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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. 

The Looming $20 Billion MSA Train Wreck: Welcome Aboard

There is a $20 billion calamity on the tracks ahead, and no one seems to care. As this train hurtles ever closer to its inevitable demise, the passengers ride oblivious. A program created to protect those passengers – U.S. taxpayers — seemingly will do anything but what was originally intended. 

Medicare Set Asides were developed with the good intentions of protecting Medicare, and the taxpayers that fund it, from unnecessarily paying for injuries and illnesses that are the prior responsibility of third parties. Quite simply, people were taking settlement money received from a general liability or workplace accident—money that was supposed to pay for future medical needs from the injury—and were spending it on anything but its intended purpose. While this was great for the bass boat and travel industries, it was a less than stellar deal for the U.S. taxpayer, who wound up paying for the injured persons’ care once they were eligible for Medicare.

Enter the MSA: a vehicle designed to protect a designated portion of settlement funds by placing them aside and requiring they be used for the purpose intended. This is not new. The roots of today’s MSA lie in the passing of the Medicare Secondary Payer Act of 1980. That act was significantly strengthened in 2003, however, and this has resulted in far more activity for the workers’ compensation industry over the past decade.

True to form, the government has not made implementation easy. Extremely detailed reporting requirements, extensive fines for the Responsible Reporting Entity (even for rules not established at the time) and a complex process made for a confusing road for employers and payers. An entire industry has sprung up to manage this process. The risks of not complying are serious, and the liability for getting it wrong is huge. The Medicare Set Aside today is integral to virtually any settlement situation in the workers’ compensation industry.

All of this is done to protect the U.S. taxpayer from Joe Sixpack and his desire for a bass boat.

I am in no way an expert on MSAs. I have, however, spent time over the last two years attending conferences and talking to various experts on the topic, trying to better understand their purpose and procedure. I discovered a singular statistic that absolutely floored me. It was a fact that, in my opinion, flies in the face of logic and makes all the burdened activity around the MSA seem pointless.

What is so shocking? Only 4% of completed MSAs are professionally administered.

The rest, 96%, are given directly to the claimant/recipient and are self-managed. That means that, when all is said and done, when the calculations are made, when the submissions and approvals are complete, the money that is set aside for the purpose of protecting Medicare and the U.S. taxpayer is given right back to Joe Sixpack, the guy we were trying to protect ourselves from in the first place.

It makes no sense. None.

I am not saying Joe Sixpack is a bad guy. I am not saying his intents are not pure. I am saying that managing payments from an MSA, making sure they are properly coded and complying with mandated reporting is difficult. The process may be well beyond the ability of an injured worker turned fund manager.

Even with his best efforts, Joe could be in trouble when Medicare starts paying for his health care. If he has not dotted every “i” and crossed every “t,” as well as made sure all expenditures were classified to show appropriate care for the affected injury, he could find himself denied needed coverage by Medicare.

And when an army of Joes are pounding at the door of Medicare, because of possible denial of coverage, something is going to have to give.

So how bad is it? What are we looking at here?

For that I turned to Ken Paradis, chairman of Ametros Financial, a company that offers professional administration of MSAs. He confirmed that my suspicions were potentially accurate and provided some very interesting – make that scary – numbers.

In 2010, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) approved $1.4 billion in MSAs. Assuming a consistent approach since 2001, the inception of the current program, we can estimate that $16.8 billion have been approved for MSAs in the past 12 years. Using a straight-line estimation, this could mean that $16.1 billion is being self-managed.

Not all MSAs are reviewed by CMS—some are set up with no input or review by the government—and these Class III MSAs represent a completely unknown addition in risk to the long-term health of Medicare. Paradis indicated from experience that 20% of MSAs may be in this category. Using the base numbers from our equation, that estimate brings the total risk pool to perhaps $20 billion.

That figure represents true risk for the nation and our industry.

It seems that many are under the impression that self-administered funds are managed with some level of competence by Joe Sixpack’s counsel. However, the existence of waiver or hold-harmless indemnification language in many settlement agreements tells a different tale. The November 2013 manual on MSAs included guidance for non-professionally administered MSAs, which tells us someone out there might need that advice.

