Tag Archives: sb 899

Blockbuster Opinion on Apportionment

The Court of Appeals in the 3rd District has issued a blockbuster opinion on apportionment in City of Jackson v W.C.A.B. (Rice) regarding the requirements for substantial medical evidence in worker’ compensation cases. In reversing the W.C.A.B., the court laid out its analysis of why a QME’s apportionment to genetic factors was well supported and legally sufficient.

The applicant in this case was a 29-year-old, police officer who developed cervical spine pain, resulting in the need for surgery. He was evaluated by QME Sloan Blair MD on multiple occasions. Dr. Blair apportioned applicant’s disability to multiple factors, including 17% each to his employment with the city, to prior employment and to personal activities. The remaining 49% was apportioned to his personal history, including “genetic issues.” In response to a request for supplemental report from the applicant attorney, Dr. Blair further clarified the basis for her opinion:

“…“to a reasonable degree of medical probability that genetics has played a role in Mr. Rice’s injury,” despite the fact that there is no way to test for genetic factors. Citing the referenced medical studies, Dr. Blair stated that one of them said “heritability was . . . 73 percent in the cervical spine. . . . [S]moking, age, and work are only a small percentage of disc disease and most of it is familial.” Another source cited the role of heritability in disc degeneration as 75 percent, and the other stated it was 73 percent. Dr. Blair cited a fourth article that claimed, “ ‘[t]win studies demonstrate that degeneration in adults may be explained up to 75 percent by genes alone.’ ” The same study found environmental factors to contribute little or not at all. Dr. Blair stated that while these studies supported an apportionment of 75 percent to personal history, she decided to err on the side of the patient in case there was some unknown “inherent weakness” in the study, and decided that 49 percent was the “lowest level that could reasonably be stated…”

The WCJ accepted Dr. Blair’s apportionment to genetic factors but rejected the other apportionment awarding PD based on 51% industrial causation. On reconsideration, the W.C.A.B. reversed, asserting Dr. Blair’s apportionment to genetic factors resulted in an allocation of disability to impermissible immutable factors and not to “specific identifiable factors” and was therefore not substantial evidence.

See also: 3rd District Upholds Validity of IMR  

The 3rd District took issue with the W.C.A.B.’s entire analysis of this apportionment issue. Noting the specific intent of SB 899 to allow apportionment to “other factors,” the court went through multiple W.C.A.B. and appellate court decisions on apportionment and could find little to distinguish apportionment on the basis of degenerative joint disease, asymptomatic prior conditions etc. The court specifically rejected the W.C.A.B.’s reference to “impermissible immutable factors,”  commenting as follows:

“…Precluding apportionment based on “impermissible immutable factors” would preclude apportionment based on the very factors that the legislation now permits, i.e., apportionment based on pathology and asymptomatic prior conditions for which the worker has an inherited predisposition. 

The Court pointed to several instances where medical evidence relied on apportionment to genetic dispositions to develop medical conditions, citing the Kos v W.C.A.B., Escobedo and Acme Steel cases and further noting:

“…We perceive no relevant distinction between allowing apportionment based on a preexisting congenital or pathological condition and allowing apportionment based on a preexisting degenerative condition caused by heredity or genetics.”

The court also rejected the W.C.A.B.’s analysis that Dr. Blair’s reliance on the applicant’s genetic makeup resulted in apportionment to the causation of injury rather than the causation of disability. The court pointed out the cause of the injury was repetitive motion, not genetics. Rather, Dr. Blair commented that the applicant’s disability was caused by a combination of factors, including a significant contribution from his genetic makeup..

The court was also not put off by the QME’s reliance on medical literature to support her conclusion rather than on a specific history from the applicant of his genetic makeup or background. As noted by the court, the doctor’s conclusion was supported by significant, unrebutted medical literature that found degenerative disc disease was influenced significantly by genetic factors and only minimally to environmental factors such as work activity. The court points out that the research relied upon by Dr. Blair supported the conclusion that as much as 75% of all DDD was related to genetics, and the issue was not whether one could prove that the genetic factor existed; the existence of significant DDD established the genetic factor as present.

