Tag Archives: utilization review

Post-SB 863: Now How Do We Contain Costs?

Several recent articles and publications have highlighted the challenges we continue to face in California workers’ compensation. Following the “state of the state” report in August by the Workers Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau (WCIRB), Mark Walls noted in an article that the challenges in California continue to mount as California now accounts for 25% of U.S. workers’ comp premiums, with some of the highest medical costs in the nation.

The recent Oregon report noted that California now has the most expensive comp system in the nation, having risen from the third most expense in 2012 to the #1 spot — a dubious distinction that should serve as a continued call to action.

As Walls so aptly noted, we in California need to move beyond the notion that we are always going to be different. We cannot continue to mark our “progress” against our own past performance, overlooking the sobering comparison to other states. If we do, we’ll see the return of television commercials touting nearby states as welcoming alternatives for employers.

With no shortage of reforms over the past 15 years, Mark’s comment about our focus on reducing frictional costs in the system without really addressing medical provider behavior rings true.

The recent reform attempted to tackle the frictional costs, particularly the costs of liens and utilization review (UR) disputes. It was assumed that the lien filing fee and statute of limitations on liens would reduce the extraordinary burdens and costs that were expended to both litigate and settle these expensive and often unjustified charges. It was also thought that independent medical reviews (IMRs) would speed the delivery of necessary medical care and would keep UR disputes out of the courts.

Although there certainly appear to be fewer liens, the problem has not been solved. In addition to some inevitable liens for disputed medical treatment, we continue to see liens filed after bills are reduced to conform to the approved fee schedule. In a state with a fee schedule, why should an employer be forced to litigate or settle a lien for charges that exceed the fee schedule? We know we can resist the lien, have a bill reviewer testify at a lien trial and have a good chance of prevailing. Unfortunately, though, the cost of winning is very high, including the cost of the hearing and the larger cost of keeping a claim open, delaying a settlement and maintaining a reserve. This is the very real dilemma that often causes payers to settle a lien that is not owed, rather than defending against it.

What if the prevailing party was reimbursed for the full cost of a lien hearing? Perhaps that would persuade claimants to carefully evaluate their liens before proceeding, while also forcing the defense to evaluate the validity of the lien before allowing the lien to go to trial.

The other significant attempt at reducing the frictional costs was the introduction of independent medical review. What have we seen, as a claims administrator that limits the use of utilization review by empowering examiners to approve significant numbers of diagnostics and treatments? We’ve seen in excess of 97% of the URs submitted to IMR upheld by the IMR process. Yet, for those 97%, our clients have incurred the added expense (IMR is not inexpensive), and the claims process was delayed while the IMR process was completed.

Some oversight is definitely healthy and necessary. The challenge is in finding a less costly, less time-consuming method of ensuring that injured workers are treated fairly — a method that actually changes provider behaviors so that the injured workers who are treated by high-performing providers are not swept up in a system of reviews and re-reviews.

Although no solution is likely to satisfy all constituents, there must be something we can do to provide incentives for the right provider behaviors. What about using all the medical bill reviews and other data to analyze provider behavior and “certifying” providers? The consequences could be:

1- A fee schedule “add on” or bonus for the top quartile of providers
2- A six month “bye” from utilization review for the top 50% of providers
3- Some sort of added oversight for providers performing below the 50th percentile

This is certainly not as easy as it sounds. Perhaps some representative providers would have some suggestions. Perhaps we should engage them in a discussion.

But it doesn’t seem that there can be any harm in considering a “pay for performance” model.

The answers may lie in the data, and they may not. The answers may also lie in the programs of one or more of the 49 states that offer less costly workers’ compensation coverage to employers. It certainly behooves us to look everywhere until we find those answers.

WCAB Limits Review of UR Decisions

A divided Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board has issued its long-awaited en banc decision to the defendant’s appeal in Dubon v. World Restoration and substantially modified its prior en banc holding to limit the ability of the WCAB to decide medical issues only in cases where utilization review (UR) is untimely. In doing so, the WCAB completely retracted its prior holding that UR decisions that were “procedurally deficient” were subject to WCAB jurisdiction to address medical issues. In reversing itself, the WCAB effectively disagreed with its own rule ADR 10451.2 to the extent it made such procedural issues the subject of WCAB review.