After all the convoluted effort focused on setting up MSAs to protect the interests of Medicare, the guidelines on administration offered by CMS are surprisingly simple:

  • Deposit the fund into an interest-bearing account.
  • Use the fund only for the MSA settlement injury.
  • Use the fund only for expenses covered by Medicare.
  • Pay according to the appropriate fee schedule.
  • Prepare and submit an annual account report to CMS.

The first three seem easy enough to understand. The last two, however, are where the wheels will most likely come off the bus for our wayward injured worker turned financial wizard. Fee schedule and medical classification codes are a science unto themselves, yet we expect Joe Sixpack to navigate that labyrinth with a ninja-like accounting skill set that many industry professionals themselves do not possess.

As for those detailed annual reports, anecdotal information shows CMS hasn’t actually seen many of those over the last decade or so. They, and we, are operating blind in that area.

And, as I’ve indicated, it is a damn big area.

The harsh truth is, no one knows what is out there. No one knows what is coming. We are blindly turning on faith that all this energy and effort will somehow end up doing what was intended. Trust me; this is not going to end well.

The cost of professional administration is a mere pittance when compared with the cost and complexity of setting up an MSA. It seems even smaller when we fully recognize the consequences at hand. Some in the industry are openly suggesting that the expense of professional administration could easily be offset by using it in place of the costly and slow approval process. By skipping the approval but securing the long-term health of the MSA, the greater goal of limited liability will be met. The indemnity saved by settling the case sooner would in many cases more than offset the cost of a professional manager.

Under the current scenario, the taxpayers will clearly be on the hook, but the workers' comp industry should not be foolishly complacent. There are potential clawbacks in our future, and many who think they've put these issues to bed may be again facing a call for more cash by our government.

Why the government fails to close the loop on this and secure the protection it originally intended is beyond comprehension. We are requiring the crafting of a lengthy and expensive letter, getting it reviewed, edited and approved, and then no one is putting a stamp on the envelope.

All that effort, all that expense, only to wind up where we were to begin with; with the exception of our new sense of security. Our false sense of security.

This is part of a much bigger issue: 10,000 retirees are entering the Social Security system every day. The Medicare trust fund will be broke by 2022 at its current expenditure rates, and the ability of Joe Sixpack to manage his funds has never been more critical. There is a train wreck coming, and we are all on board for the ride.  An army of angry Joes will soon be pounding on our door, and the $20 billion may be nowhere to be found.

After all the effort and fuss, I find myself wondering: Why?

New AMA Classification Of Obesity: How It Affects Workers’ Compensation And Mandatory Reporting

On June 16, 2013, the American Medical Association voted to declare obesity a disease rather than a comorbidity factor. This change in classification will affect 78 million American Adults and 12 million children. The new status for obesity means that this is now considered a medical condition that requires treatment. In fact, a recent Duke University / RTI International / Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study estimates 42 percent of U.S. adults will become obese by 2030.

According to the Medical Dictionary, obesity has been defined as a weight at least 20% above the weight corresponding to the lowest death rate for individuals of a specific height, gender, and age (ideal weight). Twenty to forty percent over ideal weight is considered mildly obese; 40-100% over ideal weight is considered moderately obese; and 100% over ideal weight is considered severely, or morbidly, obese. More recent guidelines for obesity use a measurement called BMI (body mass index) which is the individual's weight divided by their height squared times 703. BMI over 30 is considered obese.

The World Health Organization further classifies BMIs of 30.00 or higher into one of three classes of obesity:

  • Obese class I = 30.00 to 34.99
  • Obese class II = 35.00 to 39.99
  • Obese class III = 40.00 or higher

People in obese class III are considered morbidly obese. According to a 2012 Gallup Poll, 3.6% of Americans were morbidly obese in 2012.

The decision to reclassify obesity gives doctors a greater obligation to discuss with patients their weight problem and how it's affecting their health while enabling them to get reimbursed to do so.

According to the Duke University study, obesity increases the healing times of fractures, strains and sprains, and complicates surgery. According to another Duke University study that looked at the records for work-related injuries:

  • Obese workers filed twice as many comp claims.
  • Obese workers had seven times higher medical costs.
  • Obese workers lost 13 times more days of work.
  • Body parts most prone to injury for obese individuals included lower extremities, wrists or hands, and the back. Most common injuries were slips and falls, and lifting.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said the costs to U.S. businesses related to obesity exceed $13 billion each year.