“Dr. Blair’s reports meet all of the requirements of Escobedo. Dr. Blair expressly stated that confidence in her opinion was predicated on reasonable degree of medical probability. Dr. Blair gave the reasoning behind her opinion–the published medical studies–and even named the studies and the pages relied upon. Her opinion disclosed familiarity with the concept of apportionment. Labor Code section 4663 states that apportionment is based on causation, and that “[a] physician shall make an apportionment determination by finding what approximate percentage of the permanent disability was caused by the direct result of injury arising out of and occurring in the course of employment and what approximate percentage of the permanent disability was caused by other factors . . . .”  (Lab. Code, § 4663, subd. (c).)”

The case was remanded to the W.C.A.B. to issue an opinion based upon the QME’s conclusions.

Comments and Conclusions:

Assuming this decision holds up — it is certainly likely to be appealed further — it dramatically reinforces the rules on apportionment to any relevant factors that a physician can identify with reasonable medical probability.

There are some unusual circumstances in this case that may have played a role in the ultimate outcome. First, the applicant was relatively young to have significant DDD, only 29 years old. That fact probably tipped Dr. Blair off that there was something about the condition that could not be attributed to environmental factors, including work. Second, the length of employment as a peace office was not lengthy; the applicant had worked less than five years in a full-time capacity. There had not been a lot of time to attribute causation to work activity.

There is also fairly strong support in the medical literature that DDD is not really activity-related. Other than studies that suggest whole body vibration is a significant factor, there is little to suggest that bending, lifting and stooping, without significant trauma, plays any role in the development of disc disease.

The situation is much like carpal tunnel syndrome, where the medical literature overwhelming fails to demonstrate a relationship between computer usage and the disease process, and yet we still routinely get compensable reports without any real support in the medical literature. Spine pain is constantly related to even relatively benign work activities as a matter of course.

Clearly, defense attorneys need to start appearing at doctor depos armed with the literature cited by Dr. Blair and challenge physicians to provide a basis for their unapportioned or minimally apportionment spine CT claims, especially in younger individuals.

See also: Intelligent WC Medical Management  

This decision may have even broader applications in non-orthopedic cases. We have a wealth of literature about causation of various internal medicine conditions and even psychiatric conditions attributable to genetic, historical and environmental factors that now can more carefully be considered to support apportionment where previously the W.C.A.B. had been rejecting such opinions. The issue of whether there can be apportionment to genetic factors or predispositions would appear to be resolved in the affirmative in this case.

Appellate Court Rules on IMR Timeframes

The 2nd Appellate District has issued the first of what should prove to be several appellate decisions on the timeliness of independent medical review (IMR) decisions. The court was considering the assertion by a W.C.A.B. panel that IMR timelines are mandatory and that late IMR means the W.C.A.B. — and not doctors — will determine whether treatment is medically necessary.

In SCIF v W.C.A.B. (Margaris), the court annulled the W.C.A.B. decision and remanded with instructions to issue a new decision. The court’s reason for accepting this case was set out early in the decision:

“…We issued a writ of review because this case presents an important issue of first impression regarding the interpretation of section 4610.6, and because it relates to an issue upon which the appeals board has rendered conflicting decisions.”

In its analysis, the court provided an extensive discussion of the history of authorization for medical treatment, the implementation of utilization review (UR) for treatment requests and the enactment of the statutory scheme for IMR.  As noted by the court in SB 228 and 899, the legislature changed both the standards and process used by an employer to evaluate a request for medical treatment. The legislature adopted the medical treatment utilization schedule (MTUS). The legislature then removed the existing process for resolving medical disputes using dueling doctors and required the use of utilization review, which required review of treatment requests in light of the MTUS.

