Archive for the ‘Compensability’ Category

Fifty States, Fifty Different Laws: A Peter Rousmaniere Analysis

Monday, February 1st, 2016

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) Consumer Price Index calculator, what you bought for $100 in 1973 would today cost $533.82. Despite this, during that same period wage growth for the median hourly worker grew by less that 4%. 

Moreover, as the following chart from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) shows, while wages flattened out after 1973, productivity continued to increase at a steady pace through 2010.

Everything seems to be going up across America except hourly compensation. That helps explain why our recent economic high hard one to the head, known as The Great Recession, has left so many families living paycheck to paycheck, one crisis away from living under a bridge. It also illuminates why the indemnity and medical benefits of workers’ compensation are critical to economic survival following a work injury.

In 2015, ProPublica and NPR published a series of exposès that showed widespread disparity in the way the various states deal with work injuries. Workers’ comp professionals didn’t like the series much, complaining en masse that it was biased, agenda-driven and just plain wrong. Silly me, I thought the series actually made some important points, especially around the level of compensation for loss of function.

Into this battle now rides Peter Rousmaniere, friend, colleague, Harvard MBA, WorkCompCentral columnist and all-around deep thinker.

Mr. Rousmaniere spent a good portion of 2015 researching the economic consequences to injured workers with respect to how the different state workers’ compensation laws deal with the early days of a work injury. He illustrates his findings in The Uncompensated Worker: The Financial Impact of Workers’ Comp on Injured Workers & Their Families, published as a workcompcentral special report.

In the Uncompensated Worker, Peter Rousmaniere creates the metaphorical Tim, a New York electrician earning the median wage for New York electricians. He then goes really deep into the take home pay hit Tim experiences following a work injury. He shows how Tim will always suffer earnings losses while injured regardless of how long he’s out of work, and he does it by considering the waiting period (the number of calendar days between the injury and when indemnity payments will begin), the “shortfall” (“The difference between a workers’ after-tax take-home pay and the amount of the replacement wages”), the “retroactive” calculation (the number of days an injured worker has to lose from work before being paid indemnity for the waiting period) and the maximum weekly benefit cap.

Here’s how Rousmaniere describes what happens to Tim if he misses three, six or ten days due to the injury:

While Tim’s 6% shortfall may not seem unreasonable, additional deductions further reduce his replacement wages. First, there’s a waiting period during which a worker receives nothing, a retroactive period (in most states) and a maximum weekly benefit cap. The amount Tim actually receives depends on the number of days he missed work. We can correlate work and calendar days for Tim by looking at a calendar and figuring his first lost work day on a Monday. If Tim misses three days of work, he receives nothing; losing six days of work yields close to one work day of replacement wages, and losing 10 work days yields five work days (seven calendar days) of replacement wages.

With that New York backdrop, Rousmaniere then shows how Tim would fare in each of the other states. But he goes even farther. Drawing from Economic Policy Institute estimates, which create basic monthly household budgets based on household size and location “to attain a modest yet adequate standard of living,” he builds an EPI-estimated monthly basic budget for Tim and his family of four. He then lays out what happens to the family economy when Tim is out of work due to injury for an extended time, say more than a month. If Tim’s spouse works part-time, the family can’t afford the basic budget in 29 states; if the spouse doesn’t work, they’re under water to the tune of $2,200 a month in every state.

This is sobering stuff. The 50-state and District of Columbia chart at the end of the report is nearly totally comprised of negative numbers.

Reading the report, I’m left with this: Assume (as most claim adjusters tell me) that well over 90% of injured workers really are injured and want to get back to work as expeditiously as possible. Should those workers suffer economic deprivation simply because they had the misfortune to be injured at work? Does society have an obligation to ensure that families, already perilously close to the edge of the financial cliff, are not booted into the abyss because of that work injury? And, finally, is it time for indemnity and medical benefit parity among the states (for example, if Tim were injured in New Jersey he’d fare considerably better than in New York)?