Furthermore, a 2011 Gallup survey found that obese employees account for a disproportionately high number of missed workdays. Also earlier National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) research of workers' compensation claims found that claimants with a comorbidity code indicating obesity experience medical costs that are a multiple of what is observed for comparable non-obese claimants. The NCCI study demonstrated that claimants with a comorbidity factor indicating obesity had five times longer indemnity duration than claimants that were not identified as obese.

Prior to June 16, 2013, the ICD code for comorbidity factors for obesity in workers' was ICD-9 code 278. This is related to obesity-related medical complications, as opposed to the condition of obesity. Now the new ICD codes will indicate a disease, or condition of obesity which needs to be medically addressed. How will this affect work-related injuries?

Instead of obesity being a comorbitity issue, it can now become a secondary claim. If injured workers gain weight due to medications they are placed on as a result of their work-related injury or if an injured worker gains weight since they cannot exercise or keep fit because of their work-related injury and their BMI exceeds 30, they are considered obese and are eligible for medical industrially related treatment. In fact, the American Disability Act Amendment of 2008 allows for a broader scope of protection and the classification of obesity as a disease means that an employer needs to be cognizant that if someone has been treated for this disease for over 6 months then they would be considered protected under the American Disability Act Amendment.

Consider yet another factor: with the advent of Mandatory Reporting (January 1, 2011) by CMS that is triggered by the diagnosis (diagnosis code), the new medical condition of obesity will further make the responsible party liable for this condition and all related conditions for work-related injuries and General Liability claims with no statute of limitations. It is vital to understand that, as of January 1, 2011, Medicare has mandated all work-related and general liability injuries be reported to CMS in an electronic format. This means that CMS has the mechanism to look back and identify work comp related medical care payments made by Medicare. This is a retroactive statute and ultimately, it will be the employer and/or insurance carrier that will be held accountable.

The carrier or employer could pay the future medical cost twice — once to the claimant at settlement and later when Medicare seeks reimbursement of the medical care they paid on behalf of the claimant. This is outside the MSA criteria. The cost of this plus the impact of the workers' compensation costs as well as ADAA issues for reclassification of obesity for an employer and carrier are incalculable.

The solution is baseline testing so that only claims that arise out of the course and scope of employment (AOECOE) are accepted. If a work-related claim is not AOECOE and can be proved by objective medical evidence such as a pre- and post-assessment and there is no change from the baseline, then not only is there no workers' compensation claim, there is no OSHA-recordable claim, and no mandatory reporting issue.

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

Baseline programs such as the EFA-STM ensure that the employee and employer are protected and take the sting out of the new classification by the AMA for obesity.

What An Employer Can Do To Reduce Soft Tissue Injuries In The Transportation Industry

The trucking industry accounted for nearly 20 percent of all days-away-from-work cases in 2011. Correspondingly, trucking was among the seven occupations which had an incidence rate greater than 300 cases per 10,000 full-time workers and who had greater than 20,000 days-away-from-work cases.

OSHA defines a Musculoskeletal Disorder (MSD) as an injury of the muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, joints, cartilage and spinal discs. They identify examples of Musculoskeletal Disorders to include: carpal tunnel syndrome, rotator cuff syndrome, De Quervain’s disease, trigger finger, tarsal tunnel syndrome, sciatica, epicondylitis, tendinitis, Raynaud’s phenomenon, carpet layers knee, herniated spinal disc, and low back pain.

The average cost of a work-related soft tissue injury in the trucking industry exceeds any other industry. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Musculoskeletal Disorders nationwide typically account for 33% of work-related injuries, while the incidence of Musculoskeletal Disorders in the transportation industry is 60-67%. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also noted that there were 1.4 million total transportation workers, and each year 1 in 18 is injured or made ill by the job.

These higher rates of injury can be attributed in part to several factors. Due to the nature of their work, many drivers maintain a poor diet, rarely get enough sleep, and are sedentary. As a result, they find themselves more susceptible to heart attacks and diabetes, as well as a myriad of strains, sprains and various other Musculoskeletal Disorders.

