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Obesity as Disease: A Profound Change

The obesity rate in the U.S. has doubled in the past 15 years. More than 50% of the population is overweight, with a BMI (body mass index) between 25 and 30, and 30% have a BMI greater than 30 and are considered obese. Less than 20% of the population is at a healthy weight, with a BMI less than 25.

On June 16, 2013, the American Medical Association voted to declare obesity a disease rather than a comorbidity factor, a decision that will affect 78 million adults. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said the costs to U.S. businesses related to obesity exceed $13 billion each year. With the pending implementation of ICD (International Classification of Diseases) 10 codes, the reclassification of obesity is is fast becoming a reality and will dramatically affect workers’ compensation and cases related to the American Disability Act and amendments.

Before the AMA’s obesity reclassification, ICD-9 code 278 related to obesity-related medical complications rather than to obesity. The new ICD-10 coding system now identifies obesity as a disease, which needs to be addressed medically. Obesity can now become a secondary claim, and injured workers will be considered obese if they gain weight because of medications, cannot maintain a level of fitness because of a work-related injury or if their BMI exceeds 30. The conditions are all now considered work-related and must be treated as such.

The problem of obesity for employers is not confined to workers’ compensation. The Americans with Disability Act Amendment of 2008 allows for a broader scope of protection for disabilities. The classification of obesity as a disease now places an injured worker in a protected class pursuant to the ADA amendment. In fact, litigation in this area has already started. A federal district court ruled in April 2014 that obesity itself may be a disability and will be allowed to move forward under the ADA (Joseph Whittaker v. America’s Car-Mart, Eastern District of Missouri).

Obesity as an impairment

Severe obesity is a physical impairment. A sales manager of a used car dealership was terminated for requesting accommodation and won $128,000. He was considered disabled, and the essential function of the job was walking, so he was terminated without reasonable accommodation.

The judge ruled that obesity is an accepted disability and allowed him to pursue his claim against his employer. This could have substantial impact for employers as injured workers could more easily argue that their obesity is a permanent condition that impedes their ability to return to work, as opposed to a temporary life choice that can be reversed.

The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) has recently chimed in on obesity. According to the EEOC, severe [or morbid] obesity body weight, of more than 100% over the norm, qualifies as impairment under the ADA without proof of an underlying physiological disorder. In the last year, we have seen an increasing number of EEOC-driven obesity-related lawsuits. Federal district courts support the EEOC’s position that an employee does not have to prove an underlying condition, especially in cases where there is evidence that the employer perceived the employee’s obesity as a disability or otherwise expressed prejudice against the employee for being obese.

Workers’ compensation claims are automatically reported to CMS Medicare with a diagnosis. When the new ICD-10 codes take effect, an obesity diagnosis will be included in the claim and will require co-digital payments, future medical care or continued treatment by Medicare.

There is good news on the horizon. Reporting of a claim only happens if there is a change in condition not primarily for obesity. It is recommended that baseline testing for musculoskeletal conditions be conducted at the time of hiring and on the existing workforce. In the event of a work-related injury, if a second test is conducted that reveals no change in condition, it results in no reportable claim and no obesity issue. In the event of ADA issues, the baseline can serve to determine pre-injury condition or the need for accommodations.

What does this mean to employers?

Obesity is now considered a physical impairment that may affect an employees’ ability to perform their jobs and receive special accommodations pursuant to the ADA.

An increasingly unhealthy workforce will pose many challenges for employers in the next few years. Those that can effectively improve the health and well-being of their employee population will have a significant advantage in reducing work comp claim costs, health and welfare benefits and retaining skilled workers.

Recent studies

In a four-year study conducted by Johns Hopkins with an N value of 7,690, 85% of the injured workers studied were classified as obese. In a Duke University study involving 11,728 participants, researchers revealed that employees with a BMI greater than 40 had 11.65 claims per 100 workers, and the average claim costs were $51,010. Employees with a BMI less than 25 had 5.8 claims per 100 workers, with average claim costs of $7,503. This study found that disability costs associated with obesity are seven times higher than for those with a BMI less than 30.

A National Institute of Health study with 42,000 participants found that work-related injuries for employees with a BMI between 25 and 30 had a 15% increase in injuries, and those with a BMI higher than 30 had an increase in work-related injuries of 48%.

The connection between obesity and on the job injuries is clear and extremely costly for employers. Many employers have struggled with justifying the cost of instituting wellness programs just on the basic ROI calculations. They were limiting the potential return on investment solely to the reduction in health insurance costs rather than including the costs on the workers’ comp side of the equation and the potential for lost business opportunities because of injury rates that do not meet customer performance expectations. Another key point is that many wellness programs do not include a focus on treating chronic disease that may cause workers to be more likely to be injured and prolong the recovery period.

