Conventional Health and Workers Comp, Part Two: Why Health Care Under Comp Costs More

December 21st, 2006 by

We recently blogged the beginning of a national dialogue on universal healthcare. Because we focus our attention on the workers comp perspective, we pointed out that any national health plan will come up against – and in some ways run contrary to – the long-established, state-based workers compensation systems.
The National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) recently published a study (PDF) that compares the costs of similar injuries under conventional health insurance and workers comp. Not surprisingly, the costs under comp are higher: higher not just for some injuries, but in literally each of the dozen injury-types examined. The study compares data only for the first three months after the injury. We can assume that the further out you go from the date of the injury, the greater the differential between the two systems. If anything, the three month time frame of this study significantly understates the higher costs of health care in the comp system.
NCCI studied a number of “chronic and complex” injuries (herniated disc, carpal tunnel, bursitis) and “acute and trauma-related” injuries (fractures and cuts). The cost differentials tended to be much higher in the “chronic and complex” injuries, with one exception: the cost of treating broken ankles was 50% higher in the comp system, comparable to the higher costs for the chronic and complex injuries. The costs of treating bursitis, carpal tunnel and herniated discs under workers comp were more than double those of conventional health plans.
Why The Difference?
While details can be found in the full study, we can boil down the higher costs of comp to a few fundamental issues:
: people treated under the comp system go to doctors and physical therapists much more often than those injured away from work.
: People treated under the comp system have many more diagnostic tests run – at higher cost – than those in the general health system
: The prices paid for medical services under comp tend to be higher than those paid under general health insurance (except in states where there are effective fee schedules)
Why do people treat more often in the comp system? Here we move beyond the limited scope of NCCI’s study and draw upon our 20+ years in the comp business. When dealing with comp, you need to Keep in mind the underlying condundrum: people injured and out of work are being paid (indemnity) for not working. To be sure, injured workers all want to get better and most look forward to a speedy return to work.
The road back to work may be paved with good intentions, but, alas, it’s also full of potholes. If you are at all ambivalent about your job (and many people are), if your injury gives rise to second thoughts about your safety at work, if being inactive while out of work leads to depression (it often does), you might find yourself focusing on the pain and the things you no longer can do. You might succomb to a “disability syndrome,” where you no longer think of yourself as a worker, but as a person with a disability. Thinking of yourself as “disabled” is usually not a conscious decision, but more of a sublimal thought process. Perhaps equally important, you might have an employer who sends mixed messages about your returning to the job. Maybe underneath it all, they blame the you for the injury and they don’t want you back.
Work-related and Non Work-related Treatment
Here are the key cost drivers that make medical care in the comp system more expensive:
: People out of work have lots of free time to visit doctors and have tests run.
: Because there are never any co-pays or deductibles in the comp system, there are no disincentives for seeking additional treatment. (Even a $15 co-pay begins to hurt after the 5th or 10th visit)
: Physical therapy feels good, so the end point keeps receding into the future. Where health plans arbitrarily cap the number of visits allowed per body part, comp has a harder time imposing any such limits.
Co-pays in the conventional health system serve as a brake on over-utilization. In addition, unless people with non-work-related injuries have disability insurance, they are not being paid during their recovery. They have a lot of incentive for getting back to work as quickly as possible. The incentives in the comp system are not so readily aligned with return to work. Injured workers can “root in” on comp benefits. It can be addicting to keep going back to your doctor and your physical therapist. Especially in “chronic and complex” injuries, the search for permanent solutions can be endless.
Thus comp involves a convergance of potentially contradictory forces: virtually unlimited medical care for your injury with no disincentives to the worker for seeking additional treatment; and the paradoxical position of being paid not to work, which may discourage a quick return to productive employment.
Forever Different
There is a way to align indemnity benefits for workers comp and non-work-related injuries: implement 24 hour coverage. Under this approach, every worker is covered by a disability policy that mirrors the benefits under comp. Lynch Ryan experimented with programs of this type in the mid-1990s. We aligned the indemnity benefits of the disability insurance with those of a given state’s workers comp benefits. It was a great concept, but employers were reluctant to buy it. Comp, after all, is a statutory requirement, while disability coverage is optional. And even under a 24 hour program, the co-pays and treatment limits under conventional health insurance will always be less attractive to the consumer than the more open-ended benefits under comp.
Because comp is such a small part of the overall health system (about 3%), planners trying to craft a national health program are unlikely to take into account the comp system’s idiosyncrasies. If we as a nation ever figure out how to provide universal health coverage, we might well end up solving one problem and creating a myriad of new problems in the comp system. That would be bad news for employers (and perhaps good news for the consultants who serve them).