In 2012, the legislature enacted another set of reforms to address disputes over UR determinations. As noted by the court, a UR determination authorizing medical treatment was binding on the employer but became subject to further review through IMR — but only for the employee. The court further observed that even where an IMR determination is ultimately reversed by the W.C.A.B., the issue of medical appropriateness was to be returned to IMR for further review, not decided by the W.C.A.B.

See also: IMR Practices May Be Legal, Yet…  

Turning to the specific issue before it, the court determined the use of “shall” in Labor Code 4610.6 was directive, not mandatory:

“…The appeals board concluded that section 4610.6, subdivision (d), is clear and unambiguous.  According to the appeals board, “shall” is mandatory, and any IMR determination issued after the 30-day time frame is necessarily invalid. In support of this interpretation, the appeals board cited section 15, which provides “‘[s]hall’ is mandatory and ‘may’ is permissive” (§ 15.). Thus, the appeals board concluded that construing “shall” as mandatory, such that an untimely IMR determination is invalid, comports with both the ordinary meaning and the statutory definition of “shall.” As we explain, however, the issue is more nuanced than the appeals board recognized.

We note that section 15, upon which the appeals board relied in this case to support its interpretation of section 4610.6, subdivision (d), juxtaposes “mandatory” against “permissive,” which arguably suggests the legislature used “shall” in the obligatory permissive sense rather than in the mandatory-directory sense, as the appeals board concluded. (See McGee, supra, 19 Cal.3d at p. 960 [discussing section 15 and concluding that “on its face, the statutory language suggests that the legislature intended the present provision to be mandatory (i.e., obligatory), rather than permissive.”]) However, given the difference in meaning given to “shall” in the statutory context, we conclude section 4610.6, subdivision (d), is ambiguous. Accordingly, we move beyond the plain language of that section and consider its meaning with reference to the rest of the statutory scheme and the intent of the legislature.”

The court commented further on this issue:

“Generally, time limits applicable to government action are deemed to be directory, unless the legislature clearly expresses a contrary intent.  (Edwards, supra, 25 Cal.3d at p. 410.) “‘In ascertaining probable intent, California courts have expressed a variety of tests. In some cases, focus has been directed at the likely consequences of holding a particular time limitation mandatory, in an attempt to ascertain whether those consequences would defeat or promote the purpose of the enactment.  [Citations.] Other cases have suggested that a time limitation is deemed merely directory ‘unless a consequence or penalty is provided for failure to do the act within the time commanded.’”

The court also found the lack of a penalty or consequence for noncompliance to be significant. Citing similar language in actions by the state personnel board, which had been held to be directive rather than mandatory, the court suggested a failure to meet the statutory time frame did not result in a loss of jurisdiction. The court also indicates in its review of the mandatory vs. directory dichotomy that statutes that set time frames for government actions that do not include a self-executing consequence are almost universally construed as directory.

The court also noted that construing the 30-day time frame as directory furthers the legislative objective of SB 863.

“We conclude from these findings that the legislature intended to remove the authority to make decisions about medical necessity of proposed treatment for injured workers from the appeals board and place it in the hands of independent, unbiased medical professionals. Construing section 4610.6, subdivision (d), as directory best furthers the legislature’s intent in this regard. The appeals board’s conclusion in this case — that an untimely IMR determination terminates the IMR process and vests jurisdiction in the appeals board to determine medical necessity — is wholly inconsistent with the legislature’s stated goals and their evident intent.

Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, the legislature provided that, “[i]n no event shall a workers’ compensation administrative law judge, the appeals board, or any higher court make a determination of medical necessity contrary to the determination of the independent medical review organization” (Stats. 2012, ch. 363, § 45, codified at § 4610.6, subd. (i)). We find this portion of the statute — particularly the use of the phrase “in no event” — to be a frank expression of the legislature’s desire to remove the issue of medical necessity of proposed treatment from the jurisdiction of the appeals board in all cases subject to IMR. The legislature’s intent would be defeated by giving section 4610.6, subdivision (d), mandatory effect, as the appeals board did in the present case.”