Customer-driven safety expectations

There are many potential customers (governments, military, energy, construction) who require that their service providers, contractors and business partners meet specific safety performance requirements as measured by OSHA statistics (recordable incident rates) and National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) rating (experience modifiers) and, in some cases, a full review by 3rd party organizations such as ISNet World.

Working for the best customers often requires that your company’s safety record be in the top 25th percentile to even qualify to bid. To be a world-class company with a world-class safety record requires an integrated approach to accident and injury prevention.

Challenges of an aging workforce

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the labor force will increase by 12.8 million by 2020. The number of workers between ages 16 and 24 will decline 14%, and the number of workers ages 25 to 54 will increase by only 1.9%. The overall share of the labor force for 25- to 54-year-olds will decline from 68% to 65%. The number of workers 55 and older is projected to grow by 28%, or 5.5 times the rate of growth in the overall labor force.

Employers must recognize the challenge that an aging workforce will bring and begin to prepare their workforce for longer careers. A healthy and physically fit 55-year-old worker is more capable and less likely to be injured than a 35-year-old worker who is considered obese.

Treating chronic disease

Employers who want a healthy work force must recognize and treat chronic disease. Many companies have biometric testing programs (health risk assessments) and track healthcare expenditures through their various providers (brokers and insurance carriers).

The results are quite disappointing. On average, only 39% of employees participate in biometric screenings even when they are provided free of charge. For those employees who do participate and who are identified with high biometric risk (blood pressure, glucose, BMI, cholesterol), fewer than 20% treat or even manage these diseases.

This makes these employees much more susceptible to injury and significantly lengthens the disability period. The resulting financial impact on employers can be devastating.

Conclusion

Best-in-class safety results will require a combined approach to reduce injuries and to accommodate new classes of disability such as obesity. It is important that employers focus on improving the health and well-being of their workforce while creating well-developed job descriptions, identifying the essential functions, assessing physical assessments and designing job demands to fall within the declining capabilities of the American workers. It is important for an employer to only accept claims that arise out of the course and scope of employment. This is especially true with the reclassification of obesity as a disease. Baseline testing will play an essential role in separating work-related injuries from pre-existing conditions in this changing environment.

Is Baseline Testing Worth It? (Part 3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ls baseline testing worth the effort? Indubitably, yes!

Is Baseline Testing Worth It? (Part 2)

In our first article on this subject, we gave an overview of baseline testing, compared it with a post-offer physical exam, updated recent legal decisions under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) that allow baseline testing and concluded with a legal case highlighting the benefits of a baseline program. While all stakeholders won in the case we cited, we all need to remember that the focus in workers’ comp needs to be the injured worker.

That isn’t always the case, as recent court rulings have shown. Last week, a Pottawatomie County judge in Oklahoma issued a ruling that may erode the exclusive remedy provision for workers’ compensation (Duck vs Morgan Tire). This ruling comes after Miami-Dade District Judge Jorge Cueto ruled in August that the exclusive-remedy provision of the state’s comp statute was unconstitutional. Both cases make a strong case that the rights of injured workers have been deteriorating and that workers no longer have enough protection. (The cases are under appeal.)

The workers’ compensation system is overburdened with red tape: In some states, there are onerous mandates for doctors, delays in legal proceedings, disputes over acceptance of cases…and on and on. An injured person is caught in the middle. Frequently, necessary care is delayed — which often results in even greater damage and costs. Carriers and employers are frustrated, too. With increasing federal mandates complicating this already tangled system, they feel they are being asked to accept claims that “aren’t ours.” They worry about liability and uncontrolled costs, even while knowing that delaying appropriate care can lead to prolonged disability, inefficient medical care and higher costs.

So the question remains: How do we do the best for the injured worker while protecting ourselves?

This article focuses on the heart of the matter: Better diagnosis leads to better patient care. Peel away the layers of comp laws and reforms, and this is what the industry should be about.

Baseline testing helps identify a change in condition, so the person can get the best care possible for work-related injuries. Does this actually happen? Does baseline testing work with soft-tissue injuries, specifically those that appear to be based on subjective complaints, with typically little or no objective findings? (Soft-tissue injuries, although often unsupported by clear and convincing evidence, are the leading drivers of cost in the system.)