The new holding of the WCAB, decided on a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Lowe concurring and dissenting and Commissioner Sweeney dissenting, is set out as follows:

1. A utilization review (UR) decision is invalid and not subject to independent medical review (IMR) only if it is untimely.
2. Legal issues regarding the timeliness of a UR decision must be resolved by the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board (WCAB), not IMR.
3. All other disputes regarding a UR decision must be resolved by IMR.
4. If a UR decision is untimely, the determination of medical necessity may be made by the WCAB based on substantial medical evidence consistent with Labor Code section 4604.5

The decision provides a substantial change from the former broadly worded opinion giving wide discretion to trial judges to find UR defective based on multiple defects beyond timing. Workers’ compensation judges (WCJs) in the interim had a field day finding such perceived “procedural defects” — some of which, based on WCAB panel decisions, appeared to be very minor — a basis to assume jurisdiction over medical care. The WCAB, in removing the ability to review UR-based issues other than untimeliness, emphasized the language in SB 863 that medical issues should be decided in UR and IMR and not by WCJ:

“Commissioner Sweeney suggests that a UR decision that does not comply with the mandatory requirements of section 4610 is not a decision subject to IMR. (See § 4610.5(c)(3).) We disagree. The legislative intent is clear. IMR is the sole mechanism for reviewing a UR physician’s opinion regarding the medical necessity of a proposed treatment. Consistent with this, we hold that where a UR decision is timely, IMR is the sole vehicle for reviewing the UR physician’s expert opinion regarding the medical necessity of a proposed treatment, even if the UR process did not fully comply with section 4610’s requirements….With the exception of timeliness, all other requirements go to the validity of the medical decision or decision-making process. The sufficiency of the medical records provided, expertise of the reviewing physician and compliance with the MTUS are all questions for the medical professional….”

The WCAB, however, has also concluded that IMR is limited to resolving medical disputes and is not authorized to address timeliness issues. Only the WCAB can decide if UR is timely in the absence of some statutory authority for IMR to consider the issue. SB 863 did not specifically address this issue; the board’s decision continues to rely on the decision of the California Supreme Court in Sandhagen v. WCAB, which held the WCAB had authority to resolve medical disputes where UR was timely:

“Sections 4610.5 and 4610.6 limit IMR to disputes over ‘medical necessity.’ Legal disputes over UR timeliness must be resolved by the WCAB. (§ 4604 (‘[c]ontroversies between employer and employee arising under this chapter shall be determined by the appeals board, … except as otherwise provided by Section 4610.5’ (italics added)); § 5300 (providing that ‘except as otherwise provided in Division 4,’ the WCAB has exclusive initial jurisdiction over claims ‘for the recovery of compensation, or concerning any right or liability arising out of or incidental thereto’); see also Cal. Code Regs., tit. 8, § 10451.2(c)(1)(C).)”

The WCAB continued to emphasize that, on those occasions when the WCAB determines UR was untimely and therefore subject to decision of the WCAB, the decision is not automatically to award the disputed medical treatment but to require the decision to be based upon substantial medical evidence, with the applicant having the burden of proof.

Dissenting Opinions

There were two additional opinions in this matter. In a concurring and dissenting opinion by Commission Lowe, she agreed with the majority’s analysis and holding in this matter but would have dismissed the entire appeal as moot because the applicant’s surgery has since been authorized based on further review. Commissioner Lowe noted that while she would “unequivocally concur in the majority holdings, I maintain that it was not necessary to reach the merits here.”

Commissioner Sweeney, however, issued a strongly worded dissent indicating she would uphold the initial decision in Dubon I. Making essentially the same arguments that were outlined in the original decision she argues for WCAB jurisdiction to review medical issues on the much broader scale than the majority opinion.

Comments and Discussion

This decision essentially leaves the state of the law much the same as it had been before the first en banc decision in this case. While some defendants would occasionally raise the issue of WCAB jurisdiction to decide medical issues where UR was untimely, the issue did not come up nearly as often as the “procedural defects” the WCAB identified as a basis for the WCAB to decide medical treatment. Issues that had been raised to the WCAB included completeness of the medical record in UR, adequacy of the UR physician’s discussion, UR physician specialty, signature of UR by a physician (as opposed to the actual decision being made by a physician) and delay notices issued by a nurse rather than a physician. Based on the new WCAB decision, all of those issues are the kind that can be addressed in IMR when the full and more complete review of medical necessity is made.

It will be interesting to see if this case is appealed further. Certainly, there is very little reason for the applicant attorney to take this case up as his client has received the requested treatment, and should he do so the argument for mootness of the decision would probably convince an appellate court that this case is no longer ripe for dispute.

