Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

Job Loss, Wage Stagnation, Low Productivity: We’re Great Again!

Monday, October 30th, 2017

A couple of years ago, as he finished his Gatling Gun presentation to conclude the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute’s annual conference in Boston, I asked the big-brained, really smart Bob Hartwig if he was alarmed at all that in the last 40 years inflation-adjusted hourly wages had risen only 4%. His answer: “Yes. Very.”

Since then, regardless of the playground-like antics in our nation’s capital, or maybe because of them, not much has changed. So, in this post I want to discuss some of the factors and trends that have contributed  to this economic wage crisis and suggest it played a powerful role in the rise of Donald Trump who, with rhetoric as sharp as the edge of an axe, seized on the frustration and outrage within the lower wage working classes whose nearly biblical devotion led to his election.

That it is a crisis has been borne out over time by a mountain of complex research that cannot be explained in a tweet. The latest brick in this ugly house was laid last week with the release of a study from The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution.

In The Hamilton Project at Brookings report, Jay Shambaugh, Ryan Nunn, Patrick Liu and Greg Nantz offer Thirteen Facts About Wage Growth with solid research buttressing each fact. The point of the paper is to explain why wages for production and non-supervisory workers have been stagnant for so long.

In order to explain the why, they first had to prove the point. To do that they divided the period since 1981 into four business cycles: 1981-90, 1990-2001, 2001-07 and 2007-17. They found that in the first three of those business cycles nominal wage growth (wage growth without any adjustment for inflation) averaged just a bit above 3%. In the last cycle, which started at the beginning of the Great Recession, growth has been 2.34%.

However, when one considers real wage growth (growth adjusted for inflation) each business cycle saw wages increase significantly less than 1%. Despite this 36-year run of bottom-of-the-bird-cage wage growth, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s Inflation Calculator, what you bought for $1.00 36 years ago in 1981, the first year of this study, cost you $2.84 in September of 2017. This puts American workers in the position of trying to outswim a Navy Destroyer. Every moment they fall farther and farther behind.

The authors point out that our long-term wage stagnation can be traced to many trends, including the decline in US workers’ share of income.

The portion of national income received by workers fell from 64.5 percent in 1974 Q3 to 56.8 percent in 2017 Q2. Over the past few years the U.S. labor share has ceased falling, but this might reflect the ongoing economic recovery rather than any change in the long-run downward trend.

A number of factors have played a role in the fall in Labor’s share of income, including, but not limited to:

  • The long-term and continuing offshoring of labor intensive production;
  • The decline in union membership;
  • The decline in the real minimum wage;
  • The growth of non-compete contracts for even low-skilled workers;
  • The growth in income inequality between the top and bottom earners;
  • The continuing increase in the “education wage premium.”

To elaborate on a few of these factors:

Union Membership:  In 1956 about 28 percent of all workers belonged to a union; in 2016 that number was a little more than 10 percent. In the private sector, union membership has dropped to 5%. Regardless of what you think of unions, the fall in union membership directly correlates to an increase in wage inequality.

The Real Minimum Wage:  The Project Hamilton Report demonstrates how insidiously the federal minimum wage has limited wage growth among low wage earners. Since 1968 the real minimum wage (minimum wage adjusted for inflation) has fallen more than 20%.

Right now state minimum wages range from a low in Georgia of $5.50 to a high in the District of Columbia of $12.50. A number of states have passed legislation to gradually increase their minimum wage  over the next few years. Others have indexed theirs to the CPI. Regardless of what the states do, their minimum wage cannot be lower than the the federal minimum wage of $7.25 for any worker covered by the National Fair Labor Standards Act. If a worker in Georgia isn’t covered by the Act, however, $5.50 reigns.

The Education Premium:  The wage benefit of a college degree increased dramatically during the last two decades of the 20th century, leveling off around 2000 at an historically high level.

Bachelor’s degree holders ages 25 to 54 in 1979 could expect to earn 134 percent of the wages received by those with only a high school education, and advanced degree holders could expect to earn 154 percent. By 2016 the wage premiums for a bachelor’s degree and an advanced degree had risen to 168 and 213 percent, respectively.

Another way to look at the wage value of higher education is this: Although only 40% of the nation’s workers hold four-year college degrees (23% in 1979), in the top two earnings quintiles college graduates make up a clear majority, 78% in the top quintile. Only 15% of the bottom quintile are college graduates.

