Utilization Review

Calif. Case Could Redefine Peer Review

A lawsuit being argued in California could drastically change UR workers' comp statutes and drive costs through the roof.
By: | January 27, 2017 • 4 min read

A case in the California Supreme Court could disrupt the state’s workers’ compensation medical treatment approval process and expose utilization review doctors to medical malpractice liability, said California attorneys on both sides of the issue.

“The entire workers’ compensation community should take notice,” said Mike Lemrick, senior director, operations utilization review and IME at Coventry, because “although the high court is unlikely to uphold the appellate court’s decision, the consequences would turn the workers’ comp process upside down.”

The civil case in question is Kirk King v. CompPartners Inc. et al., in which a husband and wife sued a utilization review (UR) company, CompPartners Inc., and two of its employee physicians, primarily for medical malpractice.

Bernie Baltaxe, partner, Smith & Baltaxe, LLP

King suffered a back injury in 2008, and his treating physician prescribed the sedative Klonopin for depression and anxiety related to chronic pain. Two years later, a CompPartners utilization review physician, an anesthesiologist, determined the Klonopin was medically unnecessary.

When the CompPartners physician decertified the Klonopin, King was obliged to stop taking it or pay for it out of pocket. King’s suit alleged that his sudden withdrawal resulted in four seizures, which in turn resulted in additional physical injuries.

The trial court sided with CompPartners, and the Court of Appeals partially reversed the lower court’s decision. The decision to decertify was within the exclusive jurisdiction of workers’ compensation, said Bernie Baltaxe, partner, Smith & Baltaxe, LLP, a San Francisco law firm specializing in workers’ compensation cases, but the failure to warn was not.

Baltaxe, who filed a brief on the case on behalf of the California Applicants’ Attorneys Association, said the case is noteworthy because it raises questions about:

  • Duty of care for UR doctors
  • The exclusive remedy of workers’ compensation
  • The UR process and preemption

Who Bears Duty of Care?

Among the reasons this is a significant case, Lemrick said, is that it establishes a doctor-patient relationship with the UR peer reviewer.

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Contrary to the appellate court’s findings, he said, UR doctors’ role is not a doctor-patient relationship and so is not subject to duty of care obligations. Instead, their role is limited to “certifying, modifying, or denying treatment per medical treatment guidelines as established by the state.”

“The UR doctor never treats the injured worker or sees the entire medical file,” he said, only those the treating physician provides for episodic review of a specific treatment.

“The UR doctor isn’t allowed to make a diagnosis, a treatment plan or provide alternate treatments.”

“If upheld, it would drastically change the UR workers’ comp statutes and allow civil tort duties. It would change workers’ comp as we know it.” — Mike Lemrick, senior director, operations utilization review and IME, Coventry

Baltaxe disagrees. “When a physician is engaged in medicine and renders a professional opinion that affects treatment,” he said, “there’s a doctor-patient relationship.”

For purposes of malpractice, the court indicated that an essential element of a cause of action for malpractice is the existence of a doctor-patient relationship in order to give rise to a duty of care.

In this case, Lemrick said, “I believe the treating physician bore responsibility for the medical treatment and withdrawing King from Klonopin.”

That decision was made by the UR doctor, Baltaxe said. “There’s no methodology for the treating physician to ask for time to wean.” An appeal can take months, and an abrupt cessation of Klonopin can results in seizure in the first few days.

The UR doctors did, in fact, have a duty to warn, Baltaxe said. “When physicians make a medical recommendation, they’re required to warn of potential side effects. They also have obligation to not take action that will cause harm.”

Failure to warn does not fall within the exclusive remedy or workers’ compensation, he said, and injured workers should be permitted to seek legal recourse outside workers’ compensation statutes.

Workers’ Comp As We Know It

This could be a source of chaos and confusion in California, Lemrick said. If the appellate court’s decision is upheld, he said, “it will be more costly for companies do business in California because UR costs will go through the roof.”

Mike Lemrick, senior director, operations utilization review and IME, Coventry

If the duty of care for physicians who never sees a patient is upheld, all physician reviewers will require extra liability and malpractice insurance. “It will drive workers’ comp costs higher for California and delay care for injured workers,” Lemrick said.

Will the high court’s decision spill over to other states?

Absolutely, said Baltaxe. “Until this case came along, I hadn’t heard of any workers’ comp doctor immunized against negligence.”

Hopefully, he said, the state Supreme Court will rule that the decision to abruptly stop Klonopin does not fall within the exclusive remedy and that the doctor failed in his duty to warn. “All states should take notice.”

Lemrick is equally confident in the reverse outcome.

“If upheld,” he said. “It would drastically change the UR workers’ comp statutes and allow civil tort duties. It would change workers’ comp as we know it.”

Susannah Levine writes about health care, education and technology. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

2017 RIMS

Cyber Threat Will Get More Difficult

Companies should focus on response, resiliency and recovery when it comes to cyber risks.
By: | April 19, 2017 • 2 min read
Topics: Cyber Risks | RIMS

“The sky is not falling” when it comes to cyber security, but the threat is a growing challenge for companies.

“I am not a cyber apocalyptic kind of guy,” said Gen. Michael Hayden, former head of the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency, who currently is a principal at the Chertoff Group, a security consultancy.

Gen. Michael Hayden, former head of the CIA and NSA, and principal, The Chertoff Group

“There are lots of things to worry about in the cyber domain and you don’t have to be apocalyptic to be concerned,” said Hayden prior to his presentation at a Global Risk Forum sponsored by Lockton on Sunday afternoon on the geopolitical threats facing the United States.

“We have only begun to consider the threat as it currently exists in the cyber domain.”

Hayden said cyber risk is equal to the threat times your vulnerability to the threat, times the consequences of a successful attack.

At present, companies are focusing on the vulnerability aspect, and responding by building “high walls and deep moats” to keep attackers out, he said. If you do that successfully, it will prevent 80 percent of the attackers.

“It’s all about making yourself a tougher target than the next like target,” he said.

But that still leaves 20 percent vulnerability, so companies need to focus on the consequences: It’s about response, resiliency and recovery, he said.

The range of attackers is vast, including nations that have used cyber attacks to disrupt Sony (the North Koreans angry about a movie), the Sands Casino (Iranians angry about the owner’s comments about their country), and U.S. banks (Iranians seeking to disrupt iconic U.S. institutions after the Stuxnet attack on their nuclear program), he said.

“You don’t have to offend anybody to be a target,” he said. “It may be enough to be iconic.”

The world order that has existed for the past 75 years “is melting away” and the world is less stable.

And no matter how much private companies do, it may not be enough.

“The big questions in cyber now are law and policy,” Hayden said. “We have not yet decided as a people what we want or will allow our government to do to keep us safe in the cyber domain.”

The U.S. government defends the country’s land, sea and air, but when it comes to cyber, defenses have been mostly left to private enterprises, he said.

“I don’t know that we have quite decided the balance between the government’s role and the private sector’s role,” he said.

As for the government’s role in the geopolitical challenges facing it, Hayden said he has seen times that were more dangerous, but never more complicated.

The world order that has existed for the past 75 years “is melting away” and the world is less stable, he said.

Nations such as North Korea, Iran, Russia and Pakistan are “ambitious, brittle and nuclear.” The Islamic world is in a clash between secular and religious governance, and China, which he said is “competitive and occasionally confrontational” is facing its own demographic and economic challenges.

“It’s going to be a tough century,” Hayden said.

Anne Freedman is managing editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]