Peter Rousmaniere has performed a valuable service with The Uncompensated Worker. When (it should not be “if”) you read it, you’ll come away admiring the level of research and detail that went into producing it. I also hope you come away thinking their just might be a better way.

 

Exclusive Remedy wins: Safe in Florida … for now. Also upheld in DBA suit

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

The big workers comp news of the week: A three-judge panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal overturned a ruling that challenged the concept exclusive remedy: Appeals court tosses out key workers-comp ruling. Refresher: In the 2014 Florida case often referred to as the Padgett ruling, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jorge Cueto ruled ruled workers compensation unconstitutional, commenting that state legislative reforms had weakened the law to a point where the remedy for employees was no longer sufficient to warrant the loss of their right to sue employers.

But before exclusive remedy proponents break out the champagne to celebrate the victory, in Padgett Out, Now What? Dave DePaolo dissects the ruling, explaining why any celebrations may be premature.

“But the 3rd DCA set aside Judge Cueto’s ruling on procedural grounds, not addressing any of the merits. This leaves the question open.

The organizations pushing the constitutional challenge have vowed to continue the fight.

And those defending the system realize that the attacks will continue, particularly since there are still two cases pending in the Florida Supreme Court attacking smaller provisions of the law on similar grounds (Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg is about the statutory limits on the payment of temporary total disability benefits, and Castellanos v. Next Door Co. involves a challenge to the cap on claimant attorney fees).”

For the legal nerds in the crowd, a must-see analysis on the case can be found at Judge David Langham’s post It is Padgett Time, Third DCA Reverses. As Deputy Chief Judge of Compensation Claims for the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims and Division of Administrative Hearings, Langham wields some expertise on the matter — his post is worth reading.

Exclusive remedy upheld in Defense Base Act ruling

In other recent exclusive remedy legal news, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (D.C. Circuit) reaffirmed that the Defense Base Act (DBA) is the exclusive remedy for contract workers. See: The D.C. Circuit’s Message to Injured Government Contractor Employees: ‘There’s an Exclusive Remedy For That’ in National Law Review.

“Despite the Act’s broad exclusivity provision, in Brink v. Continental Insur. Co., an estimated class of 10,000 contractor employees who were injured in Iraq and Afghanistan brought a purported class-action lawsuit for $2 billion against dozens of government contractors, alleging that the contractors conspired with their respective insurance carriers to deny the workers DBA benefits. But a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit unanimously rejected plaintiffs-appellants’ claims and, in a 17-page opinion, made five key findings that will help government contractors defend similar lawsuits in the future.”

Related

3rd DCA Reverses Summary Judgment in FWA Constitutional Challenge to Exclusive Remedy

Brink v. Continental Insurance Company, Court of Appeals

Appeals Court Tosses Out Key Workers Comp Ruling

D.C. Circuit tosses suit brought by injured military contractors

Workers Compensation & the Executive Order on Immigration

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

At his blog Working Immigrants, Peter Rousmaniere has been tracking various public policy, health and work issues related to the underground economy of undocumented workers since 2006. His blog is a go-to source for research, think tank studies, major reportage and more, with a heavy focus on workers’ comp. His topical expertise is good reason for you to follow him as this issue evolves and a good starting point is his recent analysis of the impact of the Executive Order on workers’ compensation.

“The Order will force the workers’ compensation field to address issues that have been lying in plain sight for some time. After all, one-fifth of work injuries are likely sustained by a foreign-born workers, 10% by undocumented workers, whether or not they are reported.

Will the administration’s policy cause a jump in claims? Will it close down grey market labor abuses or open up a Pandora’s box? Will it make it easier to enforce work safety standards or sow confusion?”