See also: 20 Work Comp Issues to Watch in 2016

Additionally, the applicant attorney argued that the W.C.A.B.’s holding in the Dubon case (Dubon 2) supported the W.C.A.B’s usurpation of authority to decide medical treatment. The court noted the holding in Dubon 2 is supported by the AD’s regulations providing that IMR applies solely to timely and procedurally proper UR but that no similar regulation existed for IMR. The court declined to comment on the W.C.A.B.’s decision in Dubon 2 as the issue was not before it.

Comments and Conclusions:

There are currently two other cases pending in the appellate courts, both in the 3rd appellate district — on this same issue and, interestingly, this case was not the first grant on the issue. However, the court set a very aggressive briefing schedule and, even with multiple amicus briefs it heard, considered and decided this case in, what is by appellate standards, a very short time (less than six months). Clearly the court was very interested in this issue, which had multiple W.C.A.B. panel decisions with conflicting holdings.

The court, in its decision, also rejected arguments offered by both the applicant and the W.C.A.B. that untimely IMR resulted in unnecessary delays — a rationale offered by the majority panel in both Dubon and Margaris. The court, very astutely, noted this argument made no sense given the time frame for obtaining QME opinions or litigating medical treatment issues before the W.C.A.B.  The court pointed out that, even with the delays in completing IMR, the W.C.A.B. decision was more than 13 months after the initial decision in UR and more than 10 months after Maximus rendered its decision. The court was clearly, and properly, skeptical of the argument that letting the W.C.A.B. decide medical issues would result in a more prompt disposition.

The court did offer an option to applicants to challenge untimely UR through the ability to file a petition for writ of mandate to compel a decision. While a statutorily viable option, this is impractical, especially in light of the current timeliness of most IMR determinations. Further, the issue here has never really been the timeliness of IMR. The goal for the applicant attorney bar, and apparently some of the commissioners, has been to usurp the medical decision making process from being medically driven to being litigation-based.

The decision does not provide a lot of nourishment for those who are waiting for some sliver of light on the Dubon 2 issue. The court, in its footnote, declined to really comment on Dubon 2, but it did note there was some basis for the W.C.A.B.’s decision. However, the very strong language of the court emphasizing the public and legislative policy behind having medical decisions made by physicians, and the much greater speed and certainty of the UR/IMR process over the legislatively disfavored litigation process, may provide some hope that, given a chance, the appellate court would also reject the W.C.A.B.’s arguments in support of Dubon 2.

Southern California Is Home to Fraud

Those who are familiar with the California workers’ compensation system are aware that much of the fraud, and a very high percentage of the liens, in the state are in Southern California. These three articles (here, here and here) show why workers’ comp fraud is making a home in Southern California.

Before the passage of SB-899 in 2004, there was one back fusion surgery for every laminectomy (surgery to reduce pressure on the spinal cord or nerves) provided in workers’ compensation in California even though only 3% of laminectomies by group health providers resulted in fusions.

Prior to SB-899, it was almost impossible for the payers to say no to physicians’ requests for multiple surgeries. Back then, six and seven unnecessary back surgeries on a patient were not uncommon — and, apparently, for the benefit of the doctors, not of the injured workers.

To compound the problems for the injured worker, when the multiple back surgeries were not successful, the employee was then given opioids for the intractable pain. This resulted in a large number of injured workers who are now opioid addicts.

Opioid-addicted injured workers now account for a high percentage of the complex and advanced IMRs (independent medical reviews done by Maximus).

Pending regulations from the Division of Workers’ Compensation for a pharmacy formulary (using evidence-based medicine) will help reduce the number of inappropriate requests and questionable denials.

Already, passage of SB-863, with a focus on evidence-based medicine and medical decisions made by medical professionals, helped significantly reduce the abuses and improve the care for the injured workers of California. The IMR process outlined in SB-863 takes medical decisions away from non-medical professionals. It helps protect the injured workers from abuses like those outlined by the FBI in the articles I linked to above.

It would be interesting to see how many of the millions of the liens filed in the system are associated with the indicted doctors mentioned in the article.

