and science of safety, preventing real physical accidents and repetitive traumas is essential. However, we also need to be mindful of and prepared for the non-accident accident. Let us refer to these situations as “fact-cidents” because their construct relies on the ability of a claimant to tell a credible story void of facts.

First of all, let’s establish fact-cident detection as an employer’s responsibility. An adjuster with the best list of “red flags” cannot match the gut instinct of an astute employer who knows an employee’s history and extraneous issues and has opportunity to look that employee in the eye. An unwitnessed fall out of a chair or a bump against a restroom-stall door, or a “giving out” of the knee when turning with a parts tray in hand can be very valid claims… until they are not, mainly because the employer knows something deeper about the employee’s motivation.

The employer must share concerns with the adjuster within the early hours or days of a claim to support heightened focus. Most fact-cidents cannot simply be denied. Very quick work is required. The good news is that fact-cident defense is time-consuming but not complicated. It simply involves obtaining multiple verifications of the story. Just like the old saying, “there is no such thing as the perfect crime,” there is also no such thing as the perfect false claim. Enough prodding will diminish credibility and isolate the fact-cident for the house of cards that it is.

Quick Tip: Ask, Ask Again and Ask Some More

An injured worker should be required to reiterate his story four to six times within the first 48 hours. Here is an optimal sequence:

– Report to supervisor, who writes down claimant’s account

– Call in to triage line, where a nurse interviews and records claimant’s detailed account

– Workers’ comp lead (WC or risk manager, HR, benefits, company nurse, etc.) requires discussion and writes down another reiteration of the incident

– Treating doctor requires a detailed reiteration of the incident as part of history

– Adjuster takes recorded statement of the claimant’s account

– Adjuster and employer-leaders separately circle back to claimant after doctor visit to get claimant’s version of the doctor’s assessment

With these multiple stories and queries, the true detective work begins in comparing and sharing claimant versions. Fact-cident claimants notoriously will assume what certain parties want to hear and adjust stories accordingly. They also may enhance their story gradually with each reiteration. After medical visits, they often alter what actually happened or was said by the doctor. Sadly enough, many seem to think they can play all sides to the middle with no cross-checking among the crowd. Don’t let that happen!

The investigative test relies on comparing all versions and then, as might be indicated, sharing with other parties. For example, if the initial supervisor and HR manager reports mention non-falling incident with ankle pain but the version to the doctor claims a fall to the floor adding hip, back and elbow pain, you have an immediate piece of evidence validating suspicions. You can confidently invest and engage denial, defense, independent medical exam (IME), surveillance, field nurse, et. al.

Inconsistencies can also be presented to the doctor for review and revision or re-exam to correct any false reliance on claimant’s story. If possible, with cooperative providers, the early internal reports can be shared with treating doctor in real time so she can diligently test the employee’s credibility against other statements.

An even more powerful reason to collect and solidify various versions is to avoid future attorney representation and fact-cident influencing. Worst-case scenario with lack of early employee statements is that an attorney gets to coach the employee into a tighter self-serving story later on.

When you suspect an accident is actually a fact-cident, don’t accept any aspect at face value. Put in the time to either confidently validate and pay the claim or justify heavy investments in defense.

As a bonus, from the big-picture perspective, this type of consistent diligence establishes a general no-nonsense workplace attitude and culture when it comes to workers compensation.

How Medicare Can Heal Workers’ Comp

Workers’ comp in every state should carve out its medical line and relinquish it to Medicare. The respective statutory systems for indemnity benefits would remain. This scenario, albeit challenging in execution, would correct the cause of many systemic workers’ comp ills.

First, we must admit that the root of most WC problems lies in the delivery of medical care. Workers’ compensation medicine inhabits its own “bizzaro-world,” often lacking both clinical science and common sense. This is not the fault of most medical practitioners themselves, but more because of the pervasive manipulations, exaggerations and legal stretching of sensibilities that defy the clinical standards used in other venues.

The ubiquitous, counter-intuitive flaw is that WC medicine often is used to expand a claim rather than provide a cure. Anyone in the WC business can agree to the following truths as just a sample of medically related frustrations:

– Most any study performed shows higher costs and worse outcomes in WC medicine than in other settings. Common injuries take longer to heal when they are WC claims.

