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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.

Workers' Compensation No Longer The Exclusive Remedy: RICO On The Radar

Workers' Compensation origins can be traced to the late Middle Ages and Renaissance times in the Unholy Trinity of Defenses, the doctrine that first outlined that work-related injuries were compensable.  This doctrine began in Europe and made its way to America with the Industrial Revolution.  There were so many restrictions with it that changes occurred and led to the doctrine of Contributory Negligence which outlines that employers are not at fault for work-related injuries. This principle was established in the United States with the case Martin vs. The U.S. Railroad. In this case, faulty equipment caused the injuries, but the employee did not receive compensation, as it was deemed that inspection of equipment was part of his job duties. Additionally, the case Farnwell vs. The Boston Worchester Railroad Company led to the “Fellow Servant Rule” where employees did not receive compensation if their injuries were in any way related to negligence from a co-worker.

For awhile, in the United States, we had the Assumption of Risk Doctrine that held employers were not liable for injuries because employees knew of job hazards when they signed their work contracts. By agreeing to work, they assumed all risks. These contracts were often nicknamed Death Contracts. The only recourse an employee had was civil litigation or tort claims. As the nineteenth century continued, employers were faced with increasing civil litigation and employee verdicts.

The basis of our exclusive remedy workers' compensation system had its roots in Prussia with Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, who, in 1884, pushed through Workers' Accident Insurance which contained the exclusive remedy provisions for employers.  The first Federal Workers' Compensation law was signed in 1908 by President Taft, protecting workers involved in interstate commerce.

Work Reform was slower to progress to America. Early workers' compensation acts were attempted in New York (1898), Maryland (1902), Massachusetts (1908), and Montana (1909) without success.  Finally, in 1911, Wisconsin passed the first comprehensive workers' compensation law, followed by nine other states that same year. Before the end of the decade, thirty other states passed workers' compensation laws. The last state to pass workers' compensation laws was Mississippi in 1948.  The main issue in all the states workers' compensation acts is the no fault system, i.e. employers who participate in the states workers' compensation system are exempt from civil tort litigation, hence the exclusive remedy. In the United States this exclusive remedy for work related injuries has stood, for the most part, until recently.

Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, more commonly known as RICO, is a federal law that provides for criminal penalties and a civil cause of action for acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal organization. This act focuses specifically on racketeering, and it allows the leaders of a syndicate to be tried for the crimes which they ordered others to do or with which they assisted. It was enacted October 15, 1970 and was in widespread use to prosecute the Mafia. It has become more widespread and now plays a significant role in work-related injuries.

RICO on the Radar

One of the most recent significant cases is Brown, et al v. Cassens Transport, et al No. 08a0385. In summary, The United States Court of Appeals, Sixth District (Michigan), acting on a remand from the United States Supreme Court, has held that employees may have an action based on the civil provisions of the RICO Act against not only employers but their agents (carriers and doctors).  This is an important decision which could affect employers in the 6th district, Michigan and Illinois, because it involves a Federal statute where the United States Supreme Court has held that the plaintiffs need not prove reliance that the defendants’ actions resulted in detrimental consequences to the plaintiff.

In the instant case, Brown v. Cassens, decided October 23, 2008, the Supreme Court had merely restated its opinion in Bridge v. Phoenix, decided June 9, 2008, where it originally held that the plaintiff need not prove that it relied on the alleged RICO violation. This case allows the Plaintiffs to sue the Employer (Cassens Transport Company), the TPA (Crawford and Company) and the doctor (Dr. Margules).

The Plaintiffs allege that the defendants engaged in a civil conspiracy and racketeering to deny them workers' compensation benefits. Specifically, the Plaintiffs allege that the employer and TPA hired unqualified doctors to issue fraudulent medical findings to deny them workers' compensation benefits.  The case alleges at least 13 predicate acts of fraud by mail and wire all relating to the fraudulent denial of the workers' compensation benefits under the Michigan Workers' Disability Compensation Act. For more specifics, please refer to the case citations. Suffice it to say here that the Court has allowed this case to proceed forward, taking away the employers exclusive remedy. Furthermore, RICO cases are not covered by insurance, making this very costly for the employer, carrier and physician.

Many say that the this case has a long way to go before employers have to be concerned about  the exclusive remedy position being taken away, but that may no longer be true. In November 2012, a landmark settlement was reached in Josephine et al v.Walmart Stores, Inc., Claims Management, Inc., American Home Assurance Co., Concentra Health Services, Inc.; Defendants. Civil Action No. 1:09-cv-00656-REB-BNB (USDCT Colorado). This RICO case was allowed to proceed against defendants under a state RICO statute in Colorado in March, 2011. In November, 2012, a settlement was reached between the parties for $8 million.

And most recently, June, 2013, the Sixth Circuit heard arguments in Jackson v. Sedgwick Claims Management Serv. This RICO case will determine if Michigan’s workers’ compensation laws provide the exclusive remedy for injured workers, or whether injured workers can sue under RICO for an alleged conspiracy to file false medical reports to cut off workers’ compensation benefits. 

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. 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, then no claim exists, hence no fraudulent denials.

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. If a work-related claim is not AOECOE, as proven by objective medical evidence such as a pre- and post-assessment where 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. If the baseline testing is evidenced-based medicine and objective, this can further protect employers against RICO claims.

