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An Unprecedented Work Comp Ruling

The March 2016 opinion  in Negron v. Progressive Casualty Insurance by a federal district court was an unprecedented ruling against Progressive for filing a false or fraudulent claim under the Medicare Secondary Payor Act (MSP) and causing a governmental agency (Medicare) to wrongfully pay for benefits. The decision raises a broad issue for workers’ compensation.

Before MSP, Medicare and other federal programs paid for medical services even if the beneficiary was covered by another program. With increased longevity and escalating medical costs, though, the federal government could not continue to pay for medical costs that were already covered by other plans. Therefore, in 1980, Congress enacted MSP to bar Medicare payments where payment has been made or is reasonably expected to be made promptly by a primary plan. MSP also requires that certain claims-specific information be reported by liability insurance (including self-insurance), no-fault insurance and workers’ compensation insurance.

The connection to workers’ compensation comes because it allows an injured worker to potentially be  entitled to receive future medical benefits. Settlement of workers’ compensation claims is either by stipulation (future medical treatment is typically left open) or by compromise and release (where future medical issues are paid out). But if Medicare pays for a work-related condition covered by future medical payments that have been settled through workers’ comp, this could constitute fraudulently inducing a Medicare payment and be subject to the False Claims Act, a federal law that imposes liability on persons and companies that defraud governmental programs.

See also: Whistleblower Suits: Emerging Risk on MSP

Under the False Claims Act, private individuals may bring a lawsuit on behalf of the government in exchange for the right to retain a portion of any resulting damages award. Therefore an injured employee who is a Medicare recipient may bring an action against the responsible party if there was payment by Medicare for a work-related injury, and the worker would receive part of the recovery. This may seem far-fetched, but it could happen, so employers need to be prepared.

See also: The Search For True Healthcare Transparency

It would reduce potential overlap and complications if an employer needs pays only for conditions and treatment  that arise out of the course and scope of employment. The best approach to this is to have objective information as to what the employee’s physical condition was before an injury so he can be returned to pre-injury status.

An EFA-STM program can provide that baseline for musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) claims, a leading cost driver in worker’s compensation. MSD claims are often difficult to diagnose and treat, and oftentimes the individual does not receive appropriate care. The EFA-STM program evaluates either new or existing employees with a customized evaluation that is consistent with  the job. The baseline evaluation is not read until there is reason to think a work-related MSD might have happened. At that time, a second test is conducted to not only determine if there is a change in condition but to ensure that the employee receives the appropriate care for any work-related injury.

Ending Cost-Shifting to Workers’ Comp

An April 2016 study by the Worker’s Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) titled, “Do Higher Fee Schedules Increase the Number of Workers’ Compensation Cases?” found that, in many states, workers’ compensation reimbursement rates were higher than group health reimbursement rates. The study stated that cost shifting is more common with soft tissue injuries, especially in states with higher workers’ compensation reimbursement rates. The study found that an estimated 20% increase in workers’ compensation payments for physician services provided during an office visit is associated with increases in the number of soft-tissue injuries being called “work-related” by 6%.

This study goes hand-in-hand with another study by the WCRI called, “Will The Affordable Care Act Shift Claims to Worker’s Compensation Payors” (September 2015), which said that if only 3% of group health soft tissue conditions were shifted to workers’ compensation in Pennsylvania, costs could increase nearly $100 million annually — in California, this cost shifting to workers’ compensation could increase costs more than $225 million.

See Also: What Will Workers’ Comp Be in 20 Years?

Soft-tissue injuries typically defined as musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) are typically muscle or nerve conditions that primarily affect the neck, back and shoulders and can include conditions such as cumulative trauma, neck, back sprain/strains or any damage to the muscles, ligaments and tendons. They are often difficult to diagnose and treat because there are very few reliable objective tests that demonstrate soft tissue injuries. The diagnosis is often based on the patient’s history and the doctor’s physical examination of the patient. Therefore, the diagnosis frequently depends on the individual’s subjective complaints of pain, as well as the individual’s compliance and genuine effort during the musculoskeletal and neurological phases of the exam. Historically, in workers’ compensation, both the patient’s subjective complaints and his or her effort during the physical exam are often unreliable. Inaccurate histories and poor effort on physical exams can, more often than not, lead to misdiagnoses and ineffective or inappropriate treatments, which increase the cost, shifting burden to the employer even more.

In many states, the burden to determine causation of a soft tissue injury and to determine if the medical necessity of treatment falls under workers’ compensation or group health resides solely with the treating physician. In fact, states like Florida place an extra burden on doctors because of an apportionment law that states that the individual is responsible for the non-work-related treatment. If there is a major discrepancy in reimbursement between workers’ compensation and commercial insurance, the treating physician is tempted to accept the patient’s history of the event and does not have an incentive to investigate history that may place the causation of the patient’s symptoms in doubt. If clear-cut evidence documenting a pre-existing condition is lacking or not reviewed, the physician’s decision can be affected by secondary gain, and the physician is more likely to state that the soft tissue injury is work-related.