– Hearing judges regularly disregard clinical opinions in favor of subjective evidence. A common judicial outcome is to award illogical progressions, allowing diagnoses to expand as problems progress through various body parts.

– Causal relationship has an extremely low and speculative threshold when injuries are combined with chronic overlays and co-morbidities.

– Chronic conditions are accepted as arising out of incredibly specious initial traumas.

– Multiple surgeries and lifetime narcotic regimes are embraced in the face of perpetual and repeated failures to cure, all to the general detriment of claimants’ health.

– Various entities have profit streams directly related to churning medical care.

– Most of the pendulum-swinging effort in statutory legal reform amounts to limited attempts to control medical systems already tainted by legal gamesmanship. Therefore, the results don’t always support optimal clinical perspectives or patient well-being.

WC professionals may have a jaded viewpoint and accept this nonsense as part of the game. I ask you to consider a world where WC medical care was a non-issue. How much conflict and cost could be taken out of the system?

Let’s take it another step and consider ridding the current system of Medicare Set Asides (MSAs). We all know MSAs and their surrounding requirements increase cost, require added resources and waste temporary total disability (TTD) money in process delays. MSAs are a hijacking of any given state’s ability to allow compromise settlements over unproven causal relationships. In effect, when no one has determined direct causal relationship, MSAs simply decree all future care be paid, in advance, as an addendum to a settlement. Another terrible dynamic of this hijacking is how Medicare profits from the wild abandon in WC medicine, as a litany of future responsibilities can be attached to a claim absent a clinical “reasonable and customary” test by which Medicare itself might never accept such treatment requirements.

Through the MSA process, Medicare enjoys an exceptionally advantageous position with respect to WC. However, the playing field can be leveled by giving Medicare every claim from day one.

There should certainly be a direct reimbursement requirement from WC claim payers to Medicare for related care provided. I argue that this scenario would be much less costly and more efficient and fair than the current big-picture scheme that is WC medicine.

Here are a few practical thoughts in application that require no big changes:

-Medicare uses its current rules for “reasonable and necessary” to approve all care and to formally conclude treatment. Disputes can be handled via existing channels available through Medicare.

– Medicare uses its current fee schedules.

– Medicare uses its current rules for determining “chronic” conditions as opposed to curative treatment. This is the arbiter for otherwise obstinate, litigated maximum medical improvement (MMI) arguments and sets the bar for drawing down the WC reimbursement requirement and transferring a case to group health if continuing care is necessary.

Here are additional suggested changes to support the concept:

– Questionable causation or responsibility for migrating diagnosis could be given a percentage likelihood that would be applied to Medicare reimbursements. Independent physicians from opposing sides could put forth opinions, and a review process could establish the percentage applied to the life of the medical case. For example, a clinical consensus decrees that aggravated shoulder pain is 25% likely as due to job-related issues, and therefore future Medicare reimbursements from WC are 25% of cost.

– Extent of disability and permanency could still be determined by state-sanctioned independent medical exams (IMEs) and litigation process. The difference would be limits on the opportunity to exploit medical opinion, as Medicare would refer for these opinions, and aspects of Medicare’s rules and controls and requisite threat of sanctions would govern the providers.

– Medicare would need to categorize WC-preferred providers with appropriate qualification in occupationally related medicine.

– The ability to actually settle medical costs would no longer exist in any state.

– New employer insurance products or funding mechanisms could be invented to cover “Continuing Medicare Reimbursements” on certain classes of long-term claims where indemnity is fully closed, as well as the sporadic one-off future claims that might arise as allegedly part of an initial WC claim, with a “claims made” type of trigger. No more MSAs.

In conclusion, this concept would profoundly improve WC in four ways:

1) It provides a nationally accepted level of care to injured workers.

2) It brings clinical common sense to an otherwise specious and manipulated system.

3) It ends the oppressive impact of MSAs.

4) It saves an incredible amount of direct costs, frictional costs and resources while reducing litigation.