His analysis addresses the states that will see the greatest effect:

“According to the Pew Hispanic Center, undocumented workers form the highest share of workforces in Nevada (10%), California (9.7%), Texas (9%) and New Jersey (8.6%). California has the largest number of people in the labor force who are unauthorized immigrants (1.85 million), followed by Texas (1.1 million), Florida (600,000) and New York (450,000.).”

…as well as the industry segments that will be most affected:

Major sectors with undocumented worker employment are farming, construction, hospitality, and institutional (building and grounds maintenance). About four out of every 10 farm workers are undocumented, hence the expectation, of which we will hear more, that providing work rights to these workers will cause food prices (especially fresh produce) to increase. However, farming’s size is dwarfed by the combined size of these other sectors, in which an average 12% of workers are illegal.

Take construction. A fifth to one quarter of lost-time compensable injuries sustained by all undocumented workers are sustained in construction. The typical image of the illegal construction worker is the low skilled laborer. About a fifth of them are estimated to be unauthorized. But a fair number of painters and other skilled workers are also illegal.

Take hospitality, which includes lodging and restaurants. About 20%-25% of room cleaners and cooks are undocumented workers.

For every 10 lost-time compensable injuries sustained by undocumented workers, about five of them take occur in either construction or hospitality. Maybe only one takes place in farming.

He also discusses the potential impact on claims and on employers and insurers.
Here are other related recent blog posts from Working Immigrants:
Arguments pro and con re legality of Executive Actions
Pew Hispanic Center’s estimates for the Executive Action
Some specifics about the Obama Administration’s “Executive Actions”
How Obama devised his Executive Order
Reagan and Bush Sr. used executive orders for immigrants
Chronology of recent news about Executive Orders to come

Undocumented Immigrants In The Workers Comp Bullseye?

Monday, June 16th, 2014

This morning, Work Comp Central’s Mike Whiteley published a well-researched 2,500+ word article focusing on the plight of undocumented immigrant workers who get hurt on the job. His article, Immigration Reform Expected to Impact Comp Systems, highlights the attempt of the National Employment Law Project to push for passage of immigration reform legislation adopted by the U. S. Senate last year. The legislation would make it much easier for undocumented workers to collect workers comp benefits following injury on the job. It is unfortunate that, given recent political machinations (see Eric Cantor, John Boehner, et al), the Senate’s legislation has as much chance of being passed anytime soon as a thrown strawberry has of putting a hole in a battleship.

As of 2013, twenty-eight U. S. state Supreme Courts have ruled that undocumented immigrants are entitled to workers comp benefits. Only one, Wyoming, has ruled otherwise.
We’ve been writing about this since 2004 – ten years. In 2005 we wrote:

It’s one of our nation’s dirty little secrets: immigrant workers are doing some of the nation’s most dangerous jobs, are being injured and dying disproportionately in those jobs, and denied benefits when injuries and deaths occur. In a political climate where the rhetoric and emotions are high and seemingly getting higher by the day, a “blame the victim” mentality is pervasive.

Unfortunately, the only thing that seems to have changed in ten years are those court rulings. But just because a worker is entitled to benefits doesn’t mean the worker is going to get them. And that, I think, is the primary thrust of Mr. Whiteley’s article.

In addition to the quite understandable fear of undocumented workers that if they report an injury they’ll likely face aggressive retaliation, there is the little problem of a social security number (SSN), which, by definition, undocumented workers don’t have. At least, not legal ones. In any event, an SSN seems to be required on the First Report of Injury (FROI). And that’s where the trouble begins, because as soon as an injured undocumented worker gives a fraudulently obtained SSN, ICE, Immigration and Custom Enforcement, comes calling.

I say, “seems to be required,” because, although the FROI does have a block for the SSN, more and more states are allowing workers to choose to have a random number assigned to them, rather than the SSN. Trouble is, many workers don’t know this. It will take time for this to catch on.