For defendant, the decision must be considered a substantial win. The WCAB has significantly pulled back on the very expansive decision of Dubon I, returning the worker’s compensation community to the status quo before Dubon I. It is probably worthwhile for the employer community to attempt to obtain appellate review of the issue of WCAB jurisdiction over untimely reviews, the urgency of that issue is not as great as the potential chaos that Dubon I caused and was continuing to develop. Whether the commissioners were influenced by the flood of hearings challenging UR on every conceivable issue, real or not, is something only the majority knows. Certainly, the potential for reversal at the next level with the very thin justification for the original decision must, and should have, played a role in the reversal.

The new decision of the WCAB is one that is certainly much easier for the WCAB to defend in the event the case goes up. The argument that the WCAB gets to decide timeliness of UR is probably supportable on the basis of the statutory scheme. The question of whether the WCAB’s remedy for such untimeliness, that a WCJ can then decide the issue, is probably still open to question at the next level but is certainly decided at this level for now.

The takeaway from this decision is clear: UR needs to be timely!

Moneyball and the Art of Workers' Comp Medical Management

Recently, I watched “Moneyball,” the movie, for the third or fourth time. The story is compelling, as is the book by the same name that preceded it.1

“Moneyball” is based on the concept called Sabermetrics, defined as “the search for objective knowledge about baseball.” The central premise of “Moneyball” is that the collective wisdom of baseball insiders, including players, managers, coaches, and scouts over the past century, is subjective and flawed. The book argues that the Oakland Athletics general manager, Billy Beane, took advantage of analytic, evidenced-based measures of player performance to field a team that could compete successfully against far-richer teams in Major League Baseball. During the 2002 season, the Oakland A's won enough games to make the playoffs in spite of a meager salary budget and “inferior” players.

Even though the two industries are diametrically dissimilar, distinct parallels can be drawn between baseball and workers’ compensation medical management.

Similar Resistance to Analytics

One similarity is the resistance to adopting analytics as a knowledge tool. Baseball insiders and managers opposed Beane’s analytics, sometimes vehemently. Long-held beliefs among baseball insiders promoted measures of performance such as stolen bases and batting averages. Beane’s metrics debunked the old methods, revealing unrecognized strengths in lesser-known, more affordable players.

Similarly, workers’ compensation leaders have relied on traditional medical provider networks and personal preferences to select medical doctors. If doctors are in a network and offer a discount on medical services, all is good. Yet, industry research has shown that not all doctors are equal. Doctors and other medical providers who understand and acknowledge the nuances of workers’ compensation drive better outcomes. It’s a matter of finding those doctors.

Finding Best Performers

The purpose of “Moneyball” Sabermetrics is the same as workers’ compensation medical metrics—to find the best performers for the job. The way to do that in baseball is to analyze the data defining actual performance in terms of outcome—games won. In workers’ comp, the data must be scrutinized to find doctors who drive positive claim outcomes. In both cases, a variety of metrics are used to support the most effective decisions.

Performance Indicators

As in baseball, the goal in medical management is to apply objective information to decision-making using evidenced-based measures of performance. For both industries, cost is a factor. However, in workers’ compensation, the cost of medical care must be tempered by other factors:  What is the duration of medical treatment? What is the return-to-work rate associated with individual doctors? What providers are associated with litigated claims?

As in baseball, the list of indicators for performance analysis is long. However, the sources of data differ significantly.

The Data Challenge

In baseball, all the data necessary for analysis is neatly packaged. Statistics are gathered while the game is in progress. In workers’ comp, the data that informs medical management resides in disparate systems and must be gathered and integrated in a logical manner.

Essential data lives in bill review systems, claims adjudication systems and pharmacy (PBM) systems and can also be found in utilization review systems, peer review systems, and medical case management systems. The data must be integrated at the claim level to portray the most comprehensive historic and current status of the claim. Data derived from only one or two sources omits critical factors and can distort the actual status or outcome of the claim.

Once the data has been integrated around individual claims, meaningful analysis can begin. Indicators of performance can be analyzed with new conclusions drawn about the course of treatment and medical provider performance. Moreover, concurrently monitoring the updated claim data leads to appropriate and timely decisions.

Data Positioned as a Work-in-Progress Tool

In baseball, the data is used as a work-in-progress information tool. Decisions about the best use of players are made daily, sometimes hourly. Workers’ compensation medical management can do the same. Systems designed to monitor claim details and progress can alert the appropriate persons when events or conditions portend complexity and cost.