This idea is radical, but, among the calls to revise the grand bargain, it does not totally explode the current state system. I say, let the debate begin!

Is Baseline Testing Worth It? (Part 3)

This is the conclusion to the series of articles on whether baseline testing is worth the effort. The first two articles dealt with baseline testing from an employer’s point of view and from an injured worker’s point of view. We believe that those case studies were compelling. This final article will examine the statistics and, we believe, prove that baseline testing is truly worth the effort.

The concept of baseline testing for soft-tissue injuries began for us when requirements for set asides were established to protect Medicare from future medical expenses for workers’ compensation and general liability claims. ln 2011, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) mandated that all workers’ compensation  and general liability claims be reported in electronic format. This change enables CMS to look back and identify if it has ever made any work comp-related payments on a patient. Section 111 of the Medicare, Medicaid and SCHIP Extension Act of 2007 establishes Medicare’s status as a secondary payer under 42 U.S.C. 5 1395y (b), and this creates a right to reimbursement for any future claims related to a past workers’ compensation settlement. Therefore, this act has the potential to impose a possible risk of future liability against all parties indefinitely.

Soft-tissue injuries are the leading cause of claims and costs in this challenging system. They account for at least one third of all claims and are the primary reason for lost time at work. So, we  began baseline testing for soft-tissue injuries for the transportation industry in October 2011. Since that time, we have expanded our baseline testing  program to other industries: manufacturing, retail, warehouse and construction. Our initial testing  was in Georgia and quickly expanded to Texas. Now, our program is being conducted in California, Arizona, Utah, Florida, Oklahoma, Colorado and Indiana. Since the inception of the program, we have conducted more than 15,000 baseline tests.

Of those we tested, 27 have attempted to file a workers’ compensation soft-tissue claim. Only five of those 27 were found to have a change in condition. ln other words, only five had a pathology that arose out of the course and scope of employment (AOECOE). No claim was accepted for the remaining 22 cases. Of the five claims that were accepted, all resolved with the appropriate treatment. Of the cases where there was no change in condition and the claim was not accepted, three went on to litigation. These cases are summarized in the following vignettes.

Litigated case 1: A 54-year-old truck driver underwent the post-loss electrodiagnostic functional assessment (EFA) to compare with the baseline. She alleged incapacitating pathology to her neck, shoulder and back. But the comparison between the post-loss test and the baseline actually demonstrated improvement. It was found she had 25 prior workers’ compensation claims related to the same body part. Her case ultimately went to arbitration. This complicated case settled for less than $6,000. There was a full release with language to prevent future medical care from CMS, thereby protecting the employer from the unpredictable expenses of future claims to the same body part.

Litigated Case 2: A truck driver who was employed for less than a month experienced an unwitnessed fall from a truck and alleged injuries to his back, plus cumulative trauma. When the comparison tests were done, it was revealed that he had substantial pathology on the baseline that was unchanged in the EFA post-loss test.The claim remained denied based on the EFA-STM program, but he continued to receive treatment. No payments were made for the patient’s care, and he continued to pursue the issue through the legal process. The employer agreed to an independent medical exam (IME) appointment to review the status of the EFA comparisons and help establish AOECOE. The IME doctor, based on the EFA reports, found no work-related injury, leading to an uncomplicated resolution of this case.

Litigated Case 3 was detailed in Part 1 of this series. In summary, the results of the EFA-STM program demonstrated no change in condition, and the findings were affirmed in court.

In these three case examples, no unnecessary medical care was permitted; paid time off work was shortened; and litigation was resolved earlier in the process, reducing costs. Even though people will sometimes still litigate, the baseline testing gave objective medical evidence for AOECOE conditions and supported the defense of the case.

A review of the history of claims in businesses also shows that utilization of EFA –STM program significantly reduces the frequency of workers’ compensation injury claims.

In summary, the EFA program leads to more accurate diagnoses and ultimately better site-specific care to the injured worker. There are far fewer litigated cases, and even these cases are less costly because the objective evidence leads to more rapid, accurate and favorable results.

ls baseline testing worth the effort? Indubitably, yes!

IME: Success or Fishing Expedition?

