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Workers’ Comp Issues to Watch in 2015

Tis the season for reflections on the past and predictions for the future. As we kick off 2015, here are my thoughts on the workers’ compensation issues to watch this year.

What Does TRIA’s Non-Renewal Mean for Workers’ Compensation?

Thanks to congressional inaction, a last-minute rewrite added this subject to the issues for this year. I’m not about to predict what Congress will do with TRIA legislation in 2015, as there are no sure things in the legislative process. We have already seen the reaction from the marketplace. Back in February 2014, carriers started issuing policies that contemplated coverage without the TRIA backstops. We saw some carriers pull back from certain geographic locations, and we also saw some carriers change the terms of their policies and only bind coverage through the end of the year, giving themselves the flexibility to renegotiate terms or terminate coverage if TRIA wasn’t renewed. But while some carriers pulled back in certain locations, others stepped up to take their place. While some carriers tied their policy expiration to the expiration of TRIA, other carriers did not.  Going forward, some employers may see fewer carrier choices and higher prices without the TRIA backstop, but ultimately most employers will still be able to obtain workers’ compensation coverage in the private marketplace. Those that cannot will have to turn to the State Fund or assigned risk pool.

Rising Generic Drug Prices

The opioid epidemic, physician dispensing and the increased use of compound drugs are issues the industry has faced for years. While these issues continue to be a problem, I want to focus on something that is getting less attention. Have you noticed that the costs for generic prescription drugs are increasing, sometimes significantly? In the past, the focus was on substituting generic drugs for brand names, which provided the same therapeutic benefit at a fraction of the costs.  But now the rising costs of these generic medications will drive costs in 2015. These price increases are being investigated by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and Congress, but I do not expect this trend to change soon.

Medical Treatment Guidelines

Another issue to watch on the medical side is the continued development of medical treatment guidelines and drug formularies in states around the country. This is a very positive trend and one that our industry should be pushing for. There is no reason that the same diagnosis under workers’ comp should result in more treatment and longer disability than the same condition under group health. One troubling issue that I see here is the politics that come into play. Sorry, but I do not accept that human anatomy is different in California or Florida than in other states. I feel the focus should be on adopting universally accepted treatment guidelines, such as Official Disability Guidelines, or “ODG,” rather than trying to develop state-specific guides. The ODG have been developed by leading experts and are updated frequently. State-based guidelines often are influenced by politics instead of evidence-based medicine, and they are usually not updated in a timely manner.

How Advances in Medical Treatment Can Increase Workers’ Comp Costs

There is one area in which advances in medicine are actually having an adverse impact on workers’ compensation costs, and that is in the area of catastrophic injury claims. Specifically, I’m referring to things such as brain injuries, spinal cord injuries and severe burns. Back in 1995, Christopher Reeve suffered a spinal cord injury that left him a quadriplegic. He received the best care money could buy from experts around the world, and he died less than 10 years after his injury.  But as medicine advances, we are now seeing that a quadriplegic can live close to normal life expectancy if complications can be avoided. Injuries that used to be fatal are now survivable. That’s great news. The downside for those paying the bills is that surviving these injuries is very costly. The cost of catastrophic medical claims used to top off around $5 million, with a $10 million claim being a rarity. Now, that $10 million price tag is becoming more the norm.

The Evolving Healthcare Model

For years, workers’ comp medical networks focused on two things: discount and penetration.  Sign up as many physicians as you can as long as they will agree to accept a discount below fee schedule for their services. I’m happy to say that we are slowly, finally, evolving away from that model. Payers are realizing that a better medical outcome for the injured worker results in lower overall workers’ compensation costs, even if that means paying a little more on a per-visit basis. We are now seeing larger employers developing outcome-based networks, not only for workers’ compensation, but for their group health, as well. Employers are also starting to embrace less traditional approaches such as telemedicine. Finally, more and more employers are recognizing the importance that mental health plays in the overall wellness of their workforce. In the end, we are slowly starting to see is a wellness revolution.

