Tag Archives: musculoskeletal disorders

‘High-Performance’ Health Innovators

A particularly pernicious American healthcare myth holds that costs are out of anyone’s control. Health plans and benefits consultants often convince organizational purchasers that costs simply are what they are — and that no better alternatives exist.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, there’s reason to believe that a new crop of “high performance” healthcare innovators could make healthcare more rational. The question is whether employers and unions will embrace the high performers, independent of their health plans. Are they sufficiently frustrated that they’ll step outside the poorer performance conventions placed on them by health organizations invested in the status quo?

The marketplace is exploding with high performance healthcare companies in various high-value niches, founded by evidence-driven leaders with deep subject matter expertise. Each has rethought some clinical, financial or administrative problem and developed a different, better solution — with improved health outcomes or lower cost — than the conventional approach.

See also: High-Performance Healthcare Solutions  

Take musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), which typically represent 20% of group health spending and 60% of occupational health spending. One company has developed treatment pathways that let it intervene in 80% of cases, and rigorous quality management allows continuous improvement. After more than 100,000 patient encounters with commercial populations, the data show that, compared with conventional orthopedic care, its clinicians obtain dramatically better pain reduction, enhanced range of motion and improved activities of daily living. Recovery time and costs are cut in half. Three-quarters of surgeries are eliminated, imaging drops by half, and injections are reduced by more than one-third. The organization is so confident in its capabilities that it will financially guarantee a 25% reduction in MSD costs. This usually translates to at least a 4% to 5% savings in total healthcare spending. True savings are generally higher.

Similar results are available within a variety of high cost sectors. Managing drugs can drop total spending by 7%. Managing imaging reduces costs another 6%. Similar savings, with enhanced health outcomes, are available by properly managing cardiometabolic care, oncology, dialysis, allergies, surgeries, etc. Managing financial processes, like moving to reference-based reimbursement and closely reviewing medical claims, are additional ways to streamline healthcare costs.

Why, you ask, doesn’t your health plan make these services available? It’s not currently in their interest, because, at the end of the day, most health plans make more if healthcare costs more. And they’re usually not interested in antagonizing their network providers, even if they’re not high performers.

Resistance to change

Worse, while a growing group of benefits advisers and managers are seeking new value through the innovators, the bonds between mainstream health plans, benefits advisers and employer benefits managers are usually rock solid and resistant to change. If an alternative solution is firmly in the interests of the health plan and the adviser, the benefits manager may be loath to disrupt that relationship, especially if the new solution is going to need care and feeding beyond what’s currently required. So even if the high-performance offering delivers better health and significant savings, getting it on the plan may be a hard sell.

Even so, the budgets and patience of many businesses and unions are exhausted. Think school districts: They’re often willing to think differently if it’ll relieve their financial pressure, especially if they’ll get better health outcomes in the bargain. They’re receptive to considering programs that can deliver better results.

That’s the way these programs — think of them as modules — are entering the marketplace now. An employer says, “Sure, let me amend my summary plan document and I’ll try the musculoskeletal disorder management and the claims review modules. If those work, let’s think about imaging.” When the savings materialize, they’ll gush to their benefits manager pals. So, one program at a time, healthcare will begin to change.

Now imagine what might happen if you put several of these modules under a single health plan structure. You could pass along the cumulative savings of each in the form of lower health plan costs. Consider what might happen if you could, say, guarantee a benefits manager a 25% reduction over current healthcare spending, with better outcomes. That would be an offer that she couldn’t refuse, especially if her CFO heard about it.

See also: Healthcare Debate Misses Key Point  

The high-performance modules I’ve described are in the market now and are available to innovative purchasers. The trick is identifying and vetting them so purchasers are comfortable that they actually deliver. The larger idea of high-performance health plans is under development now, as well, and we should start to see some in early form in the next year or so.

The results consistently available in these high-performance healthcare organizations’ offerings clearly reflect the tremendous, corrosive slop in the U.S. healthcare system and represent a better way forward. If these high-performance modules can get a foothold in the marketplace, their spectacular value propositions might overcome the health industry’s relentless focus on driving high-priced excess.

That could begin to change everything for the better.

Better Management of Soft-Tissue Injuries: A Case Study

The Gatesway Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Tulsa, OK, had seen an increase in its work-related musculoskeletal (MSD) cases, which the U.S. Department of Labor and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) define as injuries of the muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, joints, cartilage and spinal discs. These types of disorders, commonly referred to as soft tissue injuries as well as sprains and strains, most often present as injury or pain of the back, neck, shoulder or knee and are a major source of disability. According to the 2010 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the disorders account for 29% of total cases.