Independent medical exams (IMEs) are widely used throughout the workers’ compensation insurance industry. However, as with any tool, you generally need a good carpenter or mechanic to get the best results. Because of the time required to arrange these medicolegal exams and because of the complexities of determining causation, pre-existing conditions, degree of impairment, etc., most insurance companies and third-party administrators (TPAs) outsource this function, which generates findings that can be used in the formal claims adjudication process.

The problem with outsourcing IMEs is that it typically removes from the process the only stakeholder who actually knows the injured worker: the employer.

The employer can make better decisions about whether to request IMEs — which are very expensive — by looking for red flags that, in many cases, only the employer could know about.

The most basic reason is if there is a legitimate question as to whether an injury or illness was caused by a work-related accident or industrial exposure. Red flags that might indicate the need for an IME include: The accident/injury wasn’t witnessed by other employees; reports of how the injury occurred are vague; or the injury was not promptly reported. Other triggers that only the employer would know include: a history of disciplinary, attendance or other HR issues; prior work history and the possibility that the employee is working a second job; or participation in sporting and recreational activities outside the workplace.

Other flags could be: Healthcare providers indicate that the employee may not be able to return to work, based on subjective complaints, or have proposed treating plans that are open-ended, with no clear-cut goals.

Other key issues that should be identified early in the claims process are: pre-existing conditions; any unauthorized medical treatment; any treatment by known “provider mills”; all litigated or potentially litigated claims; any potential subrogation opportunities; any doctor shopping; prescriptions for opioids; recommendations for elective surgery, such as on the back or for carpal tunnel issues; and any plain, old-fashioned tips from other employees.

IME providers often miss three fundamental questions: Can this injury or illness be caused by the workplace? Under what circumstances? Did these circumstances exist in this case?

Medical providers performing IMEs often make decisions in a vacuum, with little, if any, input from the employer. Leading medical experts who routinely perform IMEs state they are often “flying blind” and would have conducted a whole different physical exam or diagnostic testing if they only had more information. They tell me that they often have no idea why an IME has been scheduled. Miscommunication is common, and prior medical reports are often delayed or even lost.

IMEs should be conducted within a well-planned strategy at both the local level and the corporate level, between an employer and its insurer or TPA. The success or failure depends on active involvement and strong communications by all involved, including employers, IME providers, injured workers and insurance carriers and claims administrators.

As noted in previous articles, employers may consider using an OSHA-sanctioned “contemporaneous” medical exam – conducted at the moment of injury/illness notification but done outside the workers’ compensation system. Employers may consider this approach when they suspect a difficult or potentially litigated claim in states where they have little control over the choice of medical provider or face other jurisdictional or claim-specific challenges.

Employers, whether they are fully insured or self-insured, should ask detailed questions about how IMEs are handled on their behalf. Most insurers and TPAs outsource some, if not all, of the process of scheduling and arranging IMEs. There are dozens of questions I would ask about IME panel selection and quality assurance, including; credentialing, board certification, training, continuous education, experience, expertise, reputation, affiliation with university-based teaching hospitals or sports teams, along with knowledge and utilization of AMA impairment guidelines, evidence-based treatment protocols and application of disability guidelines from state workers’ comp, the Americans with Disabilities Act  (ADA) and others.

The only true stakeholder in what can be a very expensive, time-consuming and frustrating process to obtain quality IMEs is the employer. It is the employer that should be asking about “other” workers’ compensation costs and whether IMEs, which often include “hidden” costs, are actually having a positive outcome in successfully denying, closing or settling difficult and contentious workers compensation claims.

The 80/20 rules applies in both workers’ compensation and healthcare — 20% of claims will generate 80% of the costs. Employers need to have strategies in place both early and often to help confirm the relationship between reported injuries and illnesses and the workplace.

The employer’s ability to obtain credible and authoritative medical opinions is key to containing workers’ compensation costs from medical, indemnity (lost-wage replacement), permanent disability awards and administrative, legal and other fees.

Employers need to take a much more active role in ensuring high-quality healthcare while addressing waste, fraud and abuse in the system. Employers should avoid fishing expeditions but rather use these expensive tools wisely and put them in expert hands. If you are going fishing, make sure you have the right bait, deck hand and captain.