Meanwhile, as Mr. Whiteley reports, many workers get caught in the Catch 22 of the “seemingly required” SSN. Moreover, it is not unusual for ethically compromised employers to do everything in their power to prevent benefits being awarded to undocumented workers they have hired. I call these employers American Predators, because they hire workers they know to be in the country illegally and then kick them smartly to the curb when they get hurt on the job. This is probably why experts think that only a small percentage of undocumented worker injuries ever get reported into the workers comp system.

There’s an interesting twist to this story. In addition to Mike Whiteley’s article, Peter Rousmaniere, working independently, published his own column in Work Comp Central this morning on the same subject. Peter has long advocated for better treatment of undocumented workers, even going so far as to create a blog in 2006 on the subject – Working Immigrants.

Immigration reform seems to be a bridge too far right now. I fear that undocumented workers will continue to be workers compensation’s bastard stepchildren. And that is shameful.

Where’s Aristotle When ABC Needs Him?

Friday, April 18th, 2014

This morning, ABC’s Good Morning America shone its media arclight on Cathy Caswell as she spun the great big wheel on The Price is Right, not once, but twice. But while doing so Ms. Caswell was drawing $3000 per month in workers comp indemnity payments, according to ABC. And she was collecting those payments because of a shoulder injury, which prevented her from standing, running, reaching or grasping, as reported by ABC’s eagle-eyed Cecilia Vega. Vega “reported” that Caswell was one of “the countless people accused of faking an injury” to the tune of “hundreds of millions of dollars.”
The report then cut to some fraud words of wisdom from private eye, “master of disguise” (not my words; they’re Vega’s), Bob Keane who fancies himself cut from the James Bond cloth. Keane claimed that if you’re committing fraud the only way to avoid being caught by him is “by completely staying in your house for three to five years,” because if you venture outside he’s going to “get you.”
By using phrases like “countless people” and “hundreds of millions of dollars” ABC implies that Ms. Caswell is merely the tip of a very big iceberg. Frankly, I think Ms. Vega skipped Philosophy 101 – Aristotelian Logic. You know, the part about faulty inductive arguments going from the particular to the general? But I digress.
We all know that there are people who commit workers comp fraud. In fact, some of them are workers who fake injuries or malinger trying to milk the system. But the fraud committed by workers is dwarfed by that of many others in the system.
Consider Devon Lynn Kile and her husband Michael Petronella. In 2010, while Ms. Kile sought to appear on the Bravo TV series “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” the couple gained a different kind of notoriety when federal authorities, after raided their three roofing businesses as part of a two year probe, charged them with 31 felony counts involving tens of millions of dollars of underreported workers comp premiums. Petronella went to jail for 10 years, and Kile was sentenced to 10 years probation and ordered to make $2.8 million in restitution.
There are many dimensions to fraud in the workers comp system. While many people think of fraud primarily as a problem involving employees, in dollar terms most fraud is committed by other players in the system. There are opportunities for wrong-doing in virtually every financial transaction within a system that generates multiple billions of dollars every year.
Just to be clear, fraud can be committed by, yes, employees, but also by employers (see Devon Kile), attorneys, medical providers, claim adjusters, insurance agents and even investment firms (see the “Coingate” scandal in Ohio).
Despite the many opportunities for fraud in the comp system, outright fraud is relatively rare. The vast majority of transactions within the comp system, involving all of the above players, are carried out with integrity and good faith. Nonetheless, vigilance is always necessary to ensure that comp dollars are spent prudently and wisely.
ABC has scheduled an expanded report on Ms. Caswell, et al, this evening on its World News Tonight program. It should make for some interesting, if infuriating, entertainment, faulty logic and all.