The Gatesway Foundation was experiencing both an increased frequency of claims and a rise in the cost of treatments, so, in 2012, the foundation began employing the EFA’s soft-tissue management program to compare pre- and post-loss data to accurately distinguish if there is acute pathology after a work-related injury. The program determines if pathology arises out of the course and scope of employment. A baseline test is conducted at the time of hire and compared with post-incident tests. State workers’ compensation laws may have many differences but have one thing in common: The employer is only responsible for returning the individual to pre-injury status. 

In the past, determination of pre-injury status, especially for soft tissue injuries, was often guess work.  Having objective findings can prevent costly misdiagnosis, unnecessary or inappropriate surgery, prolonged treatment periods and fraudulent claims. Employees also receive better treatment for compensable conditions.

The Gatesway Foundation began its program in April 2013 and had no MSD claims or OSHA recordables until Sept. 17, when a 52-year-old health care provider reported that a patient had fallen on her.  Initially, her complaints included her arm and shoulder. By the time she saw a doctor, her pain included her back.  The physician ordered a post-loss test for comparison with the baseline test.  The comparison showed a minimal increase in lumbar muscle spasms that decreased with stretching.  Two sessions of physical therapy were prescribed, and the employee has returned to work.

In the adjuster’s words, “This could have involved a great deal more expense and possible lost time without this information” from the baseline test. The program enabled the physician to have objective information and allowed the injured worker to receive appropriate care.

The program has drastically reduced the Gatesway Foundation’s soft-tissue-related workers' compensation claims.  The year prior to initiating the program, the foundation’s developed losses were $1 million. In the first six months of the policy year, before starting the program, the developed losses were $500,000. With the implementation of the program, the developed losses in the last six months of the policy year were $30,000.

A detailed analysis of the data revealed a dramatic decrease in the cost per claim when a baseline test was conducted.

Average Cost of Sprain Strain Claim Since Sept 2011
Without Baseline $18,794
With Baseline $2,241
% Reduction With Baseline 88%

This resulted in a dramatic return on investment (ROI)

Reduction in Claims Cost $316,544
Total Program Cost $9,200
ROI (Impact to Claims) 3,441%

The utilization of this book-end strategy allows for unprecedented access to information and allows for better treatment.

Myths About Obamacare and Workers’ Comp

The Obama administration has said that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, enacted into law in 2010 and scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, will reduce workers’ comp claims because so many additional people will be covered under personal insurance policies. But there is reason to think otherwise.

The first issue is that so many companies are reducing the insurance they offer employees or are cutting employees’ hours so much that they fall below the law’s threshold, so employees don’t have to be covered at all. Employees who aren’t covered under corporate policies or who are underinsured are more likely to make workers’ comp claims.

Here are just a few examples from National Review Online:

SeaWorld used to let part-time employees work as many as 32 hours per week, but the company is dropping the limit to 28 hours to keep them under the 30-hour threshold at which it would be required to provide health insurance under Obamacare. More than 80 percent of the company’s thousands of employees are part-time or seasonal.

Carnegie Museum in Pennsylvania scaled back the hours of 48 of its 600 part-time employees to less than 30 hours a week to sidestep the mandate to provide health-care coverage

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell decided to limit the state’s part-time employees to 29 hours per week.

Brevard County, Florida told a local television station that the county’s 300-plus part-time employees will be “capped at something less than 30” hours to save the county about $10,000 per employee in health insurance.

Fatburger  announced that franchises had begun making efforts to keep employees under the 30-hour threshold, including some franchises’ engaging in “job sharing.”

As more companies shift to shorter work weeks, you can expect claims under workers’ comp to keep climbing.

Proponents of Obamare still say it will decrease workers’ compensation costs in several ways, including through the elimination of lifetime caps on medical insurance coverage. The argument is that these caps on employees’ private policies pushed them to file workers’ compensation claims. Really? Many of the leading cost drivers for work-related injuries are Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSD), better known as soft tissue injuries.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), soft tissue injuries (sprains and strains) accounted for 40% of all work-related injuries that resulted in lost days of work. I do not believe that these types of injuries would affect the lifetime maximum for health insurance, which is typically $1 million.

Proponents also note that a healthcare insurer can no longer refuse to provide coverage because of preexisting conditions, conditions they claim were often not covered by private healthcare and thus encouraged employees to seek coverage under workers’ compensation. While this is a good point, the National Review’s examples show that many people are losing healthcare coverage or will see it reduced, meaning that there will be a greater likelihood of workers’ compensation claims. Yes, there are penalties for not securing healthcare coverage, but they are modest, especially in the early years of Obamacare, and there is no real mechanism for enforcement. The IRS has the responsibility for collecting penalties but has no true powers to do so.