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, ensuring that the injured worker receives the best care possible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Do New Workers' Compensation Reforms Sweeping the Country Have in Common?

AOECOE – Not Just Another Acronym

California Senate Bill 863 was passed in the fall of 2012 and went into effect on January 1, 2013. Senate Bill 1062 was just signed into law by Governor Mary Fallin of Oklahoma and will take effect January 1, 2014. On April 30, 2013, Tennessee Governor, Bill Haslam, signed into effect Senate Bill 200. House Bill 154 is expected to go into effect in Georgia in July, 2013. What are these bills? The first of many sweeping Workers' Compensation reforms. A common theme in these bills and other pending reforms is to level the playing field for employers and accept only those claims that arise out of the course and scope of employment, AOECOE.

A well-known term of art in the Workers' Compensation arena, AOECOE is not just an acronym. It is transitioning from a term of art to a statement with teeth, as reforms are actually including such wording into bills. The purpose of doing this is to establish whether an employee's alleged injury is work-related and happened in the course and scope of employment, or whether the injury is non-industrial or affected by third parties.

Workers' Compensation is a no fault system and thus benefits the injured worker, as, in order to receive benefits, he or she does not need to prove that the employer was negligent. However, it is the injured party's burden to show that the injury did, in fact, occur while at work, while employed as an employee and while undertaking some activity for the benefit of the employer. The injury itself must have been caused by the accident or employment conditions, and not from some other non-industrial related factors or degenerative factors.

The determination of AOECOE has long been an OSHA policy. OSHA's Injury and Illness Recordkeeping Regulation Section 1904.5: Determination of work-relatedness contained under section (a) basic requirement states in order for an injury or illness to be work-related an event or exposure in the work environment is either caused or contributed to the resulting condition or significantly aggravated a pre-existing injury or illness. Work-relatedness is presumed for injuries and illnesses resulting from events or exposures occurring in the work environment.

California's SB 863 was signed into law by Governor Brown on September 18, 2012, for a January 1, 2013, effective date. While certainly not the first bill to consider AOECOE issues, it is one of the most significant Workers' Compensation reform bills to specify AOECOE language. SB 863 calls for an Independent Medical Review (IMR). While this process may be problematic for an employer, since an IMR can be requested only by an injured worker following a denial, modification, or delay of a treatment request through the utilization review (UR) process, the bill specifically states that this does not apply if the injury is in question for AOECOE reasons.

On May 8, 2013, Oklahoma Governor Fallin signed into law historic Workers' Compensation reform, Senate Bill 1062. The bill defines compensable injury as arising out of the course and scope of employment and does not include: any strain, degeneration damage or harm to disease or condition of the eye or musculoskeletal structure or other body part resulting from the natural result of aging, osteoarthritis, degenerative process or pre-existing, except if a treating physician clearly confirms an identifiable and significant aggravation arising out of AOECOE.

On April 29, 2013, Tennessee Governor Haslam signed a Workers' Compensation reform bill into law, SB 200. It specifies that injuries arise out of and in the course and scope of employment only if proven by a preponderance of evidence that employment contributed more than 50% to causing the injury, AOECOE.

In my experience, the majority of injuries are real, but they are not AOECOE. Injured parties may exaggerate the severity and extent of their injuries or may attempt to hide pre-existing conditions. So how do any employers determine if injuries are AOECOE? The answer is simple. They need to ascertain what the employees' statuses are pre-injury. This is effectively done with baseline testing.

Baseline testing is a bookend solution. To be effective, it should be objective, meet the criteria for evidenced-based medicine, be job related and consistent with medical necessity. It needs to be specific to the metrics being evaluated. A good example of a specific baseline test that is recognized in some jurisdictions by statute is audiometric testing. Hearing tests are routinely done in environments with high noise exposure to determine a baseline that is referenced once a claim is filed. This is commonly referred to as the lock box defense.

Audiometric testing is beneficial for documenting hearing loss but is not designed to address other conditions such as musculoskeletal disorders (MSD). MSDs are the most frequent and costly claims for an employer. In order for a baseline test to be utilized for MSD, it must not only be objective and reproducible, it must contain measurements to ascertain electromyography (EMG), range of motion (ROM) and function.

In addition, baseline testing must be legally defensible. In 1990, Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act that outlines what makes a legally defensible test. To be legally defensible, the testing needs to be job-related and consistent with business necessity i.e. the employer must show that it “substantially promote[s]” the business' needs. It must be repeatable, objective and address functionality. Also, since baseline testing is considered to be a medical exam, it needs to evaluate some functions of the job.

Baseline testing is not a post-offer, pre-placement test, as it can not identify disability because the data is not read and no hiring decisions are made with baseline evaluations. When a work-related injury occurs, a post loss test is conducted, at which time the baseline test is read and compared to the post loss results, hence the bookends.

When compared, the results can determine if an injury exists and if it has arisen out of the course and scope of employment, thus determining an employer's true responsibility. Good baseline testing is non-discriminatory and prevents “false” claims. The sweeping Workers' Compensation reforms allow for a new definition of “false” claim: one that is not AOECOE. A false claim no longer means fraud! A proven example of an effective baseline test is the EFA-STM.

Workers' Compensation statutes are helping employers by allowing them to accept the claims that are only AOECOE. Employers need to see that they comply with legislation, and baseline testing now gives them an objective assessment to do just that.