The Need for Integrated Disability Management

The evolving healthcare model is tied directly to an evolving viewpoint on disability management. More employers are realizing the importance of managing all disability, not just that associated with workers’ compensation claims. Employees are a valued asset to the company, and their absence, for any reason, decreases productivity and increases costs. I feel this integrated disability management model is the future of claims administration. Employers who retain risk on the workers’ comp side usually do the same thing with non-occupational disability. These employers are looking for third-party administrators (TPAs) that can manage their integrated disability management programs. And make no mistake: Having an integrated disability management program is essential for employers. Human resource issues such as the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) cross over into the workers’ compensation realm. The same interactive process required on non-occupational disability is required in workers’ compensation. Employers must be consistent with how they handle any type of disability management, regardless of whether the cause is a workers’ compensation injury or non-occupational.

Will We See a Push for ‘Opt Out’ in Other States?

Most people know that non-subscription, or opt out, has been allowed in Texas for many years. The Oklahoma Option that started last year is viewed as a much more exportable version of opt out. Under this system, employers can opt out of workers’ compensation, but they must replace it with a benefit plan that provides the same (or better) benefits available under traditional workers’ compensation. While some view the Oklahoma Option as the start of an opt-out revolution, it is just too early to tell what impact it will ultimately have. But, make no mistake, discussions about opting out are spreading to other states. A group called the Association for Responsible Alternatives to Workers’ Compensation is currently investigating the possibility of bringing opt out to other states. I expect to see opt-out legislation in a handful of other states in the next three to five years.

Marijuana

Marijuana legislation is a very hot topic these days.  In national polls, the majority of Americans favors legalization of marijuana in some form.  Recreational use of marijuana is now legal in four states (Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska), and 23 states allow medical marijuana. When it comes to workers’ compensation, much of the attention has been focused on medical marijuana as a treatment option for workers’ comp because a judge in New Mexico allowed this last year. My concern is around employment practices. Employment policies around marijuana have been centered on the fact that it is illegal, so any trace in the system is unacceptable. That is going to change. I fully expect the government to reclassify marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II in the next few years. When that happens, zero-tolerance policies in the workplace will no longer be valid. Instead, the focus will have to be like it currently is with alcohol: whether the person is impaired.

The Next Pandemic

Another hot topic these days is Ebola. While the threat from this particular disease seems to be subsiding, the concerns about Ebola last year showed we are not ready for that next pandemic. People who were exposed to the disease were allowed to interact with the general population and even use commercial travel. Government agencies debated whether travel to certain countries should be limited. The problem is, diseases don’t wait for a bureaucracy to make decisions. While this threat didn’t materialize, you can see how easily it could have. With work forces that travel around the globe, the threat of a global pandemic is very real. You know where you send your workers as part of their job, but do you know where they go on vacation? As an employer, are you allowed to ask about what employees do during their personal time? Are you allowed to quarantine an employee who traveled to an infected country during vacation? These are very complex legal questions that I cannot answer, but these are discussions we need to be having. How do we protect our employees from the next pandemic?

Rates and Market Cycle

You cannot have a discussion around issues to watch without talking about insurance premium rates in workers’ compensation. After several years of increasing rates around the country, the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) is projecting that, in 2014, workers’ compensation combined ratios were below 100% for the first time since 2006. This means that, as an industry, writing workers’ compensation is profitable again. So what should buyers expect in 2015? Well, it depends. California continues to be a very challenging state for workers’ compensation costs. New York is challenging, as well. Given the percentage of the U.S. workforce in those two states, they have significant influence on the entire industry. Some employers will see rate reductions this year, and some will not. In the end, your individual loss experiences will determine what happens with your premiums. That seems to be the one constant when it comes to pricing. Employers with favorable loss experiences get lower rates, so it pays to stay diligent in the areas of loss prevention and claims management.

Will We See More Constitutional Challenges Similar to Padgett in Florida?

While I don’t think the Padgett case will be upheld on appeal, I am concerned that the case is the first of many similar ones we could see around the country. Look at the main arguments in Padgett: The workers’ compensation system is a grand bargain between injured workers and employers. Workers gave up their constitutional right to sue in civil courts in exchange for statutorily guaranteed, no-fault benefits. Over the last 20 years, many workers’ comp reform efforts around the country have focused on lowering employer costs. Standards of compensability have been tightened. Caps have been put on benefits. The judge in Padgett looked at these law changes and ruled that workers’ compensation benefits in Florida had been eroded to the point where it was no longer a grand bargain for injured workers. He ruled that the workers’ compensation statutes were unconstitutional on their merits because the benefits provided are no longer an adequate replacement for the right to sue in civil court that that the workers gave up. Attorneys tend to mimic what succeeds in other courts, so I expect we are going to be seeing more constitutional arguments in the future.

