Medical Management

No Consensus on Treatment

Experts disagree on the involvement of risk managers in implementing treatment guidelines for injured workers.
By: | March 3, 2017 • 7 min read

Even as the nation’s 50 states inch towards consistency in medical treatment guidelines for workers’ compensation injuries, there is no consensus on the role of risk managers in enforcing them.

Dr. Robert Goldberg, chief medical officer, Healthesystems, a national workers’ compensation benefits management provider, said risk managers should delegate oversight of treatment guidelines and compliance to those for whom it is a core competency.

“Why should risk managers know anything about treatment guidelines?” he asked.

“Management of care is in the capable hands of physicians, nurse case managers, insurers, TPAs (third-party administrators) and utilization review (UR) organizations.”

Anne Kirby, chief compliance officer and vice president of care management, Rising Medical Solutions

Anne Kirby, chief compliance officer and vice president of care management, Rising Medical Solutions, said it’s impractical for risk managers, with their myriad tasks, to also take on micromanagement of thousands of pages of treatment guidelines.

For example, ODG’s treatment guidelines — the most widely used — include 46 pages related to opiod usage.

“It’s too much for any single risk manager to know.” Instead, she advised risk managers to “do due diligence on the UR company.”

Ettie Schoor, president, Prism Consultants, said, however, that risk managers shouldn’t offload responsibility for enforcement onto their TPAs or carriers because of the risk of errors. She noted that TPAs have a lot of turnover, carriers are always hiring new adjusters, and both have very high caseloads.

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2017 Power Broker® Dennis Tierney,  a senior vice president in Marsh’s claim practice, said that risk managers should “have some familiarity” with guidelines for the body parts where their exposures are highest, as well as rely on the expertise of their TPA, carrier and broker claims consultant partners.

“Should risk managers be aware of guidelines?” asked Mary O’Donoghue, chief clinical and product officer, MedRisk. “Absolutely. Should they expect TPAs to administer medical review appropriately? Absolutely.”

She advised risk managers to focus their attention on unusually long, complex and expensive claims.

Many states and a few Canadian provinces have adopted, adapted or developed medical, surgical, therapeutic and pharmaceutical treatment guidelines for a number of workers’ compensation maladies.

The most common claims, according to The National Law Review, are strains and sprains (30 percent), cuts or punctures (19 percent), contusions (12 percent), inflammation (5 percent) and fractures (5 percent).

Do Treatment Guidelines Work?

The cautious consensus is that, overall, treatment guidelines usually work.

“In states where care is managed and guided using excellent guidelines and strong utilization, workplace injuries may be handled at a higher level of care with a higher expectation of recovery,” said Goldberg.

And in states with limited or no guidelines, “injuries may linger and lead to longer disability, higher indemnity payments and loss of return-to-work,” he said.

The extensiveness of treatment guidelines make it “too much for any single risk manager to know.” — Anne Kirby, chief compliance officer and vice president of care management, Rising Medical Solutions

ODG points to statistics proving the effectiveness of guidelines.

States that adopted ODG guidelines, its website claimed, reported medical cost savings of 25 percent to 60 percent, average disability duration reduced from 34 percent to 66 percent, treatment delays from date of injury to initial treatment reduced 77 percent and insurance premiums reduced by 40 percent to 49 percent.

Only 13 states have no guidelines or none under consideration by the state legislatures, according to ODG.

Phil LeFevre, managing director, ODG, draws a bright line separating consensus-based guidelines characteristic to states that develop their own, and evidence-based guidelines “developed from comprehensive review of the medical literature, ranking and weighting thousands of studies based on design and quality, and tested for 15 years for optimal outcomes.”

A few states’ guidelines are mandatory — California and New York require compliance for certain injuries to most body parts, for example — but most are “guiderails” to keep treatment on track, said Goldberg of Healthesystems.

Some states adopt ODG and American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) guidelines, others develop their own, and yet others borrow from all of the above.

“Treatment guidelines give workers what they need, not what they want,” said Schoor. That brings a much-needed halt to excessive treatments that jack up medical and indemnity costs, she said.

Complex Cases Challenge Guidelines

Actual medical outcomes and return-to-work rates fall short of the promise of treatment guidelines, wrote Michael Gruber, partner, Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano, LLP, a New York workers’ compensation law firm.

“ ‘Cookbook’ treatment rules effectively tie the hands of medical providers by not allowing them to use their judgment as to what treatment would be most beneficial for their patients,” he wrote in a newsletter for the American Association for Justice.

Most treatment guidelines are “pretty good” at predicting the medical treatment and return-to-work date of average claims, said Dr. Brian O’Malley, president, The Rehab Center in Charlotte, N.C., which treats complex worker injuries.

They’re not as good at guiding treatment for the outlying cases, which usually account for the largest expenditures, O’Malley said. “Guidelines may have a myopic view of an injury.”

