Will Health Care Reform Crush Workers Comp?

June 9th, 2009 by

If health care reform is the proverbial 800 pound gorilla, then the medical portion of workers comp is a 15 pound Maine Coon cat: it might big for a cat, but compared to a giant gorilla, it is barely noticeable. Nonetheless, this cat is blessed with a very strong notion of what it needs. As the nation moves closer to universal health care, the implications for workers comp are both profound and troubling. Comp medical services comprise a mere 2% of total medical expenditures, so policy makers in Washington will be inclined to ignore its special needs. That could create profound problems for the employers, insurers, and state administrators who deal with comp issues.
There are a number of key reasons why reform of health care may undermine the ability of states to deliver a quality workers comp system. (We previously blogged these issues here, here and here.) In order to provide some focus for the pending debates, here is a brief summary of how comp fits into the overall medical universe:
The focus is similar but not identical
The general health care system focuses on the prevention of what can be prevented and the treatment of that which can be treated, up to limits of coveraged defined in specific health plans. The overall goal is to preserve the life and health of individuals and families. This system provides treatment from conception up to the moment of death.
The comp system has a much narrower focus: comp provides treatment only to workers who are in the course and scope of employment. Comp treats work-related injury and illness, with the specific goal of returning injured/ill workers to productive employment.
Eligibility is Radically Different
The general health system provides defined services to individuals and families. Virtually any illness or injury is covered, including many forms of mental illness.
Comp covers only what occurs during work and is proven to be work-related, with an almost phobic disregard for mental impairments.
The cost structures are very different
In general healthcare, the premiums for coverage are paid by individuals and their employers. Depending upon the plan, individuals and their family members assume at least some of the cost of treatment, through premiums, co-pays and deductibles. The trend has been to shift more and more of the costs onto the consumer (which, in turn, becomes an incentive to reduce utilization).
In comp, employees never pay comp premiums and are never charged co-pays or deductibles. Injured workers are covered from the first dollar. Thus, only the employer, self-insured or who purchases mandatory coverage, and the insurer have the incentive to control costs. No such incentive exists for injured workers.
There are Perverse Incentives in the Comp System
Under comp, injured workers are paid not to work (indemnity). They may not like their jobs. They may malinger, seeking treatment more often than medically necessary (no co-pays to discourage them), thus prolonging disability in order to avoid work. The incentives for returning injured/ill employees to work lie primarily with the employer (who pays the premiums or is self insured) and the carrier (who pays the bills, which may exceed the premiums collected).
For employees with minimal job skills and perhaps no job to return to, the incentive for remaining on comp as long as possible is powerful.
Comp is a State-Based Program
The new mandates for health insurance coverage will come from the federal government. Comp, by contrast, is strictly a state by state program. The new federal mandates (eg., employee choice of doctor) may well conflict with long-established systems.
Policy makers are trying to create a new paradigm for medical coverage in the twenty first century: truly, a daunting task. Ultimately, the new direction for health care will be driven by cost and coverage. Whether the providers are public, private or both, health care cost controls and rationing will lurk in the shadows: will there be a cap on total expenditures for any given individual and any given conditions? Will there be limits on end-of-life services? How much of the costs will be shifted to consumers? What incentives will be created to reduce utilization?
In stark contrast, comp is and will remain an early 20th century system, based upon an industrial world that no longer exists. It already provides virtually universal coverage for people who work. The costs belong exclusively to employers and carriers; there is no cost-shifting onto injured workers and there are no incentives for these workers to limit expenditures. The over-arching goals are returning injured workers to productive employment and providing lifetime benefits for the totally disabled.
So it all comes down to this: When and if the 800 pound gorilla that is universal health care actually sits down, will it be beside – or on top of – the comp coon cat? Will the federal mandates take into account the unique and idiosyncratic needs of the comp model, or will the new mandates inadvertently crush the system, state by state by state?
There are often unintended consequences when well-intentioned humans try to solve gargantuan problems. Let’s hope that the comp system does not fall victim to this fundamental law of human endeavor.