Tag Archives: workers’ compensation judges

Court Takes Practical Approach to SB 863

The 4th District Court of Appeal has ruled on the “retroactive” application of the independent bill review (IBR) provisions of California’s SB 863 and whether the legislature intended to remove from the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board (W.C.A.B.) the jurisdiction to address bill disputes that existed before the law took effect. (Jan. 1, 2013).  In California Insurance Guarantee Association (C.I.G.A.) v W.C.A.B. (Elite Surgical Centers), the court ruled that the legislature did not wrap up pre-existing medical billing disputes into the new IBR process and that the W.C.A.B. continues to have jurisdiction to resolve those disputes. The court also found that the process used by workers’ compensation judges (WCJ) and adopted by the W.C.A.B. to determine the appropriate fee in these disputed cases constituted the necessary substantial evidence.

The issue in the case involved fees for outpatient surgical center fees for more than 300 cases for treatment provided before Jan. 1, 2004. (The cutoff date is significant as ambulatory surgery centers (ASC) became subject to the official medical fee schedule (OFMS) after that date. Before that date, only hospital-based surgery centers were subject to the OFMS.) Evidence was presented that Elite had increased its rates in November 2000. C.I.G.A. (along with seven other defendants) contested the amount billed and paid the undisputed portion of the bill. The remainder was left for resolution at the W.C.A.B.  At the time this matter came to trial, the W.C.A.B. had consolidated 333 liens, involving different procedures, into a single litigated case.

The case was litigated for 17 days. Elite provided its evidence showing the services provided and its customary fees accepted for similar procedures. Defendants presented contrary evidence, to portray the Elite charges as grossly disproportionate to those of other local providers. Defendants also argued that the ASC OFMS that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2004, was the most reasonable and objective method for determining a fee for Elite’s services.

Before a decision was issued, the legislature passed SB 863, which became effective on Jan. 1, 2013. On Feb 1, 2013, the WCJ issued his decision awarding specific amounts for each of the different types of services at issue. The amount awarded was not based strictly on the evidence presented by one side or the other but represented a figure midway between the ASC OFMS that became effective on Jan. 1, 2004, and the OFMS for hospital-based surgery centers that was in effect beforehand. The awarded fees were between 22% and 45% (depending on the procedure) of what Elite had presented as its reasonable charges.

Defendants appealed from the WCJ’s order, arguing that SB 863 removed the W.C.A.B. jurisdiction to resolve billing disputes and instead required the use of the newly enacted IBR process to resolve the disputed bills. Defendants also argued that the WCJ’s decision was not based on substantial evidence. After initially granting reconsideration, the W.C.A.B. affirmed the WCJ’s decision.

Defendants’ petition for writ of review was granted, and the appellate court upheld the W.C.A.B.’s jurisdiction to decide the disputed issues. The court also found that the WCJ’s analysis was based on substantial evidence.

In considering the potential application of IBR to the disputes existing as of the time SB 863 became effective, the court took note of section 84 of the statute, which required: “This act shall apply to all pending matters, regardless of date of injury, unless otherwise specified in this act, but shall not be a basis to rescind, alter, amend or reopen any final award of workers’ compensation benefits.”

Defendants’ argued, unsuccessfully, that because there was not another provision dictating when the IBR provisions were to become effective, the provisions applied to all pending matters. The court agreed that at first blush the section appeared to mandate application of IBR to pending matters. The court, however, did not stop at that analysis, noting that a review of the entire framework of the IBR procedure indicated the matter was more complex. The court pointed out the impracticality of applying the new provisions to existing cases because of how the statutory process was set up:

“After considering SB 863 as a whole, we conclude that this legislation is ambiguous with respect to whether the IBR process was intended to apply to pending billing disputes, or, rather, was intended to apply only prospectively, to new billing disputes that arise with respect to injuries that occur after the effective date of the legislation. Attempting to apply section 84 of SB 863 in this case would leave these parties without a process by which to have their dispute resolved by a third party, since the new IBR process may be utilized only if certain conditions precedent have been met, and the deadlines for meeting those conditions have passed. Leaving these parties without a viable process to decide their dispute cannot be what the legislature intended. We conclude that in creating the IBR process, the legislature intended to establish a new dispute resolution procedure that would apply to disputes arising on or after the effective date of the legislation, and not to disputes like this one that were pending at the time the legislation went into effect….

