Tag Archives: wcmsa

Next Tsunami of Work Comp Payments

2009 was a milestone in workers’ comp. In that year, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) formally announced that it would review future prescription drug treatment in Workers’ Compensation Medicare Set-Aside (WCMSA) proposals based on “appropriate medical treatment as defined by the treating physician.” While the U.S. culture and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had already noticed the prescription drug epidemic, this new requirement more clearly highlighted high-cost drug regimens that were doing more clinical harm than good.

Yes, the monthly drug costs were already known to be expensive. Yes, reserves often had to be raised annually. But until the workers’ comp industry had to follow explicit rules to calculate the lifetime cost associated with continued inappropriate polypharmacy regimens, the problems hadn’t really registered.

The new requirement dramatically changed the ability to settle and close a claim, so addressing the overuse and misuse of prescription drugs, primarily related to non-malignant chronic pain, became a white hot priority. The financial exposure highlighted by the WCMSA was a tsunami that changed the contours of the claims shoreline.

Well, another milestone has been achieved for workers’ comp. I have been talking about it, as well, over the past three years, because I could see the riptide indicators of the next tsunami to hit. And now the surge is about to hit the shore.

This next workers’ comp tsunami? Death benefits that will be paid because of drug overdoses.

This has already been affirmed in a handful of states, among them Pennsylvania (James Heffernan), Tennessee (Charles Kilburn) and Washington (Brian Shirley). Death benefits have been denied in other states, including Connecticut (Anthony Sapko) and Ohio (John Parker). I’m sure this is not a complete list. The list shows how individual circumstances and jurisdictional rules can drive different decisions, but what is not up for debate is whether payers face an issue concerning injured workers dying from an overdose (intentional or unintentional) of prescription drugs paid for by workers’ comp.

The game-changer could be a new decision in California, South Coast Framing v. WCAB. The full Supreme Court decision can be found here, and a good article that gives additional context can be found on WorkCompCentral (requires a subscription).

To summarize, Brandon Clark died on July 20, 2009. The autopsy reported his death “is best attributed to the combined toxic effects of the four sedating drugs detected in his blood with associated early pneumonia.” Elavil, Neurontin and Vicodin were being prescribed by his workers’ comp physician, while Xanax and Ambien were prescribed by his personal doctor. Of that list, the four sedating drugs are Elavil, Vicodin, Xanax and Ambien — obviously a mixture of workers’ comp and “personal” drugs.

The qualified medical evaluator (QME) doctor ascribed the overdose to the additive effect of Xanax and Ambien and not the workers’ comp drugs. However, he allowed that Elavil and Vicodin could have contributed (the deposition quotes on pages three and four remind me of a Monty Python skit, as he tried inartfully to not provide apportionment). So … what is the strength of causality between the industrial injury and death? Tort is much more precise in its understanding — cause, in fact, and proximate cause. Workers’ comp (which is no-fault) is not tort, and neither is its definition of causality — contributing cause of the injury.

Did Clark misuse or overuse the drugs through willful misconduct? Possibly. Should one of his physicians have recognized the additive sedative effects from the combination of drugs and done something different? Probably. Was Clark trying to address continued legitimate pain that originated with his workplace injury? Likely. Is this a tragedy? Definitely.

So the decision came down to whether the workers’ comp drugs (Elavil and Vicodin) could have been part of why Clark died.

The Court of Appeal concluded that Elavil only “played a role” and was not a “significant” or “material factor.” The Supreme Court found the evidence to be substantial that Elavil and Vicodin, to some degree, contributed to his death. Therefore, they awarded death benefits to Clark’s wife and three children.

What does this mean? At least in California, it means that the bar of establishing causality (did workers’ comp drugs somehow contribute) is not as high as you might have expected. There is no further debate because this is a Supreme Court decision. Does that mean more death benefits are to come in California? In a highly litigious state where representation is commonplace. And prescription drug use for chronic pain is an overwhelming problem. Hmmm …. My “magic eight ball” is in for maintenance, but my educated guess (I am not an attorney) would be yes.

What about other states? Well, every state has different rules and case history, but because trends often start in California, and the Supreme Court was articulate in its decision-making process, it’s possible this causes a re-examination by all parties. The fact that some states already have established case law to grant death benefits could be a compounding effect. Therefore, it’s a definite maybe.

This may be an isolated case that has no repercussions in California or elsewhere. On the other hand … Consider this your RED FLAG warning for the riptide that precedes the tsunami. And you thought paying for drugs was expensive!

It’s Time to Rethink WCMSA Legislation

A fresh approach may be needed to address how best to protect Medicare’s interest in a workers’ compensation settlement.