Dying On The Job in Boston

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

We lost two firefighters in Boston, yesterday.
A 9-alarm fire on Beacon Street in Boston’s Back Bay, aided by 45 to 50 mile per hour winds off the Charles River, took the lives of Lt. Edward J. Walsh and Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy. Walsh, 43, was married with three children; Kennedy, 33, was a Marine Corps veteran. They were trapped in the basement of the four story apartment building when a window blew out, the winds rushed in and part of the building exploded.
Deputy Chief Joseph Finn said, “In 30 years, I’ve never seen a fire travel that fast.”
Once again, we are reminded that firefighting is a lot like combat, a lot of waiting for something to happen, and then the world falls in.
This, from today’s Boston Globe, should give one a sense of the emotional trauma of the event:

After the seventh alarm sounded, all firefighters were ordered from the building through a haze of screams and sirens. But when word came that some firefighters were missing, some vowed to go back in.
“No companies should be going in anywhere; stay away from the building,” firefighters were instructed in the mayday call.
“We are aware of the potential we see in front of us; we’re going back inside the building,” came the reply.
But the firefighters were told, “Stay out of the building.”

It took five hours to recover Walsh’s body. As he was carried out on a stretcher, all the firefighters formed an Honor Guard line. “Everyone saluted him, and Eddie was taken for his last ride,” said Steve MacDonald, a Fire Department spokesperson. If that doesn’t stir emotions inside you, then you have something other than blood coursing through your veins.
Reminiscent of the 1972 Hotel Vendome fire just a couple of blocks away that killed nine firefighters, and the 1999 Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse fire that took the lives of six, yesterday’s inferno sledgehammers us with the understanding that firefighting is a deadly business.
Seeing the soot-covered, teary faces of the men and women who watched Lt. Walsh take his “last ride” made me think of the other end of the pole, the sometimes messy business of workers comp.
In most states, injured workers are given two-thirds of their average weekly salary (60% in Massachusetts), tax free, while they’re recovering and unable to return to work. Police and firefighters, on the other hand, public sector employees, receive 100% of their average weekly salaries, also tax free. In essence, it’s a promotion.
This different treatment can sometimes anger taxpayers, usually when abuse occurs. And abuse does occur, not often, but when it does it can make headlines. In Massachusetts, we vividly remember the case of Albert Arroyo, a 20-year veteran of the Fire Department, who, after being deemed “totally and permanently disabled,” which allowed him to receive 100% of his salary, tax free, made the Boston Globe front page when he finished eighth in the 2008 Pro Natural American Bodybuilding Championship, with a picture to prove it.
Although Arroyo was acquitted of fraud charges in 2011 by a federal jury, the whole thing left a bit of a stink. US Attorney Carmen Ortiz, Boston Mayor Tom Menino and just about everyone else in authority complained loudly and in print that justice had not been done.
We all want our tax dollars spent well, but every once in a while, like yesterday, we come up against two truths that won’t go away: First, protecting the citizenry can be a tragic and deadly business; and second, with the exception of soldiers, I don’t know of any other occupations where people give their lives in the line of duty to protect others. Do you?