“Although this provision does not expressly state that the legislature intended that the IBR and IMR processes go into effect only prospectively, it provides an indication that the legislature viewed both the IMR and IBR processes as applying to future employment-related injuries and to future disputes as to medical care and billing for such care.”

Defendants argued that the lack of process for disputes on billing before Jan. 1, 2013, could be addressed by administrative regulation. The court pointed out the administrative director (AD) had already created regulations and that no such process existed. Acknowledging the ambiguity of the statutory language and the practical problems in applying the statutory process where the events precedent to IBR have already passed, the court ruled:

“In the face of such ambiguity, we are led to interpret the statute as operating prospectively.  … [statutes ordinarily are interpreted as operating prospectively in the absence of a clear indication of a contrary legislative intent]; see also Myers v. Philip Morris (2002) 28 Cal.4th 828, 841 [when a statute is ambiguous regarding retroactivity, it is construed to be prospective in application]. In construing statutes, there is a presumption against retroactive application unless the legislature plainly has directed otherwise by means of ” ‘express language of retroactivity or . . . other sources [that] provide a clear and unavoidable implication that the legislature intended retroactive application.’ ” (McClung v. Employment Development Dept. (2004) 34 Cal.4th 467, 475 (McClung).) Although, at first blush, SB 863 section 84 might appear to constitute ” ‘express language of retroactivity’ ” …, it specifically allows for other portions of the statute to provide a different rule regarding retroactive/prospective application, and at least one other provision of the statute, Labor Code section 139.5, suggests that the IBR process was intended to apply only to disputes over medical treatment provided for injuries that occur on or after Jan. 1, 2013….

“Considering these obstacles to applying the new billing review process to pending claims, it is clear that the legislature could not have intended to leave parties who had pending billing disputes on the effective date of the new statutory scheme with no meaningful procedure for resolving their disputes. ”

The court also provided an extensive discussion of the WCJ’s analysis in determining the appropriate fee for the services in dispute. The court determined the WCJ properly applied the guidelines required in the Tapia v Skill Master Staffing case including its reliance on Kunz v Patterson Floor Coverings, both W.C.A.B. en banc decisions.

“As the WCJ noted, the formula that he used to calculate the “reasonable” facility fees for the relevant time period for the procedures at issue took into consideration what Medicare allowed, what Elite charged, what Elite accepted as payment, what the OMFS for ASCs as of Jan. 1, 2004 allowed, what the OMFS for hospitals during much of the relevant period allowed and the fees that other ASCs billed and accepted for the same or similar services. The WCJ considered evidence as to all of these factors, and arrived at results that fell somewhere in the middle of all of these figures. These conclusions are supported by the evidence and are clearly permissible.”

Comments and Conclusions:

The court was clearly swayed by the practical issues in attempting to implement the IBR procedure to disputes where the necessary steps to enter the IBR process had long since passed. While defendants and amicus argued the procedural gaps could be addressed by regulation, the court remained unconvinced that the legislature intended the billing dispute process to be restarted and then shoehorned into IBR. While the fact the legislature had defined an implementation timetable for IMR but not IBR may have made it tempting for the court to rule, and defendants to argue, for retroactive application, the practical problems in doing so ultimately carried the day.

The court’s rather lengthy discussion and approval of the WCJ’s analysis of how to resolve the facility fee dispute may have broader import in the long run as it may provide a roadmap for how to address similar disputes in existing cases. While most ASC fees in cases from after Jan. 1, 2004, are fairly easily resolved, cases pending for services before that date still exist. Prior cases such as Kunz and Tapia had provided some guidance, but translating those cases into easily applied formulas still poses problems. The WCJ’s discussion and the issues he considered, as well as the objectively based formula, may serve as guidance in pending cases with similar disputes.

This does not necessarily mean that all such cases should resolve at the same midway point. Among considerations that both the WCJ and appellate court pointed out as significant was the quality of the facility. Elite presented evidence that its facility was state-of-the-art and provided higher-quality medical technology than other local facilities. One witness seemed to suggest the facility was closer to a hospital-based surgery center than most ASCs. One might therefore view the WCJ’s objective standard as the upper end of the scale for ASC facilities. Surgery centers with more mundane credentials might very well have to settle for a value between the 2004 OMFS  and the WCJ’s formula.

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!