California SB 863, A Guide For Building And Monitoring Networks With Intelligence, Part 1

This is Part 1 of a multi-part series on building and monitoring networks with intelligence. Subsequent parts in the series will be published soon.

Background
Building a medical provider community for Workers’ Compensation can be challenging, regardless of the jurisdiction. Nevertheless, carving out a legislatively-compliant, outcome-based, quality network is doable, and the return on investment is certain.

Injured workers deserve good medical treatment while employers and payers deserve transparent and fair costs. Moreover, industry research clearly shows that poorly performing providers are costly and lead to abysmal outcomes for injured employees, their families, and employers. This article features California SB 863 regarding MPNs (medical provider networks), but the concepts apply to creating intelligent medical provider networks anywhere.

Traditional Medical Networks
Medical networks in Workers’ Comp are not new, in fact, PPOs (Preferred Provider Organizations) have been around in Workers’ Comp since the early 1990s. Traditionally, the network administrator contracts with all physicians and other treating providers available. The trade-off is that providers exchange their discounted fees for increased patient volume. However, quality of medical care measured by outcomes and acknowledgment of Workers’ Comp nuances such as return to work are not considered. Some jurisdictions have made attempts to modify this practice.

Old SB 899 — LC 4616 Medical Provider Network (MPN)
In April of 2004 the governor of California signed SB 899 into law. It addressed MPNs under section LC 4616 (d) stating “In developing a medical provider network, an employer shall have the exclusive right to determine the members of their network.”

Encouragement to analyze provider performance is clear under section LC 4616.1: “Economic Profiling means the evaluation of a particular physician, provider, medical group, or individual practice associations based in whole or in part of the economic costs or utilization of services associated with medical care provided or authorized by the physician, provider, medical group, or individual practice association.” In other words, quality and costs matter and should be analyzed and monitored.

Direction Of Care
An important opportunity in California and many other states is that employers and payers are allowed to direct care for injured employees to doctors and other medical providers in their medical provider networks. After selecting the best doctors for a network, injured workers can be directed to them, a win-win scenario.

Even in states where direction of care is not permitted, payers or employers who have intelligent networks can give injured employees information regarding who are the best-in-class doctors based on objective analysis. Doing so is a service to employees who will often make use of them in selecting a doctor.

Ramping Up — SB 863
The logic of creating an intelligent network with measureable outcomes was recently fortified with California SB 863, effective January 1, 2013. The old bill is strengthened under SB 863, LC 4616 (b) (2) and LC 4616 (b)(3) “Every MPN must establish and follow procedures continuously to review the quality of care, performance of medical personnel, utilization of services, facilities, and costs.”

Quality Control
In other words, all MPN plans must have procedures in place to continuously review the quality of care and costs for medical providers in the network. The mandate is now even stronger to evaluate and monitor medical provider performance. No longer is it adequate to contract with medical providers, print the list of providers in the network, and forget it.

However, many employers and payers are at a loss about how to analytically select and continuously review provider performance.

Intelligent Networks
Legislative mandates and industry wisdom remove the question about whether to upgrade network quality through outcome analytics and monitoring. Yet, selecting the right doctors and other providers, then monitoring, and managing an intelligent MPN is a business in itself.

Most organizations do not have the appropriate resources and should outsource to companies that focus on intelligent network design, provider selection through analytics, review, and management. The following are some details for building and managing intelligent networks, whether they are legislated or not.

Gather The Data
The way to develop an intelligent network is to select the best in class medical providers determined by analysis of actual performance demonstrated in the data. Historic data must be combined with current and continually updated data to evaluate performance now and going forward. Reviews of updated data should be frequent and regular.

Additionally, the data must be derived from a broad spectrum of sources. Workers’ Compensation organizations typically segment data into bill review data, claims, pharmacy (PBM) and other silos such as UR and Medical Case Management. All are necessary for provider performance assessment. Do not be misled by those who say bill review data is adequate to the task.