One last point about the Education Premium: In its most recent survey of college pricing, the College Board reports that a “moderate” college budget for an in-state public college for the 2016–2017 academic year averaged $24,610 (tuition, board and fees). It’s true that financial aid is available to most students. However, with the income of today’s low-wage earners falling farther and farther behind workers sitting serenely much higher on the economic pyramid, how do you think they’re going to manage to send their children off on a quest for a four year college degree, even at an in-state public college? This is a self-perpetuating educational death spiral.

Maybe you’re asking what this has to do with workers’ compensation?

Well, if US workers on the bottom half of the income scale have seen their wages lag behind the CPI for four decades, they are right now hard pressed to contribute to the country’s economic growth and viability. Moreover, when one of them suffers a lost-time injury at work, that worker will suddenly see his or her take home pay reduced because of state workers’ compensation laws, which will make it even harder to support a family. Research shows this, among other things, contributes to underreporting of workplace injuries.

For more information on this issue, see Bureau of Labor Statistics data and a recent New York Times economic report by Ben Casselman.

I have a hard time believing decades-long negligible wage growth, especially for those on the lower end of the income scale, can be anything but harmful for America, its economy and the quality of life of its workers. I suggest this is a significant cause of the frustration and outrage that led to the rise of the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus. Donald Trump saw this frustration, this outrage, as a mammoth opportunity and continues to feed it like red meat to a hungry lion. That type of divisive behavior can be nothing but destructive. But until our elected officials grow enough spine to do something meaningfully constructive and productive about it, I fear this situation will continue to divide and erode us as a nation.

That is terribly sad to contemplate.

 

 

 

Workers’ Comp as Percentage of Payroll: NASI Report

Tuesday, October 10th, 2017

The National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) recently issued its 20th annual report on Workers’ Compensation: Benefits, Coverage, and Costs. The study provides estimates of workers’ compensation payments—cash and medical—for all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and federal programs providing workers’ compensation.

The study showed that

  • Benefits per $100 of payroll fell from $0.92 in 2014 to $0.86 in 2015, the lowest level since 1980.
  • Workers’ compensation employer costs per $100 of payroll dropped to 1.32 in 2015, reversing consistent growth that began after the recession.
  • In 2015, workers’ compensation coverage extended to an estimated 86.3 percent of all jobs in the employed workforce, comprising more than 135 million workers.

Study authors say the drop partly reflects improved workplace safety. Also noteworthy:

“Both the incidence and severity of work-related injuries have declined steadily since 1990. In fact, according to the Department of Labor, the proportion of workers who experienced injuries that resulted in days away from work reached a 25-year low in 2015.”

The study encompasses state-by-state changes in coverage, benefits, and employer costs over the last five years. The state-level results show that between 2011 and 2015:

  • The number of covered workers increased in every state except West Virginia, with 11 states experiencing double-digit growth in covered employment;
  • The amount of covered wages increased in every state, and by more than 20 percent in 16 states;
  • Benefits per $100 of payroll decreased in all but three states, with the biggest declines in Illinois (-$0.33), Oklahoma (-$0.41), and West Virginia (-$0.52)—three states that implemented significant changes in their workers’ compensation systems during this period;
  • Employer costs per $100 of covered payroll increased in 24 states and decreased in 27 states. West Virginia, Montana, and Oklahoma experienced the largest reductions, with costs dropping more than $0.30 per $100 of covered payroll. Employer costs increased by more than $0.20 in Wyoming, Delaware, and California.

NASI workers comp infographic

This Cat Is Dead. Let It Stay That Way.

Friday, September 22nd, 2017

“Seriously. This is BANANAS” – Senator Chris Murphy, (D-CT), on Graham-Cassidy.

When I was in college I was part of a pretty successful folk group. We played all over, cut a few LPs. It was a great time. On college campuses we would sing a simple, little, nearly childish song that somehow actually became a bit of a hit. It was called The Cat Came Back.

Oh, the cat came back.
She didn’t want to stay.
She was sittin’ on the back porch
The very next day.

Well, there’s a new cat sittin’ on the porch, and it’s called Graham-Cassidy.