Impact of the Evolving Workforce

One of the biggest issues I see affecting workers’ compensation in 2015 and beyond is the evolving workforce. This takes many forms. First, we are seeing technology replace workers more and more. When was the last time you went to a bank instead of an ATM? I have seen both fast food and sit-down restaurants using ordering kiosks. Also, we are seeing more use of part-time vs. full-time workers. Some of this is driven by concerns around the Affordable Care Act. But part-time workers also have fewer human resource issues, and their use allows employers to easily vary their workforce based on business needs. Unfortunately, part-time workers are also less-trained, which could lead to higher injury frequency. Finally, the mobile work force is also creating concerns around workers’ compensation. Where is the line between work and personal life when you are using a company cell phone, tablet or computer to check e-mails any place, any time? Where do you draw the line for someone who works from home regularly? There have been numerous court cases around the nation trying to determine where that line is. This is a very complex and evolving issue.

To view a webinar that goes into these topics in more detail, click here: https://www.safetynational.com/webinars.html

Good Answer (Maybe) on Opioids in California

The California Workers’ Compensation Institute (CWCI) has added its voice to the growing national consensus that greater controls are needed over the use of Schedule II medications in workers’ compensation medical treatment and disability management. But the CWCI research must be analyzed in a broader context.

First, we continue to view the abuse of these medications in a “going forward” context – we focus on, how can we stop over-prescribing these medications on claims from the effective date of such reforms? Second, we inevitably take these recommendations out of the context of the state being analyzed — can we say that the Texas closed formulary will work in any state whose system otherwise doesn’t bear any resemblance to the Texas system?

One body of work and thought proclaims the overuse of Schedule II medications to treat industrial injuries is “bad medicine” and should be stopped as soon as possible. Guidelines from Ohio, Texas and Washington, however, recognize the need for prescriptions to relieve acute and chronic pain and provide detailed guidance on moving from acute to chronic pain management. Encompassed within that guidance is recognizing when weaning from these medications, or other early interventions, is appropriate and how to taper dosages to maximize clinical effectiveness and minimize adverse consequences to injured workers.

Many of these concepts are embodied in proposed guidelines from the California Division of Workers’ Compensation (DWC) and the Medical Board of California (MBC). It is encouraging that on Sept. 29 of this year the DWC presented its work to the MBC’s Prescription Task Force at a public hearing and that both agencies are moving forward with compatible guidelines. As seen in other states, notably Washington, inter-agency cooperation is critical so as not to create conflicts between the regulatory agencies that oversee benefit delivery systems and licensing agencies that oversee providers.

To take advantage of the potential cost savings in California’s complex workers’ compensation system identified by CWCI and the Workers Compensation Research Institute (WCRI), however, more needs to be done than adopting a closed formulary. That aspect of the Texas system requires prior authorization before prescribing an “N” drug, which includes Schedule II pain medications. After all, the California system already has: (1) claims administrators’ authority to direct medical care though the medical provider networks (MPNs); (2) the ability to adopt formularies through the MPN; (3) utilization review; (4) a medical treatment utilization schedule (MTUS) that sets forth presumptively correct guidelines for treatment, and; (5) post-Senate Bill 863 (DeLeón), independent medical review (IMR) for resolution of treatment disputes.

We are continuing to have the discussion  regarding Schedule II medications because over the past decade the controls that have been put in place to manage the care and cost of medical treatment more efficaciously and efficiently have not produced the desired results. Some of this can be attributed to the pre-SB 863 environment where the MTUS was regularly subverted through the med-legal process. Claims where high level of opioids and other medications were approved for continuing treatment are still in the system and are now subject to IMR. While the adoption of IMR may be viewed as beneficial from a payment standpoint, it is not automatically beneficial in terms of patient care. As the actions of other states have shown, for those who have become addicted or incapacitated because of their overuse of these medications – at the direction of their treating physician – necessary care means more than saying you shouldn’t have had these, or as much of these, so we’re cutting you off.