Here is a case that shows that it’s possible to use baseline testing to avoid over-treating or under-treating and to do the right thing:

Mr. Jones works for the same employer as was mentioned in Part 1 of this article. He is 34 years old and is employed as truck driver. He underwent a baseline test in June 2014 and was injured at work in September 2014. He was driving his truck when he hit a bump. He was wearing a seat belt but hit his head. He continued to work. He later felt diffuse neck pain and reported the incident.

The following day, he saw a doctor, who couldn’t issue a diagnosis. Mr. Jones had a history of chronic neck pain, so the doctor couldn’t tell if anything was “new.” He thought the pain would go away, but it persisted.

Because Mr. Jones had undergone a baseline evaluation, he was sent for the post-incident, electrodiagnostic functional assessment (EFA). The comparison of the two evaluations revealed a change in condition. The testing indicated he could have an industrially related left cervical radiculopathy. Treatment was redirected to this area, and he received the appropriate care on an expedited basis.

This is a person who had diffuse pathology and a substantial pre-existing condition. As a result, his workman’s comp carrier delayed care, and he pursued treatment by his chiropractor on a non-industrial basis. He was off work, not receiving benefits, while waiting for the causation of his injury to be determined. He potentially could have gotten lost in the system with unresolved treatment and escalating bills while without benefits and out of work.

The employer truly wants the best care for its injured workers and, as soon as the comparison demonstrated a change, ensured that he received all the appropriate care and benefits for his work-related injury.

We truly believe that everyone in this workers’ compensation system wants to do the “right thing” but that is hard to do without objective evidence. Accurate diagnoses lead to better patient care, which is the very basis of workers’ compensation. So is baseline testing really worth the effort? You bet it is!

Is Baseline Testing Worth the Effort?

We have written several articles on the topic of baseline testing and demonstrated some substantial results. Today, with more than three years of baseline data, we are still asked the question: Is baseline testing really worth the effort? That’s the question we address in this article.

First, some background on baseline testing:

Often called a bookend solution, it is a non-discriminatory way for an employer to ascertain if a work-related injury arises out of the course and scope of employment (AOECEO). For a baseline test to be valid for musculoskeletal disorders (soft-tissue injuries), it has to assess the specific function of the nerves and muscles of  the spine or other body part in question. In the case of soft-tissue injuries, the test should include electromyography (EMG), range of motion and functional assessment for some of the essential functions of the job. The test should be noninvasive.

The baseline test data is stored unread until there is a work-related injury and then compared with a post-incident test to determine a change in condition or AOECOE status.

A baseline test is not designed to see if somebody can perform the essential functions of their job and therefore differs from the post-offer, preplacement evaluation (POET). Another major difference between a POET and a baseline test is that baseline testing can be done on the existing workforce. According to the ADA, post-employment medical inquiries and exams can only be done when they are job-related and consistent with business necessity. 42 U.S.C. § 12112(d)(4)(A).  Two recent cases from the Sixth Circuit (Bates v. DuraAuto Systems and Kroll v. White Lake Ambulance Authority) can assist employers with questions. It is our opinion, consistent with Bates, that a medical exam is not prohibited as long as it does not identify or single out a disability. Therefore, baseline testing is permissible, because the data is never evaluated unless a post-loss event occurs and at that time becomes subject to workers’ compensation requirements. At no point does the baseline testing determine or identify disability or an individual’s inability to perform their job functions.

According to Kroll, an employer that requires medical examination of an employee has to have a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that the test will satisfy  a vital function of the business. The keys are objective evidence and vital business function. Accepting AOECOE claims, and getting the employee the best care for the work-related injury, will fulfill this obligation.

With recent case law, and a basic understanding of the differences between POET and baseline testing, let’s evaluate a case study:

A national concrete manufacturer and supplier conducted POETs on all new hires. The employees use heavy equipment, and POET had proven to be a valuable tool to ensure that people could handle the equipment and to increase safety in the workplace. However, in the event of an injury, the POET test could not determine if there was an AOECOE condition and could not assist in identifying better treatment for the condition. To better help employees in the event of a work-related injury, the company decided to do baseline testing for existing employees and new hires.

