Tag Archives: workmens comp

The Bizarre Decision on Oklahoma Option

On Friday, February 26, 2016, the Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Commission (WCC) offered one of the most bizarre decisions in the history of any such tribunal in the world. The agency, which sits within the executive branch of the state’s government, resorted to a tactic traditionally reserved for the judiciary by pronouncing portions of a state statute unconstitutional—a move that has sent shock waves throughout the workers’ compensation (WC) industry nationwide. This essay is provided to explain how and why such an unprecedented and unexpected event took place.

Although scheduling constraints required the publication of this piece before we at WorkersCompensationOptions.com could incorporate the feedback of Attorney Mark Blongewicz (of Hall-Estill), Mark’s insights are so valuable that we have inserted them in text boxes throughout this updated version of the essay (which first appeared in Insurance Thought Leadership, without such text boxes, on 2/29/16).

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What Does a WCC Do?

The Oklahoma WCC was born in February, 2014. It employs dozens of people and performs numerous governmental agency tasks, but when its three commissioners hear appeals of occupational injury cases, they are referred to as sitting en banc. To our knowledge, all states, territories and the federal government have similar tribunals. Over the past two years, the Oklahoma commissioners sitting en banc have heard dozens of appeals. All of those cases—up until last week—were of the fact-based WC variety.[i] Prior to last Wednesday’s hearing,[ii] the WCC was never in the business of offering opinions on the constitutionality of any laws; it simply, methodically and impressively played an administrative (rather than an interpretive) role.

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Vasquez v. Dillard’s: Background

In September of 2014, Jonnie Yvonne Vasquez claimed that she had injured her shoulder and neck while moving boxes as an employee in the Dillard’s shoe department in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Ultimately, Dillard’s denied the claim, pointing to evidence of a pre-existing medical condition. The commissioners en banc routinely review such disputes to determine whether a denial should be upheld or overturned.

Under traditional WC in Oklahoma, Vasquez’ appeal would have gone first to an administrative law judge (ALJ), next to the WCC en banc and finally, if necessary, to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

However, because Dillard’s had, prior to the claimed occurrence, become a Qualified Employer per the Oklahoma Employee Injury Benefit Act (OEIBA—think Oklahoma option), the process for appealing this denial followed a different path. One of the hallmarks of opt-out is to avoid litigation,[i] and to that end Dillard’s provided Vasquez an appeals committee—which is similar to what happens across the country in disputes regarding ERISA-governed benefits (e.g., major medical, long-term disability, etc.). The denial of Vasquez’ claim was upheld through the appeals committee process.

Section 211 of the OEIBA stipulates that the next forums for appeal after the appeals committee are the WCC en banc followed by the Oklahoma Supreme Court (mirroring the second and third steps of the appeals process under WC).[ii]

Hence, Vasquez appealed to the commissioners en banc. Dillard’s, however, relying on an ERISA argument which has long been promulgated by Bill Minick of PartnerSource,[iii] attempted to remove the case to the federal level (as ERISA is a federal law). In September, 2015, Judge Stephen Friot of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma remanded the case back to the WCC in no uncertain terms:

The court concludes that the [OEIBA] is part of Oklahoma’s statutory scheme governing occupational injuries and workplace liability; in other words, the OEIBA is part of Oklahoma’s statutory scheme governing workmen’s compensation.[iv]

Since this was the second of two cases that the federal court system drop kicked back to the state level, it seemed to put the argument concerning ERISA’s governance of occupational accidents under the Oklahoma option on the back burner for the foreseeable future. So after this high-profile and unnecessary federal detour, the case came back to the Oklahoma state agency known as the WCC.

The WCC Hearing

When the commissioners took on the Vasquez case, they presumably had no predisposition to offer rulings on the constitutionality of the OEIBA, since their duties do not ordinarily require them to tackle such issues. [i]

Additionally, Vasquez’ counsel stated that ERISA (a federal law) had no applicability to Vasquez’ claim under the Oklahoma option (attempting to appear consistent with the two federal judges who had declined to exercise jurisdiction over such matters). The Vasquez camp did not even believe the WCC had the authority to rule on the constitutionality of the OEIBA (a reasonable position on its face).[ii]

Dillard’s disagreed on both counts, arguing not only that ERISA governed the Vasquez claim, but that the WCC was transformed—for the purposes of this OEIBA case—into the state court of competent jurisdiction under ERISA (29 U.S.C. §1132(d)(1)) with the power to deem statutes constitutional or unconstitutional.