Pike’s Pique: The Stress of Behaving Badly

Monday, July 29th, 2013

John Pike may be the most (in)famous campus cop in America. He was video taped on November 18, 2011, at the University of California, Davis, spraying seated demonstrators with pepper spray. His demeanor was remarkably casual, as if he were spraying bushes for an infestation of bugs. He is now the subject of a meme that has spread across the internet, with images of Pike spraying Christina, in the famous painting by Andrew Wyeth, among other things. While we live in a culture where many are famous for being famous (the Kardashians come to mind), Pike is famous for one moment of his policing career.
An internal investigation by the university recommended that Pike be demoted. New police chief Michael Carmichael – the original chief had resigned – rejected that recommendation, deciding, in July of 2012, to fire Pike. There were a number of problems with Pike’s behaviour: he used an unapproved pepper spray that was three times stronger than the university’s preferred brand and he violated university protocol by spraying people in the face at close range.
Enter Workers Comp
Pike has filed a stress claim under the California workers comp statute. The state used to be famous for its lenient criteria for stress claims: only 10 percent of the stress had to be work related for a claim to be compensable. (How could work not comprise at least 10 percent of what is wrong in one’s life?) Over time, California tightened up the compensability guidelines, which now total six (as outlined by the Kenton Koszdin Law Office):
1.The employment must be six months or more. Check
2.The employee must have a psychiatric condition that is listed in DSM IV. Probably a check.
3.The employee must prove that the actual events of employment are the predominant cause of the psychiatric condition (51% or more). Definitely a check.
4.A psychiatric condition that is substantially caused (35%–45%) by good faith, non discriminatory personnel action(s) is not compensable as a work-related injury. Examples of good faith personnel actions are criticism of the employee’s work or attendance, change in work assignments, and decision about raises or promotion. The employer has the burden of proof on this issue. DNA.
5.A psychiatric injury that is caused by the litigation process is not compensable. Examples of psychiatric injury caused by the litigation process are an employees reaction to the denial of their claim, dealing with an abusive claims adjuster, or having their benefits terminated.DNA
6.A stress claim or mental–mental psychiatric injury claim filed after termination or notice of termination is not compensable unless the employer know of the injury or medical records of treatment for the psychiatric dated prior to the termination exist. He filed on June 10, presumably before the notice of termination.
A Mental-Mental Claim
Pike must prove compensability of the notoriously difficult “mental-mental” claim. In many states, there must be a physical injury that precedes the mental disability. In this case, the physical injury was limited to the protesters; the university settled their claims for $1 million. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, Pike in his new-found infamy has been subject to harassment, threats and humiliation. He is the principal subject of a meme that has spread throughout the internet. Stressful? Certainly. Compensable? Possibly, but by no means a certainty.
Pike’s former employer will try to show that he violated policy in spraying the students, including the use of an unapproved spray. Pike will undoubtedly try to show the ambiguity of the university’s policies, perhaps a lack of training specific to the circumstances he faced.
In the meantime, Pike has lost a job that paid in excess of $100,000 per year. He has achieved indelible fame for a single, ill-advised work-day decision. He is without a doubt suffering from work-related stress – stress of his own making – but the compensability of that stress is another matter altogether. We await the results of the August conference with great interest.

IMEs in a New York Minute

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

Back in 2009, we blogged an expose from the New York Times concerning the abuse of independent medical exams (IMEs) in New York. The article quoted 79 year old Dr. Hershel Samuels, who performed as many as 50 exams in a day. He filled out a checklist and let others write the reports. Did he read these reports? “I don’t,” he said. “That’s the problem. If I read them all, I’d have them coming out of my ears and I’d never have time to talk to my wife. They want speed and volume. That’s the name of the game.”
Muckraking journalism apparently did not solve New York’s IME problem. Which brings us to orthopedist Michael Katz, who makes a pretty good living performing, among other things, about 1,000 IMEs a year for the state of New York. [Details can be found at the invaluable Workcompcentral (subscription required).] After examining an injured worker, Manuel Bermejo, Dr. Katz wrote up his findings. In testimony, he declared that he spent 10 to 20 minutes with Bermejo. Unfortunately for Dr. Katz, Bermejo secretly recorded the session, which lasted just four seconds shy of 2 minutes.
Tantrum in the Court
When presented evidence of the IME’s duration, Queens Supreme Court Judge Duane Hart went ballistic. “How do I stop carriers from putting people like Dr. Katz on the stand and causing the state to spend thousands and thousands of dollars trying a case and putting a lying witness on the stand?” Judge Hart referred the transcripts of the proceedings to a Queens administrative law judge for potential perjury action against Dr. Katz.
The judge’s rage is understandable: IMEs are a vital activity in workers comp: in theory, IMEs offer a fresh, objective look at a worker’s injuries to determine what, if anything, is wrong, the extent of the disability and the role work played in it. In an ideal world, the IME is dispassionate, with no vested interest in the ultimate determination of compensability.
Good Faith, Bad Faith, No Faith
Dr. Katz claims he has been set up by plaintiff attorneys, who believe he acts primarily to further the interests of insurance carriers. (Here is a link to a plaintiff attorney’s blog featured Dr. Katz and other alleged abusers of IMEs.) On the other hand, there are surely IME doctors who tend to find in favor of injured workers and are thus favored by plaintiff attorneys, .
The world of medicine is supposed to be driven by objective medical evidence, but doctors are hardly robots, evidence is in the eye of the beholder and what the doctor sees might well be influenced by political views, personal history and, yes, even financial considerations.
It is interesting to note that the Bermejo claim began in the workers comp system, where the benefits are limited to lost wages and medical costs. Because the injury involved a fall from heights, the claim also fell under New York’s unique – and understandably unreplicated – Scaffold Law. But the claim now involved literally millions of dollars: Bermejo was suing the hospital where he was treated for malpractice. It is this last suit that brought Dr. Katz into Judge Hart’s courtroom. The judge was hoping for an objective analysis of the claim in order to determine whether the hospital had really screwed up. Alas, he ended up with no faith whatsoever in the quickie IME performed in the proverbial New York minute.