In these economic times, the cost-shifting issue is hard to resist for physicians. That is coupled with the fact that soft tissue injuries are often hard to demonstrate radiographically or with objective testing. In addition, radiographic tests are unreliable at timing injuries. X-rays and MRIs can show chronic changes like osteophytes and severely collapsed discs that usually take years to develop, but if a patient states that all of the pain began after a work-related injury, the treating physician may be tempted to attribute causation to the work-related event despite conflicting (yet unclear) radiographic findings. If this trend continues and remains uncontrolled, employers’ workers’ compensation costs can skyrocket.

The key to this issue is only accepting claims that arise out of the course and the scope of treatment. The law in each jurisdiction has one simple common theme: The employee needs to be returned to baseline.

An electrodiagnostic functional assessment soft tissue management (EFA-STM) program can resolve the issues. It is a bookend solution that measures current and new employees before and after a work-related event is reported. It assists in determining if an injury arose over the course and scope of employment (AOECOE) and helps in providing better care for the work-related condition.

EFA-STM is non-discriminatory. It objectively determines pre-injury status and whether there is a change in condition after a reported occurrence. A baseline assessment is performed and the unread data is immediately stored in a secure database. When a work-related event is reported, a post-injury assessment is conducted and compared with the baseline test to determine whether there is a change in condition. Without a pre-injury exam for comparison, no radiographic test (including an MRI) can accurately time a soft-tissue injury and, thus, the ultimate opinion on causation of injury can be subject to bias.

In addition, it is commonly accepted that an MRI, for example, shows structural abnormalities that are common in asymptomatic patients. The EFA-STM program allows physicians to more accurately determine if structural changes on an MRI are causing nerve/muscle irritation and disturbance. Therefore, more accurate diagnoses are made and more appropriate treatments are recommended. Unnecessary, costly and invasive tests (e.g. discography) and treatments can be avoided.

See Also: 25 Axioms of medical Care in Workers’ Comp System

The EFA-STM program is specifically designed to allow better treatment for the work-related condition and has proven invaluable to prevent cost shifting to workers’ compensation. The program provides objective information that enables doctors to more accurately establish causation and to avoid the potential temptation to shift the burden to a work comp carrier if a soft tissue injury is not work-related. Finally, the EFA-STM program minimizes false positive structural abnormalities that are commonly seen on an MRI and allows for more accurate diagnoses so that safer, more cost-effective treatments can be rendered.

baseline

Baseline Testing Provides a Win

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the incidence of musculoskeletal injuries (MSD) cases for heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers increased to 355.4 cases per 10,000 full-time workers in 2014, up from 322.8 in 2013. This is more than three times greater than the rate for all private sector workers.

Companies are faced with increasing exposure from MSD claims, not only from state regulations but from compliance with federal mandates that increase potential exposure for these types of injuries. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines MSD as injuries or disorders of the muscles, nerves, tendons, joints and cartilage as well as disorders of the nerves, tendons, muscles and supporting structures – the upper and lower limbs, neck and lower back – that are caused, precipitated or exacerbated by sudden exertion or prolonged exposure to physical factors.)

Safety will always play a role in mitigating risks, but, no matter how safe an environment, an employer will always have MSD claims. In the transportation industry, the higher rates of injury can be attributed, in part, to several factors.

The nature of the work is one. 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 other musculoskeletal disorders.

Additionally, the percentage of older workers is higher in transportation than in most industries, with the Transportation Research Board estimating as many as 25% of truck drivers will be older than 65 by 2025; that translates into more severe musculoskeletal disorder claims.

So, how can a transportation company turn this around and provide a win for all parties? Let’s explore through a case study:

Marten Transport is a multi-faceted provider of transportation services offering over the road (OTR), regional, intermodal and temperature-controlled truckload services. The company has 15 operational centers and more than 3,670 employees and contractors. It needed to provide better care for MSD injuries while not accepting liability for injuries occurred outside the scope of work. Marten decided to institute the EFA Soft Tissue Management (EFA-STM) program in February 2015 to determine which injuries were work-related and which were not, as well as to provide better care.

According to Deborah Konkel, the work comp claims manager for Marten, the company uses the EFA-STM “as a fact-finding tool to help us, our employees and their medical providers better understand the nature of their injury and determine the best course of action going forward.” Under the EFA-STM program, workers are given a baseline test that is unread; after a reported injury, a second test is conducted. That data is compared with the baseline test to identify the new acute condition, distinct from any pre-existing chronic conditions.