IMEs can be a great tool or waste of time and money. It’s more up to you than you think.

Did the Work Comp Nurse Make It Worse?

Case management nurses can unwittingly hinder the control of workers’ comp claims. Consider the perfect storm of “assumptions” leading to disaster: An adjuster receives a claim requiring extended treatment, makes the standard screen-clicks to assign a nurse and logs the claim in the diary. The employer assumes the case is being scrutinized and treatment is being managed. The adjuster assumes it is okay to ignore the case for a while. The nurse takes the initial claim information at something approaching face value.

In these situations, many nurses act but don’t interact. They assist with referrals and expedite the collection of medical information. Unfortunately, they may not use their clinical acumen on critical issues like compensability, diagnosis, causal relationship, return to work (RTW) and treatment plans. We should note that nurses must balance caseloads and respect their company’s requirements for speed. As such, they might feel justified in expediting what appears to be a common assignment.

When it comes to referrals, a well-intentioned nurse can cause disaster. I have experienced all of the following: a claimant alleging breathing issues referred to a “sick building expert”; a claimant with negligible head trauma to a “closed head injury specialist”; a claimant alleging jaw pain to a “TMJ dentist”; and the ever popular referral of a claimant with mysterious pains to a “chronic pain specialist.”

These real examples all involved highly questionable claimants. Needless to say, medical expert “hammers” saw perfect “nails” in each claimant and fully validated the conditions and the causal relationship each alleged. By the time of the next adjuster diary, it was all over but for the increase in reserves.

The claimant can steal control of a case and contrive subjective medical issues if a nurse simply collects doctor reports and fails to interact. Countless WC case files exist where medical notes are simply pasted in by the nurse. (As far as I am concerned, this indicates adjuster/employer failure and not necessarily a poor nurse.)

I have witnessed nurse case managers decline to intervene in RTW efforts, and the corporate nurse care management entity can, conveniently, relieve itself of RTW responsibilities without affecting its fixed fee. I would argue that some level of RTW support from a nurse can and should exist on any given case in any jurisdiction.

Quick Tip: You and Your Adjuster Must Engage and Direct Nurse Assignments

A nurse should be vital in selecting providers for specialist evaluation or independent medical exams (IMEs). However, the nurse needs the insight and outlook that can only be gained by communication and planning. Engage the nurse and explain all the case issues and concerns. Compare providers and agree on who might be most appropriate. Agree on the specific background, insight and questions to be given to this provider. An early conference call should be mandatory.

The nurse should be an active member of the claim team, including adjuster, employer, defense counsel, Medicare medical savings account (MSA) vendor and, in certain cases, the special investigative unit (SIU). Nurse contributions should be vital to team decisions and strategy.

Make certain the nurse case management fee-structure allows extended work, as a claim might require. Reconfigure if necessary to ensure nurses can spend adequate time where needed.

A nurse should be asked to evaluate, comment and make suggestions based on all medical info collected. This insight can be used by the team to make tactical and strategic decisions.

A nurse is most useful for assessing the claimant on a personal level. The nurse should be sought for oral comment on impressions and gut feelings based on interaction with the claimant. Written assessments, which are subject to discovery in legal proceedings, need to be subtle and are not as meaningful. Therefore, conference calls on an interim basis are critical for gaining powerful nurse insight.

Nurses should absolutely support RTW efforts, either at most by collecting potential jobs from the employer and sharing these directly with the employee and doctor or at minimum by reminding the doctor that the employer has a RTW program and expects participation. Somewhere along this range of support should fit any jurisdiction.

Nurses are great tactical tools against unwieldy claimants. They can relay important details and extraneous issues to a physician that can affect causation determinations and reliability assessment of subjective symptoms. Nurses give doctors an “option B” of facts and background when doctors otherwise would only consider “option A,” as relayed by a claimant. Without an “option B,” doctors are more likely to give a claimant benefit of the doubt.

Most important: The power of case management nurses is wasted if you do not provide specific insight, direction and expectation for each claim assigned.