Industry Status

Analytics in baseball is not exclusive to the “Moneyball” Oakland Athletics. All of Major League Baseball now relies heavily on its use. Unfortunately, there are still only a few visionary Billy Beanes in workers’ compensation medical management. Yet, applying analytics for cost and quality control is simple and affordable and can be adopted quickly by all.

1Lewis. M. Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game 2003. The film “Moneyball”, starring, Brad Pitt was released in 2011.

SB 863 Update: Is the California Workers’ Compensation System Better Than it Was One Year Ago?

The passage of SB 863 in California came with a promise of higher benefits for injured workers and lower costs for employers.  Just over one year later, where does this promise stand?There has been improvement, but there is still a long way to go.

I recently attended and spoke at the California Workers’ Compensation & Risk Conference in Dana Point, California, where, as expected, the major focus was SB 863.  Just over one year ago, employers and labor came together at the end of the legislative term to pass a bill designed to improve benefits for workers and reduce costs for employers.

I moderated the opening session, which was a diverse panel featuring representatives from employers, carriers, injured workers, and medical providers. My first question to the panel set the tone for the rest of the session, and for the rest of the conference. That question was: “From your viewpoint, is the California workers’ compensation system better off now than it was a year ago?”

Before you can gauge the success of SB 863, you must remember where we started.  Permanent disability (PD) benefits to injured workers had been cut significantly under prior reforms, so injured workers were unhappy with the system. Employers were equally unhappy, as workers’ compensation costs in California had been increasing steadily for years.

With a system that both injured workers and employers were very dissatisfied with, something had to be done.

SB 863 provided an immediate increase in permanent disability benefits for accidents occurring after 10/10/2013.  PD is being increased by a total of 30%, phased in over two years. There is also a $120 million fund to compensate certain workers who are unable to return to their pre-injury job because of physical restrictions.

The savings for employers are to come over time.  The largest of the savings under SB 863 are to come from changing the processes for liens and medical disputes. Thus far, these changes are receiving mixed reviews.

On the plus side, liens have fallen significantly since a fee for filing them was implemented Jan. 1. Some of the drop can be attributed to the fact that medical providers filed all the liens they could before the fee took effect. However, there clearly has been a significant drop in new liens filed.

The filing fee is being challenged, though, by a lawsuit that seeks to have it declared unconstitutional, and some of the anticipated savings from SB 863 are likely to be eroded if the courts don’t uphold the fee.

The bill also restructured the medical dispute resolution process, with the introduction of the Independent Medical Review (IMR). The IMR process was modeled after successful programs in states such as Texas. It is designed to have physicians, not judges, deciding disputed medical issues. It is also designed to expedite resolution so appropriate treatment is provided to injured workers in a timely manner. The IMR process clearly remains a work in progress. First, 10 months after implementation, the process is still operating under emergency rules. Until the final rules are in place, those participating in the process will face uncertainty. Second, it appears there is significant gaming of the IMR process. Approximately 16,000 requests were filed in both August and September of this year alone, significantly more than anticipated.  In one month, there were more disputes filed than in an entire year for the same process under group health.  Employers alone bear the costs of the IMR process, so those filing all these requests may be attempting to cripple the system at absolutely no cost to themselves.

The issues facing the IMR and lien processes illustrate what many see as the major impediment to delivering cost savings for employers in California: There are special interest groups that do not want the system to become more efficient and self-executing, because they make a great deal of money off the chaos.

In her speech at the conference, Christine Baker, director of the California Department of Industrial Relations, expressed concern about “significant gaming.” While this gaming is not unique to California, from my national viewpoint its impact on the workers’ compensation system is more profound in California than in other states.

The biggest challenge is that the workers’ comp system in California is flawed by design. No other state has issues with medical liens in workers’ compensation. Bills are reduced to fee schedule with no further disputes seeking additional payment. Treatment that is not authorized is subject to litigation over necessity. If the employer prevails, “no” means “no.”  In California, “no” means “file a lien and litigate further.”

Another issue facing California employers is continuous trauma (CT) claims, which can be filed for a 1% aggravation of a pre-existing condition. The legislature recently fixed this problem for the National Football League by passing a bill specifically limiting CT claims by professional athletes, but CT claims in California continue to be a significant cost driver for other employers, and their frequency has more than doubled over the last 10 years.  It is common in California for injured workers to file both CT and specific injury claims for the same body part.  In no other state are CT claims as prevalent and embedded into the workers’ compensation system as they are in California.

In addition, allocated loss adjustment expenses (ALAE) covering items such as bill review, utilization review, and litigation costs are higher in California than other states, and these costs are increasing at an alarming rate.