Also, more needs to be understood about the universe of claims that will be most immediately affected by a closed formulary – long-term, open claims and claims where compensability has been denied, whether completely or whether there is a dispute over a consequence of an accepted claim. As the DWC moves forward with its new Guideline for the Use of Opioids to Treat Work-Related Injuries, there needs to be more specific treatment of legacy claims or any claim where the liability of the employer is in dispute. The MBC’s Pain Management Guidelines, currently under revision, are applicable to all practitioners regardless of the nature of the injury or illness or the mechanism by which a provider is compensated. The DWC would do well to incorporate that work product into the MTUS as a reminder to all providers that, even if the claim is not accepted, it is not “off the grid,” and the MBC requirements still apply.

Finally, the claims administration community needs to take a long hard look at how we review these cases. There is a universe of claims where Schedule II medications are being approved that would not seem to be supported by best medical evidence. Payers are an integral part of the close monitoring of claims where pain management is indicated and determining when it is appropriate to start tapering use of opioids with a goal of returning the injured worker to employment. As noted by the MBC in its draft revised Pain Management Guidelines, when referring to workers’ compensation:

“The use of opioids in this population can be problematic. Some evidence suggests that early treatment with opioids may actually delay recovery and a return to work. Conflicts of motivation may also exist in patients on workers’ compensation, such as when a person may not want to return to an unsatisfying, difficult or hazardous job. Clinicians are advised to apply the same careful methods of assessment, creation of treatment plans and monitoring used for other pain patients but with added consideration of the psycho-social dynamics inherent in the workers’ compensation system. Injured workers should be afforded the full range of treatment options that are appropriate for the given condition causing the disability and impairment.”

As payers, we have the ultimate leverage to make certain treatment of injured workers meets this standard. But if we simply want to find a quicker, better way to say “no” when a request for authorization is faxed in, then a closed formulary will only be yet another attempt at lowering medical treatment costs that failed to meet expectations.

Paging Dr. Evil: The War Over Opioids

Over the past several years, the epidemic of prescription drug abuse under the guise of “pain management” has generated headlines all across the country. The improper use of Schedule II medications in the workers’ compensation system is a part of this public health crisis. Publications by the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute (WCRI), the California Workers’ Compensation Institute (CWCI) and the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) have underscored not only the costs of such abuse but the tragic consequences to those who, through no fault of their own, have been consigned to a life of addiction and disability. Those tragedies are unnecessary and avoidable.

When it comes to workers’ compensation, the payer community has been at war with the provider community for generations. In some respects, the debate can be reduced to a clash of two business models  — the claims payer wants to reduce workers’ compensation costs while providing mandated medical care, while the care provider must build a business model around a dazzling array of payment (and paperwork) systems to maintain profitability. It is, in part, the economics of healthcare that so confounds payers and so stymies providers who are honest and ethical but who nevertheless still have to keep their offices open and a roof over their heads.

But consigning the issue of opioid abuse to this paradigm is too easy an exercise.

Equally significant, regrettably, are the problems associated with the insular world of workers’ compensation and how regulatory decisions are made within this highly regulated, if not suffocating, environment.

Some states get the process right. Oregon and Washington have transparent and inclusive processes to engage claims payers, worker representatives, providers and regulators on important issues of occupational medicine. The Oregon Medical Advisory Committee has as its charge: “…to advise the director, with a diversity of perspectives, on matters relating to the provision of medical care to injured workers. The ‘director’ is the director of the Department of Consumer and Business Services or the administrator of the Workers’ Compensation Division (WCD).” That’s a lot larger charge than adopting treatment guidelines in a rule-making process.

In Ohio, Gov. Kasich’s Opiate Action Team developed prescribing guidelines in a process that involved all key public and private stakeholders: “The clinical guidelines are intended to supplement — not replace — the prescriber’s clinical judgment. They have been endorsed by numerous organizations, including: Ohio State Medical Association, Ohio Osteopathic Association, Ohio Academy of Family Physicians, Ohio Chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians, Ohio Pharmacists Association, State Medical Board of Ohio, Ohio Board of Nursing, Ohio State Dental Board, Ohio State Board of Pharmacy, Ohio Hospital Association, Ohio Association of Health Plans and the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation.” Like Washington, Ohio maintains a monopolistic state fund to provide workers’ compensation benefits. Ohio’s Bureau of Workers’ Compensation uses the same guidelines as every other provider of medical services.

And, of course, there is the large body of work being done by the Agency Medical Directors Group in Washington. That entity coordinates medical treatment among all state agencies providing medical care, including their state-run workers’ compensation program at the Department of Labor and Industries. Professional licensing boards and medical associations are also an integral part of that process.