Every time we stick a fork in it and call it dead, a new zombie repeal and replace Obamacare horrendoma springs to life.

The selling point of this one, at least according to Senators Graham and Cassidy (and Vice President Pence yesterday morning on CBS), seems to be centered on the idea that passage of this bill will finally allow the states to plot their own health care futures.

That was also the position argued yesterday in a New York Times Op-Ed by Philip Klein, the Managing Editor of the Washington Examiner (Is this a coordinated effort?). In Graham Cassidy has One Great Idea Klein claims the different states have different healthcare needs and, consequently, should be able to address those needs through their own creativity rather than arbitrary requirements of  Washington.

A more flexible system would give states latitude to pursue healthcare programs that are a better fit for their populations’ ideological sensibilities. And there are practical reasons to think of healthcare as a state-based issue: Every one has its own demographics, health challenges and other unique characteristics.

“Ideological sensibilities?” Excuse me? Oh, well.

One thing that strikes me square in the jaw about the states rights argument is this: For the last 26 years, states have been able, with federal waiver approval, to craft their own Medicaid programs as long as the results are revenue neutral and comply with minimum requirements.

By way of explanation, Medicaid has been with us since 30 July 1965 when President Johnson signed it and Medicare into law. Medicaid has been a lifeline for the poor who, prior to the Affordable Care Act, were mostly uninsured for health care. The ER was their primary care physician. The Act had a number of goals, one of which was to lower the number of uninsured and underinsured Americans. Since these people were nearly all of the lower income variety, the Act provided federal funding for states to expand Medicaid. Thirty-one states plus the District of Columbia did that. And the numbers of uninsured dropped significantly in those states.

In 1991, the Social Security Act was amended to create federal waiver programs. States were given the authority, through what are known as Section 1115 waivers, to tailor their own Medicaid programs to their own population needs. As of September 2017, there are 33 states with 41 approved waivers and 18 states with 21 pending waivers. A subset of state waivers are aimed at healthcare delivery system reforms. They are known by the catchy title Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment waiversDSRIP waivers allow states to create innovative programs that reform how care is delivered and paid for. These are demonstration projects and come with federal funding. Lots of it. For example, one of Texas’s two DSRIP waivers, just concluded, provided $11.5 billion over five years. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission has applied for an extension and in May, 2017, submitted to the CMS its positive evaluation of the program’s results (Despite this deep drink at the federal trough, you might remember Texas’s very public, Alamo-like  rejection of federal money to expand Medicaid).

Personally, I think there are many reasons to bury the Graham-Cassidy cat so deep it never sees the sun again. Others have written and catalogued them (see America’s newest health care expert Jimmy Kimmel). But not much has been said to refute this ridiculous let-the-states-have-a-chance claim. The states already have, and have had for 26 years, autonomy to innovate and create programs, with the help of federal funding, that zero in on the needs of their particular populations within sensible federal limits. Graham-Cassidy would do away with those limits, significantly lower funding, force millions of our fellow citizens to become uninsured (again), drop the states down a deep well of chaos and put us all back in the wild west of health care.

Yesterday, in a highly unusual move, the Board of Directors of the National Association of Medicaid Directors (NAMD) issued a statement highly critical of Graham-Cassidy, saying it would place a massive burden on the states.

“Taken together, the per-capita caps and the envisioned block grants would constitute the largest intergovernmental transfer of financial risk from the federal government to the states in our country’s history.”

And last night, after learning of NAMD’s statement, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) tweeted, “You can’t get ALL 50 state Medicaid Directors to agree on anything else in health care. Seriously. This is BANANAS.”

America’s health care system is complicated (“Nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated!”) and full of inside baseball stuff. But it does allow states to chart their own destinies. So, here’s a question for Lindsay, Bill and Mike: What’s the real reason you’re trying so hard to resurrect this dead cat?

 

 

Automation Designed To Keep People Safe Can Produce The Opposite Result Through No Fault Of Its Own

Monday, September 18th, 2017

A fascinating article in today’s Daily Alert from the Harvard Business Review describes how our dependence on automation can erode cognitive ability to respond to emergencies.