The EFA-STM program is a paradigm shift in workers’ compensation because it provides benefits for all stakeholders by accurately separating work-related injuries from those that are not work-related and by providing objective information and, thus, better care for the work-related condition. The key question is what the physical condition of the employee was before the incident and what needs to be done to return him to pre-injury status. EFA-STM provides the required data.

To determine the benefit of the EFA-STM program, Marten’s workers’ compensation claims data from 2010-2014 was compared with claims data from 2015. The average rate of MSD injuries per 100 hires from 2010-14 was compared with the 2015 rate. The result was a 60% drop in the rate of MSD injuries per 100 hires in 2015. This translated into almost 40 fewer MSD claims in 2015. Using the 2010-14 average cost per MSD claim, the EFA-STM program yielded a direct ROI of 3.7: 1.

“Based on these results, we believe that the EFA-STM program has been a win for all parties involved and a must for companies, especially in the transportation industry” Konkel said.

Obamacare Expands Into Workers’ Comp

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) was created to expand healthcare coverage. Unfortunately, the act has overstepped its bounds and will dip into the workers’ compensation coffers by requiring mandatory reporting for Medicaid beneficiaries.

Medicaid originated in 1965 to cover low-income people with children who had disabilities. State and federal governments fund Medicaid, with the state being the primary administrator. Each state receives direction for the program from the federal government, but eligibility for the program is based on income and assets.

Now the new twist. As of Oct. 1, 2016, state Medicaid programs will be able to recover all of the proceeds from a settlement that were expended on a beneficiary’s behalf. Medicaid will be able to attach a beneficiary’s third-party liability settlement (including workers’ compensation) for the entire amount of the beneficiary’s award – not just the amount allocated to medical expenses. This means funds intended to compensate beneficiaries for pain and suffering, lost wages or any damages other than medical expenses could be subject to the reach of state Medicaid agencies seeking recovery.

This will affect many employers because adoption of ACA has afforded broader coverage under state Medicaid programs, which now include individuals within 133% of the federal poverty level (roughly $32,252.50 for a family of four in 2015) and under the age of 65 years. Medicaid now covers a greater percentage of the workforce.

Since the inception of the Secondary Payer Act (MSP), the primary focus for Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has been on Medicare reimbursement, primarily because there was a lack of federal direction to the states to recognize Medicaid’s rights and because, before ACA, the majority of Medicaid recipients were unemployed. The lack of recovery process has placed a tremendous burden on state Medicaid programs, because many of them are paying for treatment for individuals who are now covered by workers’ compensation. Medicaid needs to be reimbursed for these expenditures, because voluntary reimbursement has not been successful, resulting in many state programs experiencing insolvency.

The federal laws regarding the rights and responsibilities of recovery from parties in injury cases such as workers’ compensation had to change. These changes translate into digging deeper into an employer’s pockets and taking away more control from the employer.

The National Conference of Insurance Legislators (NCOIL) is developing a model for legislation to assist in recovery efforts. If adopted, this legislation would apply to all workers’ compensation and personal injury claims for medical payments coverage and third party payments for bodily injury from insurers and self-funded primary plans. Rhode Island, West Virginia, Vermont and Kentucky are already exploring “intercept” programs to help comply with the mandatory reporting requirements. Employers that operate in many jurisdictions may have to navigate many different programs as each has distinct reporting and repayment provisions.

Workers’ compensation was never intended to be part of Medicaid. It is only because of the expanded benefit rights from ACA that more employed individuals are Medicaid recipients. Now, not only do employers have to be concerned with MSP rights for Medicare, but they also have to be concerned with Medicaid. While Medicare is a standard set of federal rules, Medicaid will vary from state to state, so compliance is not consistent.

Employees and carriers alike have to be concerned that any settlement arising out of a work-related injury could be subject to “interception” on behalf of the state Medicaid program. No winners here.

While there is no escaping the law, employers can minimize problems by ensuring that they only accept claims that arise out of the course and scope of employment (AOECOE). If an injury did not occur at work or if work did not exacerbate a condition, then it is not a work-related injury and is outside the scope of the Medicare and Medicaid Secondary Payer Acts.

The EFA-STM Program, a book-end solution for the diagnosis and management of soft tissue injuries, has proven effective in helping all stakeholders – employers, physicians and employees – by helping deliver better care for the work-related injury and identifying whether there is a change in condition; i.e. is it work related or not? The program not only is of benefit for the reduction of workers’ compensation claims, it is instrumental in helping all stakeholders navigate the Secondary Payer Acts.

Please join us for the Emerging Trends in Workers’ Compensation Summit in Carlsbad, CA, on Jan. 28, 2016. To get the special ITL rate of $175, use this promotional code: EMERGE2016.