How are people supposed to afford care if their hours have been cut?  You guessed it: workers’ compensation.

Workers' Compensation No Longer the Exclusive Remedy: RICO on the Radar, Part 2

Understandably, Part 1 of this article series has been met with some controversy and skepticism. The article is not designed to scare employers, as might have been suggested. Its intention is to educate employers about the many issues facing them when an employee becomes injured, that transcend the State Workers’ Compensation System and a workable solution to overcoming the challenges. Employers can no longer afford to bury their heads and rely on the exclusive remedy position. Yes, it may be here to stay, but it is becoming a bit frayed around the edges.

Coincidently, when Part 1 of this article was published, The National Football League (NFL) announced that it had reached a 765 million dollar settlement with players and their families for the settlement and consolidation of approximately 4,500 concussion claims. The players alleged that the NFL hid or ignored the facts that concussions caused brain injuries. Under the settlement, the NFL will pay 675 million dollars to retired players who demonstrate medical evidence of brain injury. Payouts of up to 5 million dollars each could go to players found to have Alzheimer's or Parkinson's diseases or other concussion-related conditions, or to their families. The settlement came just prior to the start of football season and will put an end to the mounting litigation that threatened the multi-billion dollar league.

United States District Presiding Judge Anita B. Brody appointed Judge Phillips to oversee the negotiations. Judge Philips said, “This is a historic agreement, one that will make sure that former NFL players who need and deserve compensation will receive it, and that will promote safety for players at all levels of football.”

 “This agreement lets us help those who need it most and continue our work to make the game safer for current and future players. Commissioner Goodell and every owner gave the legal team the same direction: do the right thing for the game and for the men who played it,” said NFL Executive Vice President Jeffrey Pash. “We thought it was critical to get more help to players and families who deserve it, rather than spend many years and millions of dollars on litigation. This is an important step that builds on the significant changes we’ve made in recent years to make the game safer, and we will continue our work to better the long-term health and well-being of NFL players.”

Once final documentation is completed, the settlement will be filed with Judge Brody, who will then schedule a hearing to consider whether or not to grant preliminary approval to the agreement. The retired players will then have the ability to file objections to the settlement.

One may ask what this has to do with Part 1 of this article.  An important component of this settlement is baseline testing. According to the settlement, baseline medical exams will be provided, the cost of which will be capped at $75 million. This will be a key element in ascertaining the conditions of current and retired players, gauging  the progression of any injuries they may have and having documentation of the medical status. This key component is the subject of Part 1 of this article. Baseline testing is not simply a self-promotion for the EFA-STM, but is a major part of helping injured workers, no matter what their occupations may be.

These cases are just the beginning, and it appears that the exclusive remedy provision for workers' compensation will no longer serve to prevent costly civil litigation as evidenced by the NFL settlement. An employer, insurance carrier/TPA and physician can take several steps to protect themselves. First, evidence-based medicine should always prevail. Objective medical evidence can help protect against claims for fraudulent denials of work-related injuries. Also, employers should accept only claims that arise out of the course and scope of employment (AOECOE). If an employer can objectively document AOECOE issues, fraudulent claims and fraudulent denials can be avoided and most importantly, correct treatment can be prevail.

A good approach to determining AOECOE claims is baseline testing, as it can identify injuries that arise out of the course and scope of employment. When a work-related claim is not AOECOE, as proved by objective medical evidence, such as pre and post assessments, then not only is there no workers’ compensation claim, there is no OSHA recordable claim, and no mandatory reporting issue. Conversely, if there is an injury, the injured worker can get the best site specific treatment and prevent inappropriate treatment and unnecessary progression of the underlying conditions.

The NFL recognized the importance of baseline testing with its recent settlement, and it is only the beginning. MSD for NFL players is also a significant problem. Why not baseline all football players, or, for that matter, all professional athletes, to address any injuries that may occur while playing and return them to the field sooner? This would promote better health and performance and might extend their careers. Professional athletes tend to play through their injuries, potentially causing more harm. An objective baseline test can assist all parties by providing objective medical evidence of an injury and outlining appropriate care. This truly is a win-win situation.

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 interpreted only 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, giving the doctors more information and helping to ensure the injured worker receives the best care possible.

The case of the NFL settlement may not be a RICO claim, but, certainly, it tries the boundaries of the exclusive remedy provision of workers compensation. Baseline tests like the EFA-STM are a proven way to providing better work-related care. It is time for change and to think outside of the box to provide the answers so that we can become proactive, not reactive.

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.