In “The Tragic Crash of Flight AF447 Shows the Unlikely but Catastrophic Consequences of Automation,” authors Nick Oliver, Thomas Calvard and Kristina Potocnik, professors and researchers at the University of Edinburgh Business School, report on their analysis of the horrific crash of Air France flight 447 in 2009. Their research, recently published in Organizational Science, describes in riveting detail the series of preventable cascading events that led to the deaths of all 228 passengers and crew.

Although the crash of AF447 is a transportation tragedy, it also can serve as a stark reminder that employees who depend on technology, especially technology that controls dangerous work, say self-driving 18-wheel trucks, for example, need a lot of training to take the right steps when technology reacts to emergencies. Without that training, the authors contend, the cognitive ability to take manual control and successfully deal with the emergency is problematic at best.

The authors provide an example:

Imagine having to do some moderately complex arithmetic. Most of us could do this in our heads if we had to, but because we typically rely on technology like calculators and spreadsheets to do this, it might take us a while to call up the relevant mental processes and do it on our own. What if you were asked, without warning, to do this under stressful and time-critical conditions? The risk of error would be considerable.

This was the challenge that the crew of AF447 faced. But they also had to deal with certain “automation surprises,” such as technology behaving in ways that they did not understand or expect.

The point here is the technology offering up the “automation surprises” was doing exactly what it was programmed to do. The technology did not fail; the pilots, all three of them, failed in their response to the “surprises.”

We are now at the beginning of a monumental shift in the way work (and play) is done. The natural gravitational movement of artificial intelligence assuming more and more control in our daily lives is unstoppable. Think of how it has brought tremendous improvements in air safety. To prove that, consider this astounding statistic: In 2016 the accident rate for major jets was just one major accident for every 2.56 million flights. But this bubble of safety can breed terrible complacency. How humanity deals with and prepares for the rude “automation surprises” that will surely come along on the way to the future should be a critical component in the thinking of organizational leaders and safety professionals.

 

The Psychosocial Buzz Is Getting Louder

Friday, March 24th, 2017

“We know the single greatest roadblock to timely work injury recovery and controlling claim costs. And it’s not overpriced care, or doubtful medical provider quality, or even litigation. It is the negative impact of personal expectations, behaviors, and predicaments that can come with the injured worker or can grow out of work injury.

This suite of roadblocks is classified as “psychosocial” issues – issues which claims leaders now rank as the number one barrier to successful claim outcomes according to the Workers’ Compensation Benchmarking Study’s 2016 survey – and they drive up claim costs far more than catastrophic injuries, mostly due to delayed recovery.”

That’s the beginning of a new White Paper authored by friend and colleague Peter Rousmaniere and Rising Medical Solution’s Rachel Fikes. The Paper, How to Overcome Psychosocial Roadblocks: Claims Advocacy’s Biggest Opportunity, reports on Rising’s 2016 Benchmarking Survey and describes how the workers’ compensation claims management community is ever so slowly coming to realize the leading cause of delayed recovery for America’s injured workers is psychosocial in nature and that efforts to deal with this have, up to now, been woefully inadequate.

Rousmaniere and Fikes point to enlightened employers and insurers who are leading their companies to a greater acceptance of the need for competent, professional intervention to help injured workers overcome mental and emotional barriers delaying their return to employment.

They cite the work of Denise Algire, Director of Risk Initiatives and National Medical Director for Albertson Companies, a grocery chain with more than 285,000 employees. They also report on efforts by The Hartford, Nationwide Insurance and CNA.

All of the progressive actions undertaken by these organizations have one thing in common: the development of an empathic interview methodology devoted to understanding the “whole person” to discover which claims will need more intensive and specialized intervention.

At the Albertson Companies, Ms. Algire espouses the Advocacy-based model of claim management. This model emphasizes building a conversational and trust-based relationship with an injured worker through organic dialogue. She has introduced a modified Linton tool for screening injured workers for psychosocial comorbidities and has contracted with an external telephonic triage firm to conduct initial screenings.

At The Hartford, Medical Director Marco Iglesias reports 10% of claims fall into the psychosocial bucket with at least one psychosocial comorbidity, but they consume 60% of total incurred costs. He says adjusters now ask each injured worker an important question: “When do you expect to return to work?” The Hartford’s analytics indicate any answer longer than ten days is a red flag for the future.

