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A Key Ruling on Workers’ Comp in California—and What It Means

The workers' compensation community watched anxiously for months as the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California considered a constitutional challenge to the lien activation fee — an important component of the 2012 reforms in Senate Bill 863. In the case (Angelotti Chiropractic, et al. v. Christine Baker, et al.), Judge George Wu ruled on Nov. 12 that the fee is indeed unconstitutional based on the Equal Protection provisions of the U.S. Constitution. His reasoning was that there was no rational basis for exempting large institutional lien holders (health care plans, union trusts, etc.) from the activation fee and that all lien claimants should either be in or out when it comes to filing fees.

The injunction against enforcing the lien activation fee took effect on Nov. 19. In anticipation, the Division of Workers’ Compensation notified the community Nov. 15 that it would no longer be requiring the fee be paid for liens filed prior to Jan. 1, 2013.

It is important to note that there are two filing fees enacted in SB 863. The one that applies to liens filed prior to Jan. 1, 2013, is the lien activation fee and is the subject of the federal lawsuit. The other is the lien filing fee, which is not affected by this litigation. In addition, statutory and regulatory changes made in SB 863 and the regulations adopted by the Division of Workers’ Compensation eliminate liens for most service providers that are subject to a fee schedule for dates of service on and after Jan. 1, 2013.

That is not to say that the injunction against enforcement of the activation fee is inconsequential, for it most certainly is not. In the last two calendar quarters of 2012 alone, more than 800,000 liens were filed. Of those, almost two-thirds are in Los Angeles County. Most of these have not moved through the system, undoubtedly because some lien claimants were waiting to see whether the activation fee was going to be upheld. It is assumed that many of these liens were never going to be filed because of the activation fee. As such, many liens would have expired by operation of law on Jan. 1, 2014. That, too, is now part of the unknown that comes from the Court’s decision.

Obviously, the Department of Industrial Relations and claims administrators are not happy with this ruling. To a certain extent, neither are the plaintiffs in the case, who saw two of their three claims summarily dismissed by the court. Whether these issue now go up to the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals remains to be seen. Plaintiffs, and indeed all lien claimants regardless of whether they were parties, have secured the relief they sought – enjoining the activation fee—but that could be put at risk if there is an appeal. Conversely, while the Department of Industrial Relations disagrees with the finding that the activation fee is unconstitutional, the fact that Judge Wu dismissed the claim that the activation fee constituting a “taking” of private property is a big win for proponents of SB 863 – for the taking argument has much broader implications than does the Equal Protection argument that Judge Wu found persuasive.

Because the Jan. 1, 2014, dismissal by operation of law date on old liens has been enjoined, it is not automatic that there will be a flood of activity on liens filed before Jan. 1, 2013, at the Appeals Board before year end. It is a fair observation, however, that liens many in the community thought would be extinguished by operation law won’t be. Whether those liens are going to be the subject of Appeals Board hearings and ultimately paid, however, remains uncertain. And uncertainty is a chronic symptom of our oft-ill but rarely cured workers’ compensation system.

And in case no one noticed, on Nov. 14 a new federal lawsuit was filed challenging both the lien activation fee and the lien filing fee. The plaintiff, who is seeking class action certification, is also demanding disgorgement of fees paid and reinstatement of any lien dismissed for failure to pay the appropriate fee. That case is Kancilia v. Brown, et al. and was filed in a different federal district court than Angelotti.

The transition from one set of rules to another on the heels of major legislative changes is never easy, regardless of the subject matter. In time, because of the other changes wrought by SB 863, the disruption caused by these suits will work its way through the system. Relief from the costs associated with the lien process will be delayed, and the income the fees provide to the Division of Workers’ Compensation will be less than anticipated, but ultimately the lien problem will be solved – just later than most had hoped.

The Real Challenge for Reforming Workers’ Comp

Sifting through the claims and complaints of those involved in California’s complex workers’ compensation system could leave both the casual observer and the seasoned veteran wondering when, if ever, this multibillion-dollar program will ever get properly aligned. It would be fairly easy to say, “Not during our lifetime.” But that would be too cynical even when discussing a system that for the past several decades could easily invoke cynicism.

Every participant in workers’ compensation has two faces. Some employers provide benefits, have a compliant return to work program and enforce a culture of safety at the workplace, while other employers view employees as a necessary evil. These latter employers view adherence with the legion of local, state, and federal laws and regulations regarding the workplace as burdens that need only be acknowledged if employers are required to do so, generally in the form of a legal proceeding against them.

We have seen the abuses in the medical system from unnecessary surgeries, overuse of Schedule II medications, and downright fraud in billing insurers and other payers, and yet if there is one indispensable party in the workers’ compensation system beyond labor and management it is medical providers. As recent events have demonstrated, we have yet to figure out how to empower the noble practitioners of the healing arts while keeping the venal away from injured workers.

Claims administrators vary in expertise, motivation, and professionalism, as do the various service providers and the tactics they employ to provide services and collect fees. “Insurers” have borne an unfair brunt of criticism largely because it is an easier talking point to cast such a broad brush than to single out any one bad actor or group of them. Without the ability to transfer risk, however, the workers’ compensation system could never be sustainable.

Each system participant has a particular grudge against the others. We allow policyholders to sue insurers for claims handling practices, and, in far narrower circumstances, an injured worker may pierce exclusive remedy and sue a claims administrator when conduct is so egregious that it goes beyond the grand bargain that is at the core of workers’ compensation.  Periodically, claims administrators and service providers resort to the civil courts with a variety of complaints over unfair business practices.  And, of course, the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board is the forum where all participants flock with even the slightest provocation.