This argument may well have caught the commissioners off guard, as it was completely unprecedented for the WCC. I attended the hearing and estimate that over 90% of the time was spent on esoteric legal concepts mostly unrelated to the matter of whether Ms. Vasquez really did have a pre-existing medical condition that justified the denial of her claim. This was all new territory for this state agency.

As described in more detail below, the WCC granted Dillard’s a hard-fought victory when it ruled, astonishingly, that ERISA applied to Vasquez’ claim. “By golly,” Minick can finally gloat, “we now clearly have case law demonstrating that ERISA applies to the occupational accident aspects of the Oklahoma option!”

But I doubt that Dillard’s bargained for what happened next.

A Pyrrhic Victory

The commissioners accepted the powers Dillard’s argued they had and then used them to rule the OEIBA unconstitutional, simultaneously remanding the Vasquez case to an ALJ to hear within a traditional WC framework and stripping Dillard’s of the perceived advantages of leaving traditional WC to begin with.

The commissioners accomplished this with an unexpected interpretation of Section 211 of the OEIBA. That section spells out the role of the commissioners en banc when hearing appeals. This point is extremely nuanced, so please bear with me as I provide some historical context.

In 2012, the Oklahoma legislature did not pass HB 2155—a bill co-authored by Minick and clearly drafted with the intent to have ERISA as a guiding force. In fact, HB 2155 was littered with the “ERISA” acronym, creating easy fodder for opponents, who used epithets such as “Obamacomp” to strike fear into a very Republican electorate. A year later, the attitude on the Oklahoma option had consolidated: no ERISA. SB 1062 passed with flying colors without one usage of the acronym for the federal law. That cake (SB 1062) baked by the legislature in 2013 was free of any ERISA ingredients—save for one sprinkle on top. The sole remaining vestige[i] that directly points to ERISA is found in Section 211.B.5.:

If any part of an adverse benefit determination is upheld by the committee, the claimant may then file a petition for review with the Commission sitting en banc within one (1) year after the date the claimant receives notice that the adverse benefit determination, or part thereof, was upheld. The Commission en banc shall act as the court of competent jurisdiction under 29 U.S.C.A. Section 1132(e)(1), and shall possess adjudicative authority to render decisions in individual proceedings by claimants to recover benefits due to the claimant under the terms of the claimant’s plan, to enforce the claimant’s rights under the terms of the plan, or to clarify the claimant’s rights to future benefits under the terms of the plan. [Emphasis added.] 

ERISA includes 29 U.S.C.A. Section 1132.

Even so, the instructions of this subsection might appear to restrict the commissioners to focus merely on the facts of such cases and not on the constitutionality of the statutes governing the cases.

However, the commissioners—feeling their oats as a temporarily recognized court of competent jurisdiction—reasoned that Vasquez’ claims for benefits were “inextricably intertwined” with constitutional challenges, and, hence, that they must address those issues in order to determine Vasquez’ rights.

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Effectively, the commissioners accepted the ERISA arguments advanced by Dillard’s, analyzed them, and then stuffed them into a missile so that they could fire a very loud—even if potentially feckless—shot across the bow of opt-out proponents.

I do not interpret this shot as being fired from a group innately opposed to opt-out. I interpret it as a warning: “Get your $*!# together!”

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For at least three reasons, I’m grateful to the WCC for the timing and meaning of this challenge to the Oklahoma option. First and foremost, as someone who doesn’t belong to the Oklahoma option-ERISA camp, I appreciate the implication that if opt-out proponents continue to rely on ERISA in Oklahoma, they will set themselves back several years by destroying the only viable alternative to WC in the country aside from Texas nonsubscription.[i] Second, the Dillard’s legal team now has time to step back, take a deep breath, and reconsider its strategy before making its case to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Third, if the in-session legislature so chooses, the law itself can easily be improved upon. The option works, and it is not a sign of weakness but of adaptability to acknowledge that modifications are necessary (as the WCC’s order clearly indicates).

[i] Of course, ERISA is key in Texas nonsubscription. My goal is to craft the best alternatives to traditional WC programs legally possible. More and more, PartnerSource appears to share that goal only if ERISA is involved.

Although Dillard’s appealed this decision on March 17th, we hazard no guess as to what trajectory that appeal will take. As a reminder, I am not an attorney and nothing in this essay—including the remarks of Mark Blongewicz, who has generously agreed to share his expertise for educational (rather than legal) purposes—should be mistaken for legal advice. I should also mention that I do not speak for any associations or lobbyists.