Nationwide Insurance, under the direction of Trecia Sigle, VP of Workers’ Compensation Claims, is building a specialized team to address psychosocial roadblocks. Nationwide’s intake process will consist of a combination of manual scoring and predictive modeling, and then adjusters will refer red-flagged workers to specialists with the “right skill set.”

Pamela Highsmith-Johnson, national director of case management at CNA, says the insurer introduced a “Trusted Advisor” training program for all employees who come into contact with injured workers. CNA’s Knowledge and Learning Group helped develop the training with internal claims and nursing staff.

This White Paper adds to the now undeniable research indicating the psychosocial problem is the biggest one facing the workers’ compensation claims community today. The leading experts agree that empathy, soft talk and the advocacy-based claims model is the method of choice for helping injured workers whose claims carry a psychosocial dimension. The experts cited in the White Paper all agree that adjusters will require extensive and repetitive training to learn the new techniques.

However, all of this is a heavy lift for an adjuster community overburdened and overwhelmed with work, a group for which the average lost time claim load is often north of 150. Even with better training, they can’t do it alone. To really turn the psychosocial tide will require a well-rounded team of claims adjusters, nurses, case managers and external, well-trained clinicians working together with transparent, technologically advanced communication.

The missing links thus far are those well-trained clinicians and the advanced communication. Without these two components, the adjuster community will be sore-pressed to achieve meaningful results.

Update On Medical Marijuana

Friday, March 3rd, 2017

Yesterday, while attending WCRI’s Annual Conference in Boston, we wrote about the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) new research results concerning the effectiveness of  medical marijuana (cannabis) in the treatment of chronic pain. The NAS research concluded there is “conclusive support” that cannabis is effective with respect to chronic pain. A number of states are allowing cannabis to be employed in this regard.

However, marijuana is federally illegal in any usage, medical or otherwise.

We learn today from the Boston Globe that a bill was introduced in the US House of Representatives by Virginia Representative Thomas Garrett yesterday to remedy this situation. From the Globe’s story:

A freshman Republican representative from Virginia introduced legislation this week that would end the federal prohibition on marijuana use and allow states to fully set their own course on marijuana policy.

The bill seeks to remove marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act and resolve the existing conflict between federal and state laws over medical or recreational use of the drug. It would not legalize the sale and use of marijuana in all 50 states — it would simply allow states to make their own decisions on marijuana policy without the threat of federal interference.

‘‘Virginia is more than capable of handling its own marijuana policy, as are states such as Colorado or California,’’ Representative Thomas Garrett said in a statement. Neither recreational or medical uses of marijuana are allowed in Virginia.

Senator Bernie Sanders introduced a similar bill last year, but no one would co-sponsor it, and it never even got a hearing. Garrett, however, has four co-sponsors already.

We will continue to watch this.

Who Knew? Medical Marijuana Works (at least for chronic pain)

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017

Dean Hashimoto, MD, JD, is a highly-respected researcher and teacher, practicing at Massachusetts’s Partners Health Care (think Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital) and teaching at Boston College Law School. Today, at WCRI’s Annual Conference, his topic was Medical Marijuana and Workers’ Compensation: Recent Scientific, Legal and Policy Developments.

He led off with the results of a January,2017, scientific report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NAS). The NAS report is a comprehensive, in-depth review of existing evidence regarding the health effects and potentially therapeutic uses of Medical Marijuana (cannabis). The report arrived at nearly 100 research conclusions categorized by the weight of evidence (conclusive, substantial, moderate, limited, no or insufficient).

One of the report’s conclusions that had “conclusive and substantial support” was this: Medical Marijuana is proven to improve chronic pain in adults. There is “moderate” support for the conclusion that Medical Marijuana improves short-term sleep outcomes for both fibromyalgia and chronic pain.

Of course, there are downsides. The report also concludes (DUH!) that Medical Marijuana carries with it an increased risk of motor vehicle crashes. Also, however, there was conclusive, substantial support that taking Medical Marijuana can lead to the development of schizophrenia and other psychoses. Yikes!

The NAS report also investigated whether there was an association between cannabis and occupational injury. The conclusion? There was no conclusion, because the available studies do not permit one to be made with any degree of certainty.

The bottom line? Medical Marijuana presents a potentially therapeutic benefit in the treatment of chronic pain.