The appellate courts weigh in on a wide range of benefit delivery challenges, as well. Their decisions in Guzman and Ogilvie were two of the main incidents inciting changes in permanent disability benefit determinations codified in Senate Bill 863 (De León). Even today, we are litigating issues over the apportionment changes brought about in Senate Bill 899 (Poochigian) enacted almost a decade ago. Litigation in federal court is rare, although not unprecedented, as the current challenge to the lien activation fee in SB 863 demonstrates.   State-imposed fee schedules have periodically worked their way into federal court on the theory that reimbursement rates are so low that they are confiscatory – a challenge unlikely in California while the fee schedule is not mandatory, but still possible given the breadth of authority that the Division of Workers’ Compensation has been given to develop fee schedules for virtually all service providers.

“Well, that’s just California workers’ comp.”  That may be the case, but such resignation does tend to take the focus away from core problems that magnify the multiple personality disorder that plagues this system. As we work our way through the implementation of SB 863, we must also recognize that not every solution to the high cost of comp, both in dollar and human terms, can be put down on paper in Sacramento or Oakland.

While compliance is part of best practices, it does not define them exclusively. To be sure, the new costs associated with complying with SB 863 are consequential. As is inevitably the case when new comprehensive workers’ compensation laws are enacted, there will be considerable friction moving from one set of rules to another. The threat of litigation will hang over the changes made in this legislation just as it has in prior iterations of reform. It will take years to sort this all out.

In the meantime, there is much work to be done to improve the system even if it is not in  reaction to a new law or regulation or judicial decision. As has been the case all too often over the past two decades, laws are driven by anecdote. The adage “bad facts make bad law” applies equally to the legislative, regulatory, and judicial processes. Navigating California’s complex system is never easy. If claims administrators expect the process by which laws are made and interpreted to provide the necessary clarity and simplicity we crave to do our jobs, then we are all sadly mistaken.

Yet, when we commit to best practices both as employers and claims professionals, we can create better outcomes than Sacramento could ever hope to achieve. The challenge, therefore, is not what legislators or regulators or justices will do for us, but rather what will we do for ourselves?

Prescription Drug Abuse – Progress In Sacramento

On May 30, the California Senate passed Senate Bill 809 (DeSaulnier) unanimously. This bill has as its primary goal the continued funding of the Controlled Substance Utilization Review and Evaluation System (CURES) in the California Department of Justice. Over the past year, considerable attention has been brought to the issue of abuse of prescription painkillers nationwide and across all benefit systems. Well-publicized research in California by the California Workers' Compensation Institute (CWCI) and multi-state analyses by the National Council on Compensation Insurance, Inc. (NCCI) and the Workers' Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) have quantified the tragic effects of over-prescribing these medications.

SB 809 seeks to do more, however, than simply develop a stable funding source for this program. The recent Senate action, while important, demonstrates that not all issues surrounding the CURES program are likely to be resolved in 2013. As a series of investigative reports done by the Los Angeles Times pointed out, participation in the CURES program by physicians is not mandatory, and there is no adequate mechanism in place to report unusual prescribing patterns by physicians to the Medical Board of California. While the funding legislation for CURES will address the latter problem, there is still no requirement that prescribers access the database before prescribing a Schedule II – IV controlled substance. However, all prescribers and dispensers will be required to register with the CURES system, which in and of itself is an important development for the Department of Justice and the Medical Board in their efforts to identify and investigate abusive prescription patterns and to combat diversion of the medications for illicit purposes.

Also, stripped from the bill was a tax on manufacturers of controlled substances that would have been used for enhanced law enforcement capabilities throughout the state. This was a critical development that policy makers still need to address, either in this legislation or through the budget process.

Even though a targeted tax on manufacturers is not palatable to the Legislature, the need to fund better enforcement of the laws governing illicit sales of prescription drugs remains a high priority. The funding in the current bill will allow the CURES program to be maintained and improved, but law enforcement will still not have what it needs to investigate physicians and pharmacists who are violating the law and bring them to justice.

While California's workers' compensation system does not have the same level of protections against prescription drug abuse as other state workers' compensation systems, there are resources at our disposal to limit the danger of these medications.

The Medical Treatment Utilization Schedule, utilization review, and Independent Medical Review (IMR) recently added by Senate Bill 863 will assist payers in their effort to curb overutilization of these medications while still addressing the very real clinical need for relief from acute pain and management of chronic pain resulting from an occupational injury. The Division of Workers' Compensation is expected to release new guidelines on pain management later this year that should further assist in this process. And the workers' compensation system, like all other healthcare financing programs, will benefit from the enactment of SB 809. It's a good start, but we are a long way away from declaring this problem solved.

The abuse of high powered prescription pain medication is a public health crisis with workers' compensation implications. The path to a solution requires the active participation of the medical and pharmacy communities, drug manufacturers, law enforcement, medical benefit payers — whether public programs, private group health plans or workers' compensation insurers and self-insured employers — and state and federal agencies and boards overseeing the development and use of these medications.

Progress is being made, but more work needs to be done. The goal is not simply for payers to be better able to say “no”. The goal is also not simply being able to avoid the costs of these medications and the complications their abuse creates and have those costs be borne somewhere else. The goal is delivering the highest quality treatment for an injured worker. A back injury, for example, doesn't automatically require surgery in all circumstances any more than it requires an injured worker to face the prospect of drug dependency.

If we use the tools at our disposal compassionately and intelligently and if we continue to press policy makers and regulators to take all steps necessary to protect patients from the improper use of these medications, then we will be able to measure success in more than dollars saved. If Governor Brown gets SB 809 on his desk and signs it, it will become effective immediately. That's a good first step, but there will still be much work to do.