Finally, I am compelled to point out once more that when WC was initially being enacted a century ago, our society was riddled with equal protection, special law and due process concerns. I suspect the Oklahoma option will take less time than WC did in maturing and adequately addressing these issues—if that is what the people of Oklahoma want.

[1] As an example of a fact-based claim, consider the case of a truck driver who lives in one state, is employed by a company with facilities (including payroll) in another and is injured in yet a third while driving on a route. All three states have different WC systems, and an argument could be made for the claim to be handled in any of the three venues. A tribunal such as the Oklahoma WCC would simply focus on the facts of the case to establish some basis to determine which is the correct and best venue.

[2] On Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016, the WCC en banc was scheduled to hear two appeals: Vasquez v. Dillard’s at 1:30pm, and Pilkington v. Dillard’s at 2pm. The fact that all parties agreed (just six minutes into the session) to combine both cases into a single protracted hearing was only one of many head-scratching developments. All told, the event took about one hour and 45 minutes.

[3] This hallmark is also the call to arms for attorneys, judges and support staff of all stripes who are stakeholders in traditional WC.

[4] We suspect that Dillard’s used a plan from PartnerSource that calls for an employer-designated appeals committee followed by an external appeals committee. Such a two-tiered approach might be well and good in Texas nonsubscription, but it is unproven in Oklahoma. Further, we assert that reliance on any employer-designated appeals committee is unwise based on the opinions of at least two Oklahoma Supreme Court Justices (Coates v. Fallin). I am scheduled to obtain details from the WCC on Feb. 29, 2016,  and confirm the exact procedures of the Dillard’s plan.

[5] There was some ambiguity between the original law (SB 1062) and the original rules set forth by the WCC regarding the post-appeals committee process. That process clearly and statutorily changed for all occurrences after Nov. 1, 2015, thanks to the passage of SB 767—last year’s “clean up” bill. Currently, the next steps for appeal—post-appeals committee—are ALJ, followed by the commissioners en banc and, if necessary, concluded with the Oklahoma Supreme Court (mirroring all three steps from traditional WC). While this complication is relegated to footnote status in this essay, SB 767’s due process improvements are noteworthy on a going-forward basis and a reminder of the legislature’s power to improve/modify the law where appropriate.

[6] Specifically, see pp 67-72 of The Oklahoma Option: Free Market Competition for the Benefit of Injured Workers and Employers.

[7] For details, see our more thorough analysis, An Open Postscript from Daryl Davis and Mark Blongewicz Regarding the Applicability of ERISA to the Oklahoma Option. In that article, we deliberately did not address any circuit split issues between the 5th and 10th Federal Circuits, but will be happy to help explain them to readers who are interested in alternatives to traditional WC.

[8] This is not to diminish the fact that Bob Burke, counsel for Vasquez, “raised several constitutional issues” and during the hearing spent well over 20 minutes ranting about the unconstitutionality of the OEIBA as a matter of habit. The irony of this outcome is accentuated by Burke’s remark when asked if he thought the WCC could rule on the constitutionality of the OEIBA: “No, I don’t think you can. But I wish you could, because I’ve got a number of constitutionality cases in front of the Supreme Court, and I wish I could bring them to you to decide.” To be clear, it was the Dillard’s defense team that insisted the commissioners had such powers.

[9] In its order, the commissioners substantiated those powers with the case of Dow Jones & Co v. State ex rel Okla. Tax Commission.

[10] Some may argue that “plans” and “appeals committees” are inextricably linked to each other and to ERISA. In fact, to read some of Minick’s prose on plans, one would think that any plan ever written is governed by ERISA. University of Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops, when writing down his game “plan” against Texas next season might consider calling PartnerSource for advice on ERISA compliance. Even industry insiders are often shocked to learn that ERISA never explicitly addresses appeals committees. The reality is that ERISA incorporates several good ideas. The still-maturing OEIBA has demonstrated that it is not at all reluctant to revise, improve upon or incorporate older ideas.

[11] Of course, ERISA is key in Texas nonsubscription. My goal is to craft the best alternatives to traditional WC programs legally possible. More and more, PartnerSource appears to share that goal only if ERISA is involved.

[12] We at WokersCompensationOptions.com apologize if, in releasing this essay the first business day after the WCC’s unexpected ruling, we haven’t quite lived up to the research and editorial standards our readers have come to expect from us. We look forward to posting a better, more thoroughly vetted and substantiated version of this piece as soon as we possibly can.