Today, the Workers’ Compensation Medicare Set-Aside Arrangement (WCMSA) is a routine part of most settlements. The WCMSA takes a part of the workers’ compensation settlement and allocates it specifically for future medical expense. If this is done correctly, the Medicare beneficiary is then free to spend the non-allocated portion.

The widespread acceptance of the WCMSA is based on a recommendation by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the agency responsible for the administration of the Medicare Trust Fund.  The WCMSA has become the de facto rule because CMS can ignore a workers’ compensation settlement agreement between parties if it believes there has been an attempt to shift responsibility to pay for future medical care to the Medicare Trust Fund.

In recent years, however, some have objected in certain types of claims because changes to the review process have increased the dollar amounts that need to be set aside for the WCMSA, to preserve the Medicare Trust Fund. Some feel that the amounts have become unreasonable.  The result has been some failed settlements, contrary to a public policy that favors settlements.

In establishing a WCMSA, information is submitted to the Workers’ Compensation Review Contractor (WCRC), and it is evaluated to provide an allocation number for the set-aside that CMS will accept. There are obvious tensions. For instance, the contractor may require extensive documentation for medical care that goes beyond what is necessary for the workers’ compensation claim. This requirement can delay the process or even require the parties to the workers’ comp claim to start over. The contractor may also increase the amount that has to be allocated for the WCMSA, as medical treatment that is unrelated to the workers’ compensation claim can make it into the set-aside.

CMS allows for the use of structures to fund the allocation that can save some money by avoiding the need for an up-front, lump sum payment. However, there is little flexibility to discuss disputes over treatment, prescription use and costs.

H.R. 1982 is the legislation, supported by the insurance industry, that represents the present attempt at reform. Introduced on May 5, 2013, by Republican Congressman Dave Reichert from Washington’s 8th Congressional District, and co-sponsored by Democrat Congressman Mike Thomas from California’s 5th District, the bill was immediately referred for consideration to two House Committees with jurisdiction over Medicare issues:  Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means. But little else has occurred. Today, as the close of the 113th Congress draws near, H.R. 1982 has 14 co-sponsors, evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, but no companion legislation exists in the Senate.

It is difficult to imagine a path for this bill to become law. Members are getting ready for the August recess, to campaign. When they return, larger issues of foreign policy and immigration will take center stage.

Passage is not impossible, and it is important to continue support through the end. It is also important to plan ahead, as about 9,170 bills are currently pending, and only about 5% are expected to become law when this congressional session ends on Dec. 31. Revisiting the strategy of H.R. 1982 is important to improve chances of success should re-introduction be necessary.

Revision would necessitate assembling likely stakeholders. This meeting should take place as early as possible to allow for an early introduction in the 114th Congress. The process should follow that adopted by the Medicare Advocacy Recovery Coalition (MARC), which led to the successful SMART (Strengthening Medicare and Repaying Taxpayers Act) at the close of 2012. Broad-based support is critical to success in a Congress that is expected to be even more divided in the next session.

The purpose of H.R. 1982 is to increase the number of workers’ compensation settlements with Medicare beneficiaries. This must be an important goal of any rewrite. Because H.R. 1982 is designed to amend the Medicare Secondary Payer Act (MSP), already considered to be “one of the most impenetrable texts within human experience” (Parra v. Pacificare of Arizona, Inc., 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 7861), another goal must be to have it be easy to understand. A third objective must be to avoid unintended consequences, by clearly defining terms and reconciling conflicts with existing MSP terms.

There can be no doubt that H.R. 1982 favors the workers’ compensation plan. The workers’ compensation industry would go from having no ability to raise legitimate disputes to being freed from constraints. CMS, neutered by the proposed law, could do very little to seek increased protection for the Medicare Trust Fund. This is most likely the Achilles heel of the present legislation.

Congress enacted the MSP law in 1980 to stem the red ink of the Medicare Trust Fund. Congress passed the Medicare & Medicaid SCHIP Extension Act of 2007 in furtherance of that objective. Any succeeding legislation must be consistent with such protections.

This can be achieved and still provide immense benefit for all stakeholders. To see how, here is a look at the major areas covered by H.R. 1982 and how they could be revised to increase the likelihood of adoption:

Thresholds

H.R. 1982 may be too aggressive in codifying what is already well-established CMS policy for situations where Medicare’s interest need not be considered. Already, in situations where the claimant’s treating physician does not reasonably expect continuing medical treatment, the parties are free to settle without an allocation for a set-aside. All that is required is documentation from the treating physician. Similarly, no allocation can be required if medicals, as alleged or claimed, are not being released (in other words, if the medical portion of the claim is not being settled).

Rather than have legislation codify where Medicare’s interest need not be considered, a better approach would be to require CMS to adopt regulations.