Additionally, the percentage of older workers is higher in transportation than in most industries, with the Transportation Research Board estimating that up to 25 percent of truck drivers will be older than 65 by 2025, translating into more severe Musculoskeletal Disorder claims.

These factors are contributing to more workers’ compensation claims for drivers which increase employers’ costs. As part of the job, many truck drivers are required to unload the goods they transport, leading to serious sprains and strains. Heavy lifting after long periods of sitting can increase the likelihood of severe sprains and strains. In addition, drivers often rush at the delivery site in an effort to meet the demands of tight schedules. This combination contributes to 52% of the non-fatal injuries in this industry, with trunk and back claims accounting for 70% of these cases.

Due to its unique workplace circumstances, the commercial transportation industry is at higher risk for increased frequency of injuries and costs to the industry. The following describes the framework of this dilemma:

  1. Commercial transportation jobs expose workers to high physical demands and extended hours of exposure.
  2. The transportation industry experiences one of the highest work-related injury rates among all workplace sectors.
  3. The transportation industry experiences a high level of turnover on an annual basis, which results in a high number of newly hired employees exposed to unfamiliar and physically demanding tasks.

While this is an industry-wide issue, we will focus on California in order to illustrate how problematic it truly is. In March of 2010, the California Workers’ Compensation Institute (CWCI) issued its latest scorecard for the California Trucking Industry. Over eight years, $480 million dollars was paid in medical and indemnity costs alone. The study found that, even though this industry accounted for only 1% of all California industrial claims, they accounted for 1.8% of the state’s workers’ compensation paid benefits. It was also found that medical and indemnity payments were higher than any other industry. The average lost-time direct claim cost at $18,587 is 41% higher than the industry average in California. The indirect costs in this industry range from a 2x to a 10x multiple, and in an industry known for low profit margins, controlling costs is critical.

It should also be noted that California can retain jurisdiction of a workers’ compensation claim even if the injury did not occur in that state; the employee only has to live in California, drive through California or have been hired out of California. This is such a significant problem that in 2010 the U.S. Department of Transportation initiated the Compliance Safety Accountability measure of driver’s fitness. This is specific to transportation, is publicly available, and the ratings are tied to insurance rates and letters of credit.

With the numerous reforms taking place in 2013 and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Mandatory Reporting Act, it is now essential that employers become proactive and only accept claims that arise out of the course and scope of employment. Medicare has mandated all work-related and general liability injuries be reported to CMS in an electronic format. This means that CMS has the mechanism to look back and identify work comp-related medical care payments made by Medicare. This is a retroactive statute that will ultimately hold the employer and/or insurance carrier responsible for these payments.

Should CMS have to pursue the employer in court, the amount owed is doubled. The insured or employer could pay the future medical cost twice — once to the claimant at settlement and later when Medicare seeks reimbursement of the medical care they paid on behalf of the claimant. There is no statute of limitations on compliance with the MSA requirements. CMS can review claims closed last year, five years ago, or even longer to check for compliance. Penalties and fees for noncompliance are $1,000 per day if medical care is not paid within 30 days.

Historically, soft tissue injuries have been difficult to diagnose and even harder to treat due to the broad spectrum of disorders related to soft tissue. Most diagnostic tests are not designed to address Musculoskeletal Disorders and are unable to document the presence of pain or loss of function … two key complaints.

Employers need a way to manage their Musculoskeletal Disorder exposure and provide better care to their injured workers. The key to managing this problem is for employers to obtain the ability to only accept claims that arise out of the course and scope of employment. The only viable solution for employers is to conduct a baseline soft tissue assessment in order to establish pre-injury status. The baseline must be job and body part specific and objective to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008.

The baseline assessments are not read or interpreted unless and until there is an injury. By not identifying a potential disability, employers are able to conduct baseline assessments on new hires as well as existing employees while maintaining compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act. If there is a soft tissue injury, the employee is sent for a post-loss assessment to determine what and if there is any change from the baseline assessment. If no change is noted (no acute pathology), then there is no valid claim. This proven baseline program is known as the EFA Soft Tissue Management Program (EFA-STM Program), which utilizes the Electrodiagnostic Functional Assessment to objectively provide this data.