Taking a New Look at the ‘Grand Bargain’

Workers’ compensation was established more than 100 years ago as a “grand bargain” between employers and labor. Injured workers gave up their right to sue employers in civil court for workplace injuries, making workers’ compensation the “exclusive remedy” for such injuries. In exchange, injured workers received statutory benefits in a no-fault system. Over time, we have seen a number of different challenges to this grand bargain.

Is Exclusive Remedy Exclusive?

The answer to this question is clearly no. Nearly every state has a very narrow statutory exception to exclusive remedy if the injury was caused by an “intentional act” of the employer. Some states have a lower threshold if it is determined that the employer’s actions were “substantially certain” to cause injury. In both of these cases, lawsuits filed by injured workers against their employer rarely succeed, and most suits do not survive past summary judgment.

However, there are many other ways in which the exclusive remedy of workers’ compensation can be circumvented. These include:

  • Statutory Exceptions – New York employers in the building trades are still exposed to civil litigation in addition to workers’ compensation under the Scaffold Law. This allows workers in the construction industry to file suit against their employer if the injury arose from an “elevation-related hazard.” New York is currently the only state that still has such legislation in place, with Illinois repealing its Structural Work Act in 1995.
  • Third-Party-Over Actions – Some states allow civil litigation surrounding a work injury under a third-party-over action. In such cases, the employee sues a third party for contributing to the injury and then the third party brings in the employer on a contributory negligence action. For example, if an accident involves machinery, the machine manufacturer can bring the employer into the suit, alleging that it trained employees inadequately, that the machine was not properly maintained or that it was modified by the employer.
  • Dual Capacity Suits – Dual capacity suits allow the employee to sue the employer as supplier of a product, provider of a service or owner of premises. For example, if a worker is injured using a machine manufactured by the employer, some states allow that injured employee to file suit against the employer based on its negligence as the manufacturer.
  • RICO Suits – Filing claims under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) is a more recent method to attempt to avoid exclusive remedy protections. This federal law was originally designed to fight organized crime. In Michigan, Colorado and Arizona, the courts allowed injured workers to pursue a RICO complaint against their employer on the grounds that the employer “conspired” to deny medical treatment to injured workers by limiting physician referrals and prescribing practices and exercising undue influence over treating physicians.
  • Constitutional Challenges – Constitutional challenges are the latest avenue for attempting to circumvent exclusive remedy protections. There was much attention given to the Padgett case in Florida, where a judge ruled that the workers’ compensation statutes were unconstitutional because statutory changes that reduced benefits to workers and raised thresholds of compensability had eroded the “grand bargain” to the point that it was no longer valid. This case was reversed on appeal because of a technicality, so the higher courts never ruled on the merits of the argument.

Is No Fault Really No Fault?

Again, the answer is clearly no. Many states allow for a workers’ compensation claim to be disputed if it is proven that the injured worker was intoxicated at the time of the accident. In addition, some states allow for a reduction in benefits if the accident occurred because the worker violated a safety rule, such as not following lock-out/tag-out procedures or not using protective gear.

Unintended Consequences of Statutory Change and Litigation

Courts in Missouri, Illinois and Pennsylvania have ruled that, if a work injury is excluded under the workers’ compensation statutes, the employee can bring a civil suit against the employer. The courts are hesitant to provide no means for an injured worker to pursue compensation, so when statutory language is tightened up and certain conditions are excluded from workers’ compensation coverage it opens the door for potential civil action.

This issues also arises when the workers’ compensation claim is denied because the worker is not in “course and scope” of employment. If the worker falls on the employer’s premises, and the employer denies the claim under workers’ compensation, then the employee can sue under civil liability.

Not All Workers Are Protected

In many states, there are workers who are not required to be covered under workers’ compensation. In 14 states, smaller employers with five employees or fewer do not have to secure coverage. In 17 states, there is no legal requirement for coverage of agricultural workers. Finally, half the states do not require coverage for domestic workers, and five states specifically exclude coverage for these employees.

Opt-Out Legislation

Opt-out legislation, by its very nature, allows for an option to the grand bargain of traditional workers’ compensation. What many do not realize is that workers’ compensation has always been optional in Texas. Both employers and workers can choose to opt out of the workers’ compensation system and, instead, be subject to civil litigation in the event of employee injuries.

Oklahoma now allows employers an “option” to traditional workers’ compensation. Plans must be approved by the state and must provide the same level of benefits as workers’ compensation. Such plans provide employers greater control over choice of medical providers.

Opt-out legislation is currently being considered in Tennessee and South Carolina, and it is likely that similar legislation will be introduced in additional states in the future.