The gaming of the system significantly increases the costs for employers and delays the delivery of benefits to injured workers.  The main stakeholders in workers’ compensation, the employers and workers, need to work together so that benefits can be delivered faster and at lower cost.  SB 863 was a step in this direction, but there is more work to be done. The people who worked together to make SB 863 a reality need to continue to work together to preserve the savings elements designed into the bill.  If they can do this, perhaps California can finally achieve some stability in its workers’ compensation marketplace, which would benefit both employers and injured workers.

25 Axioms Of Medical Care In The Workers Compensation System

  1. The right medical care at the right time is always in the best interest of the injured worker and almost always will result in the lowest claims costs.
  2. The right medical care at the right time will (almost always) result in an earlier return to work with less permanent residual disability.
  3. Evidence-based medicine is the right care for the legitimately injured workers. (There is a hierarchy on how to apply evidence-based medicine).
  4. To control worker's compensation medical costs requires both a fee schedule and an ability to control the frequency and the appropriateness of treatment. One without the others usually results in massive increase in medical costs for the system.
  5. The medical treatment fee schedule should be clear, easy to use, accurate and reflect the latest technology.
  6. A fee-for-service system may result in incentives for physicians to over-treat, inappropriately.
  7. In many jurisdictions Worker's Compensation is generally the last fee-for-service system.
  1. As long as workers compensation uses a fee-for-service system, medical utilization review is needed to make sure that the physicians will treat adhering to evidence-based medicine.
  2. Pharmacy utilization is problematic because of the “Medicalization” of the general population. (Medicalization is the direct advertising of symptoms and diagnoses to the general population by drug manufacturers, resulting in an overuse and/or misuse of some types of drugs and therapies).
  3. There is a significant problem with “off label use” of drugs in the worker's compensation system. (Off Label is the use of a drug for treatment that was not the reason for its approval from the FDA).
  4. Medical decisions should be made by medical professionals. Most Workers' Compensation judges, attorneys, and claims adjusters have little to no formal medical training and are not medical professionals.
  5. Poorly (inappropriate) placed incentives will result in poor medical outcomes. (There are several studies that demonstrate that allowing physicians to do self-referrals or to dispense pharmacy goods from their offices will usually result in a utilization of unnecessary services or inappropriate usage of drugs).
  6. Even if the doctor is not dispensing the drugs, opiates require regular visits to the doctor for renewal of the prescription and also may involve expensive drug testing; so there is a financial interest on the part of some doctors to prescribe opiates.
  7. Some physicians who prescribe opiates do not fully appreciate the addictive power of the drugs that they are using or the difficulty in detoxing the patients.
  8. There are currently enough treating physicians and specialty physicians in most urban areas; however there are not enough physicians (treating, orthopedic or neurosurgeons, etc.) in the rural areas to meet the demand. This problem will only get worse as the population ages and more doctors retire. It will also get worse if physicians leave workers' compensation due to the demand for their services due to the implementation of the federal universal health care programs.
  9. Many surgeons and other physicians want to perform their craft (do surgery, provide injections, etc.). They truly believe that their surgery or injections will work even if the prior treatments have not been successful or if current evidence-based medicine says surgery is not appropriate.
  10. Every patient looks like a good candidate for an MRI when there is an MRI machine in the doctor's office.
  11. Not every person with a surgical or potentially surgical condition is a good surgical candidate. Though pre-surgical psychiatric evaluations are required for spinal cord stimulators (post spine surgery), the same is not true for many other surgeries.
  12. It is difficult for a patient who is in intractable pain to believe that strong medications (including opiates) are not appropriate or are not good.
  13. It is difficult for a patient who is in intractable pain to believe that not having back surgery will have the same ultimate result as having surgery when the surgeon is saying (with confidence) that the surgery will cure all. Even though current evidence-based medicine says differently.
  14. Because “doing something is better than doing nothing” when the patient is in intractable pain, if the surgeon says surgery will not be successful, the injured worker will attempt to find someone who will say that the surgery “will be more successful than not having surgery,” and will then attempt to have the surgery.
  15. Patient advocacy is the application of appropriate treatment and patient encouragement that allows the patient to remain as functional and productive as possible.
  16. Patient advocacy does not always mean the pursuit of treatment a patient desires.
  17. Patient advocacy may require the physician to decline to do the treatment sought by the patient when that treatment is inappropriate.
  18. In Workers'Compensation, there are many (known and unknown) underlying non-industrial, psyche/social issues that may hinder or completely stop optimum medical recovery.