Well, that’s not really the bottom line. No, because the larger issue is this: Medical Marijuana is being used in a number of states. Today, along with Dr. Hashimoto, we also heard compelling stories from Paul Sighinolfi, of Maine’s Workers’ Compensation Board, and Paul Tauiello, of the Colorado Division of Workers’ Compensation, describing the successful medical use of cannabis which is generating momentum in both states toward the therapeutic use of cannabis. The trouble is the usage of Marijuana in any form is federally illegal in every state. Seems there is a collision coming, and it may not be pretty.

Reader Reactions To Our Psychosocial Issues Series

Tuesday, February 7th, 2017

A number of readers wrote to us about last week’s two-part series on psychosocial issues and how they confound claim adjusters and increase costs. A few readers pointed out that we paid scant attention to the “social” in psychosocial. These adjusters and nurses wrote that too often they’d seen and handled claims where life and “societal issues” seemed to get in the way of recovery. Sue Separa, who has overseen workers’ compensation claims for more than 30 years in 40 states and jurisdictions, put it this way:

Employee loses car, loses license, loses driving privileges and can’t get to work, but still needs a source of income;

Employee is having daycare issues and needs to be home, but also needs a source of income;

Employee has a sick relative or child they need to stay with/watch, but still needs a source of income;

Employee is attending school to better themselves, has a heavy school schedule, but still needs a source of income;

Employee has a comorbid or health situation that requires medical care and possibly surgery or absence from work, and has not secured short term disability, or it is not available with the employer; 

Employee has asked for vacation time and it is denied due to no time left, or not eligible, or because someone else is off work at the same time.

And she’s right. Of course these real life situations occur. However, they’re present and happen all the time without injuries, too. They are non-physical, “social” comorbidities; things that can easily impede and delay return to work. Unless, that is, claim adjusters are trained and experienced enough, as Ms. Separa is, to dig a little deeper, find them and address them appropriately.

We also heard from our friend Robert Aurbach who wrote from Down Under to say, while he “applauds” our efforts and thinks “they are valuable,” he suggests “perhaps they don’t go far enough.” Rob believes the “problem is partly the system itself;” we create the harm I cited. As that great American philosopher, Pogo, opined on Earth Day, 1971, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The system is iatrogenic (system caused).

Rob Aurbach also sent me a paper he authored in late 2015 for the Injury Schemes Seminar, put on bi-annually by the Australian Actuaries Institute. In the Paper (opens in pdf), titled “Better Recovery Through Neuroscience: Addressing Legislative and Regulatory Design, Injury Management and Resilience,” (bit of a mouthful that, but it won the Taylor Fry Award for the Seminar’s best paper) Rob explores Neuroplasticity, a theory dating from the 1800s and recently confirmed by functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Neuroplasticity is the process by which our brains continually rewire themselves throughout life due to environment, behavior, thinking and emotions. In short, it’s true; our brains are malleable. Rob writes that when work is disrupted through injury (or, through anything, really) for a long enough period, Neuroplasticity begins rewiring the brain to adapt to the new situation – being out of work. In other words, our brain creates a new “facilitated neural network.” This can happen in as little as 12 weeks, as Rob points out:

Timing is everything. There is a substantial research literature demonstrating that if a worker does not return to work within 12 -16 weeks, the probability of eventual return is reduced to 50% or less.

Rob Aurbach’s paper is a valuable contribution to understanding how easily a claim can deteriorate to the point where an injured person’s life is forever changed, and not for the better. I urge you to read it. It’s well-researched, well-written and profoundly thoughtful. Twenty-seven pages long, the last seven of which are endnotes and references. I found the first half of the text compelling and enlightening. His common sense recommendations that follow are pretty simple, but wickedly difficult to implement: Claim managers and adjusters should intervene early, demonstrate respect for the injured worker, promote early return to work, align incentives that encourage recovery, restrain negativity, listen attentively to the worker’s story, etc. In short, all the things managers, nurses and adjusters like Sue Separa know they should be doing, anyway. Trouble is, for these often overworked professionals, each managing a steamer trunkful of claims, there isn’t a lot of time to devote to Rob’s prescription. The iatrogenic system isn’t built to allow it.

And that’s where behavioral health clinicians and therapists, for the most part underused and undertrained, should be called on to help. Work Comp Psych Net, the New Jersey company I described last week, would be a good place to start.