Why aren’t these collaborative initiatives the template for further prescription drug reforms in states like Arizona or California? The much-lauded Texas closed formulary wasn’t created in a vacuum, and policymakers in that state recognized that open (“legacy”) claims required special treatment. As reported in TexasMedicine, the publication of the Texas Medical Association, “The regulations require physicians and carriers to formally discuss the pharmacological management of these patients. Ideally, the two parties would agree before Sept. 1 (2013) on how to proceed. That agreement could include a weaning schedule, a plan to continue the patient on the N drug or other alternatives.” California didn’t do that when making the transition from a judicial medical dispute resolution process to independent medical review, and Arizona has on the table a review/dispute process that will be equally jarring for open claims

It would be remarkably naïve to suggest that a more transparent approach to the development and application of treatment guidelines and having processes in place that encourage a peer-to-peer dialogue between requesting and reviewing physicians would result in an immediate drop in prescription drug abuse. But it would also be remarkably cynical to proclaim that the approach won’t have an effect.

The current workers’ compensation monologues over Schedule II drugs needs to be replaced with a dialogue that has as its goal not only the delivery of appropriate care to those who will be injured at work in the future but that also addresses the sad legacy of the abuses of past decades and offers help to those who so desperately need it now.

Cutting Healthcare Costs Doesn’t Lower Quality

Many believe medical quality is sacrificed when attempting to control costs. The logic assumes the way to achieve quality medical care is to deliver more of it. The other side of the same reasoning is that less medical care means less quality. However, the cost-quality balance is not a zero-sum game.

These supposed opposites — high quality and low costs — can coexist in managing the medical portion of workers’ compensation claims. Quality is not counter to cost management in medical treatment. For instance, managing the number of visits or encounters, prescriptions and the number of specialists the claimant encounters are just a few ways to limit medical services that may, in fact, improve quality.

On the one hand, the treating doctor should see the injured worker often enough to understand, direct and maintain control over the recovery process. Yet some physicians embellish their revenue flow by seeing patients more frequently than necessary. To manage excessive utilization of office visits and services, evaluate the data to learn what is reasonable and what is disproportionate. To be effective, the data must be monitored concurrently so that intervention has an impact.

The way to objectively measure excessive visits is to monitor and analyze the data. For specific injuries in a given jurisdiction, what is the mean number of medical visits? Outliers can be interpreted to mean either the treating physician is fraudulent or the claimant is in trouble. Either way, focused attention is needed.

A claims payment organization can set standards for what should be considered the threshold of excess for given conditions. Beyond that point, the claim is examined and intervention initiated. Some states legislate frequency of care. The state of California, for instance, has placed limits on the number of physical therapy and chiropractor visits. The data system can mobilize notification to the appropriate persons when the benchmark is approaching so that limits are not exceeded. Applying similar methods to a variety of medical visits and services adjusted by diagnosis and other factors such as age and comorbidity will similarly lower costs while sustaining quality.

Another example of balancing quality and cost is controlling frequency or volume of services by electronically monitoring prescription practices, especially those for Schedule II or opioid drugs. The literature is replete with examples of ineffective and poor outcomes when opioids are over-used. By monitoring current data, usage and cost can be checked through appropriate intervention.

Yet another indicator found in the data reflecting excessive medical treatment is multiple medical referrals. Too often when the patient is not improving, the doctor’s response is to refer to specialists. The data gives up that information by noting the number of medical providers and specialists involved in a claim. Assuredly, a claim with multiple specialists is a claim in trouble, or at least progressing poorly, needing attention.

Industry research speaks for itself. Consider this Washington state study, “Long-term Outcomes of Lumbar Fusion Among Workers Compensation Subjects: An Historical Cohort Study.” This study concluded, “Lumbar fusion for disc degeneration, disc herniation and/or radiculopathy in a workers’ comp setting is associated with significant increase in disability, opiate use, prolonged work loss and poor RTW status.”

Monitor the data to discover outliers early so that interventions will effectively improve outcomes. The key to supporting quality while cutting cost is identifying potential problems early. The longer an issue persists, the more challenging it is to correct it.

Consider both medical quality and cost control equal goals. They are not mutually exclusive. The medical profession itself is recognizing and addressing the issues of over-prescribing, over-testing and over-treatment. Medical managers need to assist in the process.