Better Approach to Soft Tissue Injury

Musculoskeletal diseases, defined as injuries to the soft tissues, currently affect more than one out of every two persons in the U.S. age 18 and older, and nearly three out of four over the age of 65. Low back pain affects at least 80% of adults at some point, with an estimated annual cost of more than $100 billion. Trauma, back pain and arthritis — the three most common musculoskeletal conditions — are the most common reason for patient visits to physicians’ offices, emergency departments and hospitals every year. With the aging U.S. population, musculoskeletal diseases are becoming a greater burden every year.

A determination must be made if the pain generator is muscular or structural, and incorrect diagnoses can lead to inappropriate treatments and, in the worst case, unnecessary surgeries.

About 80% of healthcare and social costs related to low back pain are attributed to just 10% of patients with chronic pain and disability. This statistic suggests that improved interventions to reduce the recurrence of low back pain can underpin significant cost savings and improvement in patient outcomes.

The standard approach to managing soft tissue injuries is to obtain a medical history and perform a physical examination. Imaging or testing usually is not needed in the early phases of treatment. In most cases, the natural history of a soft tissue injury resolves without intervention.

There are excellent tools to diagnose structural abnormalities or nerve injuries. These include imaging studies, nerve condition tests and disograms. X-rays can be used to assess the possibility of fracture or dislocation. Nerve conduction studies may be used to localize nerve dysfunction.

But they are not adequate for soft tissue injury or functional assessments. MRI and CT scans, while excellent tests to evaluate structure, are generally static and not designed to assess muscle function dynamically. In addition, these standard tests all carry a high rate of false positives.

There is no magic bullet or one test that does everything. While many tests are good for what they are designed to evaluate, they are not appropriate to diagnose a soft tissue injury.

Enter electrodiagnostic functional assessment — EFA testing. The EFA is a diagnostic tool that combines and enhances five medically accepted tests: electromyography, range of motion, functional capacity evaluation, pinch and grip strength. The EFA is non-invasive and non-loading. The advantage the EFA presents over performing these tests individually is that it performs all tests simultaneously and in a dynamic fashion.

This equipment has a 510 (k) registration with the Food and Drug Administration as a Class II diagnostic device. Furthermore, the FDA has recognized in the intended use section that the technology can distinguish between acute and chronic pathology, is able to look at referred pain patterns and is useful with treatment recommendations and baseline testing.

Physicians encounter patients daily with complaints of injuries to the soft tissues, particularly the paraspinal muscles. In many cases, objective findings are obvious, but many patients may have injuries that are subtle but continue to cause symptoms. In other cases, the injuries may be less recent, and the physical findings may not be apparent. Direct palpation of soft tissues can, in some cases, reveal the nature or type of injury, but this manner of diagnosis relies on static testing. For some individuals, problems may only be encountered during activity. Measuring muscle activity during range-of-motion testing is difficult at best. The extent to which a patient exerts herself also presents a subjective bias with soft tissue injury.

Better outcomes will be demonstrated by using the correct tools to evaluate the underlying pathology. In Adam Seidner’s paper “Assessing disease and wellness in the occupational setting: Electrodiagnostic Functional Assessment from wired to wireless,” he demonstrated that, when the EFA was implemented as a case management tool, it enhanced the level of discussion among treating providers, injured workers and claim professionals. The study demonstrated that medical and lost wage payments to injured workers and their healthcare providers were 25% lower in the EFA group, for an average savings of $10,000 per claim versus the control group. Most importantly, the average return to work was 213 days in the EFA group versus 275 for the control group, or an average of 62 days sooner. The EFA was able to provide better diagnostic information on soft tissue injuries and return the individual back to activities of daily living sooner. Better patient care leads to better outcomes.

The EFA results are further demonstrated in the paper “Musculoskeletal disorders early diagnosis: A retrospective study in the occupational medicine setting.” The study found EFA test results affected the course of treatment, improved clinical and functional outcomes, increased patient satisfaction and decreased dispute litigation. In fact, 98 of the 100 cases resulted in return to maximum medical improvement with no rateable impairment and full release to active duty. Only 2% of the cases were challenged, and 98% of those in the EFA control group returned to their pre-injury jobs. These cases were tracked over a three-year period.

The EFA-STM baseline program is just another example of better diagnostics providing better patient care. This book-end solution allows for the best care possible for the work-related injury. If a condition is not deemed to be work-related, the individual can still receive the best care and a quicker resolution.

The EFA does not replace the other, well-established diagnostic tests; it is simply a better diagnostic alternative for soft tissue injuries. All the tests can complement one another.

At the end of the day, when it comes workers’ compensation, the issue is providing better patient care. It’s a win-win for all parties.