Workers’ Compensation Psychosocial Issues: A Big, Fat, Costly Problem

Tuesday, January 31st, 2017

Workers’ compensation claims adjusters are busier than the Ed Sullivan Plate Spinner. Running around with one or two hundred lost time claims would make anyone dizzy, but at the recent National Workers’ Compensation & Disability Conference (NWCDC) in New Orleans, presenters tossed the frazzled spinners a few more plates to shoot up on the sticks.

The issue? Psychosocial factors delaying claim resolution.

At one well-attended session, Marco Iglesias, Medical Director for The Hartford, and Robert Hall, Corporate Medical Director for Optum, went into great detail about how psychosocial factors rear their heads in the claim process and how they impede recovery.

For example, consider these research statistics based on a study of 75,000 claims:

Time out of work increases 30% for a musculoskeletal claim with one co-morbid complication;

Duration increases 57% if the claim co-morbidity is depression;

According to The Hartford’s Dr. Iglesias, 10% of claims, the ones with all those psychosocial issues, cause 60% of claim costs;

At another presentation, attendees learned that Mental Health, Addiction and Obesity are the three comorbidities causing the greatest cost and time away from work.

Also, according to an AETNA presentation, 97% of depressed patients have a second co-morbid condition.

Research aplenty. Solutions, not so many.

So, perhaps it’s time for a more comprehensive discussion.

To begin that, let me propose a thesis:

Our nation’s current system for treating injured workers with mental health issues is uncoordinated, overly fragmented, highly wasteful and does not focus enough on speedy return to work. There is a critical need for a more systemic approach as well as an integrated coterie of clinicians and practitioners, trained in workers’ compensation, whose goals are to provide compassionate treatment with a steady return to work trajectory. 

The issue is compounded by the way claim adjusters, supervisors, nurses and defense attorneys view psychological issues. No one wants to ”buy a psych claim,” and many  believe that referring a claimant for behavioral health treatment does nothing more than create a lifetime annuity for a psychologist. Time and again this view has been proven correct.

What to do about that? Ay, there’s the rub. For in that question lies a host of difficulties. These, for instance:

  1. Most mental health professionals do not understand workers’ compensation. They do not realize either its statutory requirements or the concept of maximum medical improvement. They have spent many years being trained to treat the entire person. The players are the patient and the therapist, and it is like sitting on a two-legged stool. They do not fathom that, in workers’ compensation, the stool has five legs, with the other three occupied by the employer, the treating physician and the claim adjuster.
  2. Too often, by the time an adjuster or nurse recognizes that psychosocial issues may be impeding recovery and return to work the claim may have gotten a little long in the tooth; it could be months old, or more.
  3. It can take a claim adjuster weeks, in rare cases, months, to find a psychologist and schedule an appointment. It can also take weeks or months for a report to make it back to the file. Moreover, finding a clinician with even a smattering of workers’ compensation knowledge or experience is often problematic (See 1, above).
  4. Because there is no mental health electronic health record system for workers’ compensation, every report is its own island, sometimes good, sometimes bad.
  5. Everything is paper-based, which wastes claim adjuster time and increases expense.¹
  6. Although psychologists understand the value of work as therapy, many see no reason to help coordinate early return to work with employers, claim adjusters or medical providers

These are deep and difficult considerations. Tomorrow, we’ll describe one possible solution offered by a company in New Jersey, which, in the interests of full disclosure, is a Lynch Ryan clent.

 

¹ Claim adjusters also report that a not insignificant number of these reports are essentially unreadable, because they are handwritten.

 

A Conversation With WCRI’s John Ruser, Ph.D.

Monday, January 30th, 2017

As I write this, we are 34 days from this year’s not-to-be-missed Workers’ Compensation Research Institute’s Annual Conference. It all happens at the Westin Copley Place on March 2 and 3 in the greatest city in America. That would be Boston (sorry New York, Chicago, LA and all the rest of you).

This is always one of the top conferences in the nation, jam packed with enough data to satisfy any green-eye-shaded, algorithm loving, analytic modeler.

As you might imagine, this year’s agenda will include a bit of crystal ball gazing with respect to the future of American health care. I discussed that and other conference topics recently with Dr. John Ruser, WCRI’s President and CEO, at the Institute’s Cambridge, MA, offices.