Integrate The Data
Integrate the data with claims as the focal point for a complete picture of the claim. Execute algorithms that analyze the data and score provider performance based on multiple performance indicators. Individual medical providers, groups, and facilities should all be analyzed in this regard.

Continuous data update and electronic monitoring insures network and individual provider quality going forward as prescribed in SB 863 legislation. Maximize medical network quality and cost control using analytics, thereby complying with legislation and maximizing positive benefits.

More About Building Networks With Intelligence
Part 2 of this series will add more details of California SB 863 regarding medical provider networks and how to create networks with intelligence using analytics and common sense, an imperative for all medical networks in all states.

Authors
Karen Wolfe collaborated with Margaret Wagner to write this article. Ms. Wagner is President and CEO of Signature Networks Plus. She is considered an expert in network selection, monitoring and management, thereby creating Networks with Intelligence&#153 for clients.

The New Year Is Upon Us

January 1 is going to be a day like none other in recent memory for the California workers’ compensation system. Most of the provisions of Senate Bill 863 (De León) will be operative. A flurry of regulatory initiatives near the end of this year will allow implementation of many of these provisions. There will be considerable confusion and costs associated with these new laws and procedures as they come on line. The goal and hope of virtually all in the system will be that in time the objectives of this major legislation will be met, and we will have a system that is more efficient and better aligned than what resulted from the last major reforms in 2003 and 2004.

Those in charge of implementing this legislation — largely in the Department of Industrial Relations and Division of Workers’ Compensation — have done an admirable job dealing with the intent and inherent conflicts in this new law. Their outreach through various forums — though maddening from a timing standpoint — has greatly assisted the community in its understanding of all the various nuances of SB 863 and its interaction with a voluminous body of regulations and court decisions already existing and in many cases left unaffected by this legislation. There are limits to what the Division can do, and those limits are largely set forth in the Labor Code as it will exist on January 1. Those who think that the regulatory process is a second bite at the apple to deal with issues inartfully drafted or largely ignored in the legislative process are going to be disappointed.

There is a debate as to whether SB 863 will reduce costs in 2013 and by how much. The benefit increases are hard dollar increases, while the various reforms intended to produce savings and offsets require both effective implementation and accurate analysis. They also take time. This dynamic is at the core of Commissioner Jones’ November 30th pure premium order. The Commissioner’s decision clearly showed, as did the actuarial analyses presented to him, that the reforms are mitigating the increased costs in the system from day one. It is equally clear that until there is experience under the reforms and the reforms are fully implemented, the full measure of savings cannot be completely or accurately estimated.

Prior reforms, specifically Assembly Bill 227 (Vargas) and Senate Bill 228 (Alarcon), combined system changes, such as mandatory utilization review, with well-defined elimination or reduction of benefits. These 2003 measures eliminated vocational rehabilitation and capped chiropractic treatments — changes that were easily quantifiable the moment the ink dried on then Governor Gray Davis’ signature. The next year, Senate Bill 899 (Poochigian) added reforms to medical control and permanent disability rating that quickly manifested additional considerable savings in medical and indemnity losses, but also resulted in higher loss adjustment and medical cost containment expenses. And, as we saw with the Almaraz, Guzman, and Ogilvie decisions, reforms of the permanent disability system eroded significantly once reshaped by the Courts.

SB 863 is an investment both in our injured workers and California’s businesses. It is a long-term investment. Measuring the return on that investment by new and renewal quotes for January 1, 2013 insurance policies is simply a mistake. This legislation was never intended to provide significant immediate cost savings. It is intended, however, to provide savings to more than offset the two years of benefit increases the Legislature adopted and Governor Brown signed into law once the most significant reforms are fully operational. The workers’ compensation community is served best by understanding what the new laws do — and don’t do — on January 1, and on July 1, and in 2014 and, ultimately, 2015. If we don’t do that, then this effort will just be the latest in a series of well-intentioned, but ultimately futile, efforts to return this system to its original promise. If we do, however, SB 863 might be the elusive long-term reform generations of employers and workers have wanted for so many decades.