Annals of Claims Management: Full Catastrophe Denial

Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

In the Insider’s decade of exploring workers comp, we have encountered many unusual instances of compensability, legitimate claim denials and outright fraud. But rarely have we found cases where a claims administrator, in this case, a TPA, simply refuses to pay for medically necessary treatment. The saga of the late Charles Romano reminds us that the great bargain of workers comp is not just between employers and their workers; it includes the good faith effort of claims adjusters to carry out the letter – and spirit – of the law.
Charles Romano worked as a stocker for Ralph’s Grocery Company, a California-based operation that is part of the Kroger chain. It is worth noting from the outset that Kroger is self-insured for comp, with Sedgwick serving as the TPA. As a stocker, Romano presumably did a lot of lifting and reaching. He suffered a work related injury involving his shoulder and back in August of 2003.
A Solution Worse than the Problem
After conservative treatment failed to resolve the problem, he underwent surgery in December 2003. What had seemed like a relatively simple solution to a shoulder problem quickly descended into a grave, life-threatening situation: Romano contracted a MRSA infection following the surgery, which led directly to total paralysis. He suffered renal failure and several heart attacks, which were related to the MRSA infection. After enduring inadequate medical treatment directly related to the TPA’s denial of treatment, Romano died in May 2008.
Nearly three years after the initial surgery, a workers comp administrative law judge (WCJ) ordered that the TPA pay for all the medical expenses related to the infection. Without consulting with medical professionals, the TPA unilaterally refused all payments – totalling, by this time, hundreds of thousands of dollars. The TPA appealed the adverse ruling.
In February 2012, a workers comp administrative law judge imposed penalties for delay of treatment in eleven specific instances, finding that the TPA “failed in its statutory duty to provide medical care, egregious behavior which increased the suffering of a horrifically ill individual.” He imposed the maximum $10,000 fine for each denial of treatment.
Unappealing Appeal
The TPA appealed the penalties for delayed treatment. In what surely qualifies as a new definition of chutzpah, the TPA contended that penalties were not appropriate, among other reasons, because the claimant had died. Well, duh, the routine denial of treatment throughout the course of the illness was a significant factor in the death. Romano simply did not receive medically necessary treatments to address his formidable medical conditions.
NOTE: The penalties, even when maxed out at $10,000 per incident, is dwarfed by the suffering inflicted upon Romano.
The Workers Comp Appeals Board upheld the penalties [For a link to a PDF of the lengthy ruling, Google “Charles Romano Trust vs. Kroger Company]:

The WCJ’s Report makes it clear that he imposed the harshest penalties possible under section 5814 because of defendant’s extensive history of delay in the provision of medical treatment; the effects of those delays on a paralyzed, catastrophically ill employee; the lengths of the various delays; and defendant’s repeated failure to act when the delays were brought to its attention.