This is Dr. Ruser’s first full year at the WCRI helm. About a year ago he succeeded Dr. Richard Victor, WCRI’s founder and iconic long time leader. Ruser, a perceptive intellectual, realized he had big shoes to fill, so he told me his goal for the first year was “stability.” He wanted a “steady transition.” That’s one goal he can check off as done. No staff left and they all continued to do significant research, much of which will be on display at the upcoming conference in the world’s greatest city.

WCRI’s research can impact policy. For example, in early December, 2016, Massachusetts Governor Charley Baker unveiled the Commonwealth’s new pilot program to help injured workers with opioid addiction. This from the Worcester Telegram:

The two-year pilot program is designed for people with settled workers’ compensation cases who are being treated with opioid medication, but whose insurance company seeks to stop payment for the opioid. Such cases, Gov. Charlie Baker said, can take up to a year to come to a resolution, and all the while the worker is prescribed opioids

 “Injured workers in Massachusetts receive 10 percent more prescriptions for opioids on average than 25 other states that were studied in a two-year study done by the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute (emphasis added), and Massachusetts led the studied states with the percentage of pain medications that were written for Oxycodone and nearly half of all prescriptions stronger than schedule II opioids,” Baker said. “There’s more we can do to help injured workers with settled workers’ compensation claims get appropriate treatment for pain management.”

Going forward, Ruser knows it’s time for him to begin making his mark at WCRI. This former Bureau of Labor Statistics executive wants to “increase WCRI’s reach.” He’s commissioned the building of a new website with the aim of “producing a much better search engine,” which will allow for “easier access to the Institute’s work.” I asked him what that really meant? He said he realizes that the work is scientific in nature, but that doesn’t mean it has to be obscure. He’s looking for plain english with a more “pithy” language style for Abstracts and Research Briefs. Doing so will allow WCRI to reach more stakeholders. A worthy goal, and we wish him luck.

John Ruser emphasized this year’s conference will tend to focus on three main questions:

  • What impact will the 2016 election have on healthcare (ACA, Medicare, etc.), labor and the workforce, and workers’ compensation?
  • Is the workers’ compensation system still fulfilling its mission or does it need revisiting?
  • With opioid use decreasing, what alternatives exist to treat pain?

The conference’s agenda is interesting, for sure, but for my money I’m eager to attend the first and last sessions. The opening session is on “The Impact of the 2016 Election,” and the presenters are former U.S. Representative Henry Waxman and former U.S. Senator Tom Coburn. I think that’s where the crystal ball gazing happens. We all know workers’ compensation is the tiny caboose at the end of the great big health care train. It remains to be seen whether the former Senator and former Representative will get deep into the weeds of what the coming blow up of the Affordable Care Act will do to that little caboose. A year from now we’ll see how prescient Waxman and Coburn have been.

But on to the final session. Last year, at this time, the workers’ compensation industry was rocked by a series of articles by ProPublica’s Michael Grabell and NPR’s Howard Berkes. Grabell lifted some ugly stones and rather unpleasant things crawled out. The industry lashed back. Perhaps the most reasoned comment was from Dr. Victor at the 2016 conference when he said, “Using anecdotes isn’t the best way to analyze an entire national system.”

The last session is at 10:35 AM on Friday morning (don’t leave early). This is the first session’s complement and is likely to get into some of the Grabell/Berkes territory.  “Appraising the “Grand Bargain” in 2017″ has four wonderful presenters, all of whom I admire. Professor Emily Spieler, Northeastern University School of Law, Dr. David Deitz, Principal, David Deitz & Associates, Dr. David Michaels, Former Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) and Bruce Wood, of the American Insurance Association are going to take a hard look at workers’ compensation in the here and now. Their comments should bookend nicely with those of Henry Waxman and Tom Coburn.

As we were winding up our talk I asked John Ruser what he hoped would be the biggest takeaway for attendees. “Honestly,” he said, “I want everyone to come out feeling they’ve learned something, something important.” Amen to that.

This year’s conference promises to be well-attended, but if you’re going (and you should be going), you might want to book your hotel now. WCRI has reserved a block of rooms at a special rate of $246 per night. They will go fast. You can register here.

I hope to see you soon in the Milky Way’s greatest city.

Go Pats!