Mr. Smith, a 48-year-old driver who was an existing employee, felt a sharp pain in his back after lifting at work. When he reported the incident, he stated that he  was injured before his EFA baseline evaluation and that even no change from the baseline still meant he had a work-related injury. As part of the  EFA-STM program, he was referred for evaluation and sent for post-injury assessment. Based on the EFA comparisons, chronic unrelated pathology and no acute pathology were noted on both evaluations. Furthermore, no change of condition was noted, and the comparison testing revealed that he was improved on the post-loss test. He subsequently pursued a surgical opinion on his own, without authorization  from the workers’ compensation carrier. The surgeon who evaluated him recommended a lumbar surgery, and this was performed, again without authorization. After the surgery, the court commissioner found the injury to Mr. Smith’s back not to be work-related, based on the EFA-STM results. Therefore, surgery was not compensable. Furthermore, the post-incident EFA testing found surgery wouldn’t have been indicated even if there were a change in condition. Mr. Smith has still not been able to return to work following his back surgery.

This case demonstrates that the EFA-STM program enables determination of AOECOE conditions. In Mr. Smith’s case, the baseline testing program was not only instrumental in determining there was no AOECOE, nothing OSHA-recordable and no mandatory reporting but, most importantly, was able to determine that Mr. Smith was not a surgical candidate. Thousands of dollars for unnecessary medical care was avoided by the company for an injury that was not work-related, according to an objective determination by the EFA testing.

Is baseline testing worth the effort? You be the judge.

Better Way to Handle Soft-Tissue Injuries

The most costly problem facing employers today is work-related, soft-tissue injuries, more commonly known as work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WRMSD). According to OSHA, WRMSD account for 34% of lost work days in the U.S., as well as a third of the dollars spent in workers’ compensation and of all work-related injury cases.

Not surprisingly, soft tissue injuries — to the ligaments, tendons and fibers of the body that connect the bones — are difficult to diagnose. Standard diagnostic tests such as X-rays or imaging are frequently unable to document the presence of pain and loss of function. As a result, diagnoses are often subjective, leading to poor treatment (including unnecessary surgery and overuse of narcotics), extra lost work time, precariously high medical costs and, at times, fraudulent claims.

There is a need for accurate, timely and evidence-based diagnosis and treatment to curtail escalating costs and improve clinical outcomes, as these case studies show:

Case 1

A 44-year-old gentleman had undergone a baseline EFA. (The Electrodiagnostic Functional Assessment, or EFA, combines mutltichannel wireless electromyography (EMG) with range-of-motion testing and integrates that with a functional output). He is employed as an unloader in the shipping department. He alleged a work-related injury in October 2014, five weeks into his employment. He stated that he injured his shoulders when he put his hands out to block a fall. He complained of bilateral shoulder pain, radiating to the right upper extremity. He rated the pain as an eight on a scale of one to 10. But an EFA found no change from the baseline test.

Outcome: Because there was no change from his baseline, he was released from treatment and advised to see his primary care physician for any further medical needs.

Case 2

A 37-year-old gentleman was employed as a loader. He alleged a work injury in October 2014; when he bent to lift some ice, he felt a pain in his lower back. He complained of radiating lower back pain, into the left lower extremity, rated as a 6/10. He was referred by his occupational medicine doctor, as there were no objective findings, and his subjective complaints seemed out of proportion. An EFA revealed normal EMG activity, with chronic, unrelated pathology.

Outcome: When he returned for his follow-up evaluation after the EFA, he still had the same subjective complaints. After his doctor reviewed the EFA findings, he stated that he felt much better and asked for a release to return to  full duty at work.

Case 3

A 34-year-old gentleman was employed as a mix/truck driver. He had undergone a baseline EFA in June 2014 and had a work-related motor vehicle accident in September 2014. His head struck the roof of his truck, and he was not wearing a hard hat. He complained of neck, shoulder and head pain. When an EFA was compared with the baseline, chronic, unrelated pathology was noted. However, the comparison also revealed a change in the paracervical region. This change was consistent with the date and mechanism of injury and with his subjective complaints.

Outcome: The EFA comparison was able to identify and redirect care, away from the chiropractic care that he was receiving. After imaging studies were performed and the results found to be consistent with the EFA findings, he received site-specific, conservative care for his work-related injury, and his symptoms improved.

It is our opinion that the EFA-STM provides a book end solution, comparing a pre-injury test to a post-injury assessment to objectively and accurately determine AOECOE (arising out of employment/course of employment) status. One must base a medical evaluation on facts, not subjective complaints. When that is accomplished, proper diagnosis and treatment are rendered, and outcomes improved.

The authors invite you to join them at the NexGen Workers’ Compensation Summit 2015, to be held Jan. 13 in Carlsbad, CA. The conference, hosted by Emerge Diagnostics, is dedicated to past lessons from, the current status of and the future for workers’ compensation. The conference is an opportunity for companies to network and learn, as well as contribute personal experience to the general knowledge base for workers’ compensation. Six CEU credits are offered. For more information, click here.