Causation Thresholds

There is significant variation among states in the threshold for a condition to result in a compensable workers’ compensation claim. In Tennessee, the injury must “primarily arise” from work (50% or greater). However, in California and Illinois, if the work is a contributing factor (1% or greater), the employer is responsible for that condition under workers’ compensation. Employers argue that these low causation thresholds undermine the grand bargain by greatly expanding what is considered a workers’ compensation injury.

Conclusion

As workers’ compensation has evolved, there have been many exceptions to the original premise behind the “grand bargain.” The courts have continued to allow exceptions to exclusive remedy and expanded causation standards. Statutory reforms have also resulted in classifications of employees and work conditions that are excluded from workers’ compensation. These trends are expected to continue.

Data Is Your Best Weapon in Work Comp

Managing the medical portion of workers’ compensation claims can be daunting. The variables are endless — vendors of all types, extraneous and overlapping events and even participants’ attitudes. Moreover, injured employees’ recoveries lie in the balance, making the effort essential.

Tried-and-true methodologies have been in place for 25 years, including bill review, utilization review, discounted medical provider networks, medical case management, fee schedules, guidelines and peer review. That should do the job, but apparently not. The medical portion of claims continues to rise.

Basically, the industry is continuing to follow the same pathways while hoping for different outcomes. Enough said.

This is not to say we should scuttle the strategies in place. Instead, the focus should be on updating and intensifying the existing processes to achieve their intended results.

Workers’ compensation is an industry replete with transactions that are recorded digitally. First reports of injury, bill review, pharmacy benefit programs and claims system paying bills and documenting events: All continually contribute to the data mass for each claim. Effectively analyzing that data on a concurrent basis and making the business knowledge available to claims adjusters and other decision makers is a powerful approach to strengthening current systems.

Analyzing data and converting it to useful information is the key to enhancing current medical management techniques. Writing reports and analyzing trends cannot affect outcomes. Such measures focus on the past, but that cannot be changed. Data must be utilized in new ways.

The first prerequisite is getting data-derived information to the front lines quickly. The business units should have access to analyzed information as concurrently as possible. Early information sets the scene for early intervention and resolving problematic situations in claims before they spin out of control.

Distributing information continuously requires that the data be electronically monitored and analyzed continually, not at the end of the month or quarter. When conditions that portend risk occur, the appropriate person is automatically notified. That might be the claims adjustor, medical case manager, medical director, supervisor or manager. Importantly, the notified person will follow the organization’s approved procedures, thereby lending structure to the process.

Monitoring data and notifying the right people when indicators in claims point to risk mobilizes medical management, as I explained in this article. Other data initiatives can be even more compelling.

Research in the industry irrefutably shows poorly performing medical providers lead to high cost and poor results. Poorly performing doctors in the workers’ compensation context are those who have little understanding of the system or deliberately abuse the system through overutilization. Indicators of such poor performance are readily found in the data.

The data will reveal the poor performers, those who ignore basic workers’ compensation needs such as early return to work, as well as those who bleed the system with excessive treatment practices.

Treating doctors essentially cause, influence or control a significant portion of medical costs. Once the injured worker is in the doctor’s care, opportunities to steer the course with medical management methods nearly disappear. Consequently, choosing the right physician at the start is essential.

Using data analysis to select the best practice doctors is the way to prevent problems and smoothly lead to the most optimal outcome. In many states, this is possible and encouraged. In other states, directing care is not allowed. Nevertheless, non-traditional applications of analytics can optimize results.

When directing care to the best doctors is not possible, the next best option is to change the perpetrating doctors themselves. The fact is, people, and maybe especially doctors, do not like to look bad. Presenting them with analytic representations of their performance compared with others of the same specialty in the state is a powerful behavior-change methodology. Those who are outliers will begin to move toward the mean.

Changing medical provider performance is not impossible! Of course, doctors will first attempt to push back. One way they argue is to say they treat only the more serious cases. That could be true. However, the pièce de résistance is to correct for medical severity in performance analytics, leveling the playing field. Those who treat more serious injuries are compared only with others who treat similarly difficult cases.

Adjusting for case risk or severity by diagnosis is how to diminish resistance for poorly performing treating physicians. Graphic presentations of comparative performance cannot be disputed. The fairness is built in.

As the treating provider outliers move toward the performance mean, they may never achieve best-in-class, but their outcomes will gradually improve. They will also be aware of continued surveillance, so the impact persists. Positioning data in this way is your weapon of choice for a powerful, yet bloodless medical management solution.