Lest the ruling be considered in any respect ambiguous, the court went on to say: “We have rarely encountered a case in which a defendant has exhibited such blithe disregard for its legal and ethical obligation to provide medical care to a critically injured worker.”
Risk Transfer, Risk Retention
It is tempting to conclude that the TPA’s actions were related to their customer’s risk assumption – otherwise known as self insurance. It is one thing to purchase insurance (risk transfer) and have the insurance company assume liability for a catastrophic loss. It is quite another for a self-insured company to absorb a loss of this magnitude on its own. (Presumably Kroger had some form of stop loss in place.) Despite the multiple findings of compensability, despite the judicial determination that the horrendous MRSA infection was indeed work related, the TPA persisted in denying treatments and rejecting payments, long after Romano’s untimely death.
As Mark Twain famously noted, “denial is not just a river in Egypt.” It’s also a poor strategy for managing claims. In his last years, the unfortunate Charles Romano certainly had to confront health issues beyond anyone’s worst nightmare; denial for him was not an option. For reasons that remain unclear, when it came to paying for Romano’s extensive and expensive care, the TPA chose a path of full catastrophe denial .
In the findings of the court, this denial was in itself an unmitigated disaster for the acutely vulnerable Romano, accelerating his precipitous decline and death. In the interests of saving their client some serious bucks, the TPA dug in its heels and refused to accept the compensability of a claim that had been adjudicated as compensable. In doing so, they violated the spirit and letter of the workers comp contract and earned themselves, in this particular instance at least, a place on the Insider’s Management Wall of Shame.

Annals of Compensability: A Tick in Time

Monday, April 8th, 2013

Ben Ciccone Inc. is a construction company that confronts formidable risks every working day. They are involved in excavation, site development, bridge construction and, if that isn’t risky enough for you, blasting and demolition. Most underwriters would give them a quick pass. So it is ironic that they are dealing with a permanent total disability claim involving a tiny, barely visible tick.
Worrell Bailey was doing some work in the woods back in July 2008 when he was bitten by a deer tick. He contracted Lyme Disease. When he began to suffer from upper body muscle weakness, he quit his job. He filed for workers comp benefits, which were granted. He underwent several courses of antibiotics, but he did not get better.
By June of 2009 his condition had worsened to the point where a judge deemed him permanently and totally disabled. Ben Cicconne appealed, alleging that there was no definitive link between Bailey’s progressive deterioration and Lyme disease. The carrier presented the opinions of several neurologists, who could not state “with certainty” that Bailey’s Lyme disease was the cause of his motor neuron disease. In other words, Lyme disease might be the cause of Bailey’s disability and then again, it might not.
Dueling Doctors
Bailey’s doctors were convinced of a causal relationship. His treating physician stated that by March 2009, Bailey suffered from significant muscle atrophy that rendered him totally disabled, which the doctor attributed to Lyme disease. Samuel Koszer, a board-certified neurologist, testified that Bailey’s progressive muscle weakness and consequent total disability were causally related to Lyme disease. Finally, Bailey’s psychiatrist – treating him for anxiety and stress relating to his diagnosis – testified that the lyme disease had prompted an autoimmune reaction that resembled amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The psychiatrist went on to criticize the comp carrier for denying benefits, which interrupted the course of treatments and may even have made the situation worse. These strong, unambiguous opinions were, in the language of claims adjusting, not very helpful to the defense.
The award of permanent total benefits was upheld by the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York, Third Department. Thus Ben Ciccone Inc, a high risk operation by any definition, finds itself responsible for a very expensive claim involving the kind of risk we all face when we go for a walk in the woods. Luckily for Ciccone, they appeared to carry conventional insurance, so the impact of the claim on their costs through experience rating has already run its course. For the carrier and its underwriters, however, this little tick will go on ticking for a long, long time.