One issue that can only be addressed through legislation is a value-based threshold that involves a release (or settlement) of medicals. The H.R. 1982 threshold value includes settlements of as much as $25,000; below that level, Medicare’s interest would not have to be taken into account. Today, CMS does not review such settlements but expects that they will “consider” Medicare’s interest. The necessary analysis can be expensive and so time-consuming that contractors will exceed CMS limits on workload. A way around the analysis of smaller settlements could be for Congress to authorize the CMS actuary to determine a threshold based on the cost to the government of review. The threshold should work out to at least $25,000.

Qualified Medicare Set-Aside

The term “Medicare Set-Aside” is not currently codified in the MSP law. Stakeholders should study the potential unintended consequences of codifying the term in ways that have the force of statute. CMS has established policy and procedures that it recommends on when to submit a WCMSA for approval. H.R. 1982 does not add any benefit by adding definitions and can be simplified by omitting them.

The critical component that should be discussed by stakeholders is whether the rewrite should establish a “safe harbor” settlement amount in which a certain percentage is paid to CMS by lump sum or stream of annuity payments that legally “considers” Medicare’s interests. This approach prevents codification of the WCMSA and still achieves the objective. The percentage of the settlement amount would need to be analyzed to maintain cost-neutrality of the bill. As a starting point to demonstrate neutrality, Medicare Set Aside stakeholders should be able to provide Congress data on the ratio of the MSA allocation to the amount of the settlement.

Authorizing CMS to Receive Allocation Amount

This is long overdue. While it sounds like such a feature would add revenue to Medicare, helping the bill to pass, government accounting won’t recognize this approach. The Congressional Budget Office must score each bill to determine if it costs or saves money, and the CBO doesn’t count as revenue money that is received in advance of when it needs to be paid out. This method is counterintuitive, but stakeholders must take it into consideration. Nonetheless, for the benefit of the injured worker, and non-interruption of Medicare or Social Security benefits, letting CMS receive the WCMSA allocation amount is important and would make sense to Congress.  It is important to have the legislation authorize both a lump sum and stream of annuity payments.

Limiting Conditional Payments to the Fee Schedule

Stakeholders should discuss the issue of healthcare providers that, under present CMS regulation, may collect more than is allowed under the fee schedule. H.R. 1982 is designed to deal with considering Medicare’s interest in workers’ comp settlements, and it might be wise to limit legislation to that area rather than also taking on the issue with fee schedules. Simplifying the legislation might avoid drawing unintended adversaries who might lobby against it.

Applicability of Fee Schedule

CMS already accepts the workers’ compensation fee schedule or, in its absence, the usual and customary rate. H.R. 1982 would like to extend the use of the workers’ compensation fee schedule, but some plans may already have better rates. Stakeholders should discuss how medical services and items, including pharmacy, should be priced. There must be no cost to the Trust Fund because of any legislation. In fact, there are ways in which the fee schedules could benefit the fund.

Right of Appeal

Last year, the Strengthening Medicare and Repaying Taxpayers Act (SMART) became law, providing for an appeals process for workers’ compensation laws or plans. The legislation requires appeals over any “determinations” by CMS. Because an approved WCMSA is a CMS “determination,” it would logically be subject to the appeals process. But, because the WCMSA process is recommended and not required, the appeals process may not be triggered. When parties use the WCMSA, they also waive any right of appeal. The appeals process specified by SMART therefore has no applicability unless the WCMSA is required by an actual law. Stakeholders should consider adding legislation to strengthen the SMART right of appeal. A fair, two -way process to discuss legitimate disputes is essential to increasing settlements.

Respecting State Decisions

Recently, CMS issued an updated user guide for WCMSA submissions. A section was added that has resulted in confusion on the application of state law. Section 4.4.1 states that CMS will respect the allocation of non-medical portions of a settlement by a board with appropriate jurisdiction, after a hearing on the merits. By implication, what’s left over in the settlement is for medicals, and CMS likely would respect that allocation, as well. But CMS may disagree. Stakeholders should discuss clarification of how state law should work with the Medicare Secondary Payer Act. This may require an analysis of pre-emption rules, as well as defining the types of hearings.

H.R. 1982 has both positive and negative implications, creating mixed support. CMS will most likely oppose it if it moves in the present Congress, as it prevents CMS’ ability to enforce the MSP and protect the Trust Fund. Providers, MSP compliance companies and structured-settlement companies would also line up to oppose the bill. It is not clear where beneficiaries and beneficiary organizations will line up – while, in the short run, H.R. 1982 would cause more cases to settle, the adverse impact to the Trust Fund may result in delay in the delivery of benefits as well as their reduction. Nonetheless, there are positives to H.R. 1982.

A fresh approach is needed with all stakeholders involved to secure broad-based support to resolve problems for the injured worker, CMS and the workers’ compensation law or plan.

With the right legislation, a fix can happen, and one is sorely needed.