For example, he said, most workers with a lumbar strain will return to work within 30 days. What happens to those who don’t?

“Decompression in the spine, spinal fusion, the condition deteriorates. The patient gets a spinal cord stimulator” — a highly dubious medical treatment in the workers’ compensation population, O’Malley said.

“Those end up costing the most money.”

Even with those lumbar strains that don’t lead to surgery, complex symptoms may follow: disturbed sleep due to pain, weight gain from inactivity, anxiety from disrupted routine and depression from isolation.

“It goes on and on,” O’Malley said.

“Many injuries need involvement by more than a spine specialist,” he said, including the emotional piece. Not all states compensate for mental health services.

Risk managers should “have some familiarity with guidelines for the body parts where their exposures are highest.” — Dennis Tierney, senior vice president and director, workers’ compensation, Marsh claim practice

Denied treatment prompts some injured workers to file claims under their private insurance or to pay for treatment out of pocket, Gruber wrote.

On the contrary, said Goldberg, the workers’ comp system is more prone to excessive care than denial of treatment.

Guidelines are designed to be flexible, permitting discretion for the treating physician, with room to file an appeal for denied treatment, said LeFevre.

Dennis Tierney, senior vice president and director, workers’ compensation, Marsh claim practice

Despite the good intentions behind guidelines, implementation can go awry, said Bernie Baltaxe, partner, Smith & Baltaxe, LLP, which specializes in workers’ compensation cases.

For example, a case now in the California Supreme Court alleges a UR doctor’s decision to decertify the sedative Klonopin in accordance with treatment guidelines led to seizures and additional injury. Klonopin was prescribed for anxiety related to a back injury.

Most guidelines are not mandatory, said Dr. Robert Hall, corporate medical director, workers’ comp division of Optum, but establish a starting point for treatment.

“If the current treatment plan isn’t working, there may be a good reason to deviate.”

If evidence points irrefutably to the optimal type and length of treatment for, say, a rotator cuff injury, why aren’t treatment guidelines the same across the country?

Inconsistent State Guidelines

“It boils down to the character of the state,” said Brian Allen, vice president, government affairs, workers’ comp division of Optum. “The handful of states that defer to market solutions tend to target specific conditions.”

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Some years ago, for example, “every time you turned around in Montana you saw another back surgery,” which is highly controversial because of cost and efficacy. Treatment guidelines brought the number down 70 percent.

States that seek solutions from regulations, such as Massachusetts, have “sweeping guidelines covering a gamut of treatments.”

The lack of uniformity inhibits consistent medical care, said O’Donoghue of MedRisk.

“Treatment guidelines give workers what they need, not what they want.” — Ettie Schoor, president, Prism Consultants

“Some states have a presumption of treatment” rather than mandatory protocols, said Tron Emptage, chief clinical officer, workers’ comp division of Optum, which can be the deciding factor in a dispute over compensability between the payer and treating physician.

“If the doctor presents evidence for deviation from the guidelines, generally the payer will help determine coverage for the expense under the claim,” Emptage said.

Different states have different recommendations for treating lower back pain, which accounts for one-third of occupational musculoskeletal injuries and illnesses resulting in work disability, according to the Department of Labor.

“Some doctors order an x-ray at the first visit,” said Hall of Optum. Without accompanying red flags, such as fever or weight loss indicating a more severe underlying condition, “imaging has low value because the worker hasn’t had a chance to heal. Guidelines can keep the treatment on track.” &

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

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Property

Insurers Take to the Skies

This year’s hurricane season sees the use of drones and other aerial intelligence gathering systems as insurers seek to estimate claims costs.
By: | November 1, 2017 • 6 min read

For Southern communities, current recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Harvey will recall the painful devastation of 2005, when Katrina and Wilma struck. But those who look skyward will notice one conspicuous difference this time around: drones.

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Much has changed since Katrina and Wilma, both economically and technologically. The insurance industry evolved as well. Drones and other visual intelligence systems (VIS) are set to play an increasing role in loss assessment, claims handling and underwriting.

Farmers Insurance, which announced in August it launched a fleet of drones to enhance weather-related property damage claim assessment, confirmed it deployed its fleet in the aftermath of Harvey.

“The pent-up demand for drones, particularly from a claims-processing standpoint, has been accumulating for almost two years now,” said George Mathew, CEO of Kespry, Farmers’ drone and aerial intelligence platform provider partner.

“The current wind and hail damage season that we are entering is when many of the insurance carriers are switching from proof of concept work to full production rollout.”

 According to Mathew, Farmers’ fleet focused on wind damage in and around Corpus Christi, Texas, at the time of this writing. “Additional work is already underway in the greater Houston area and will expand in the coming weeks and months,” he added.

No doubt other carriers have fleets in the air. AIG, for example, occupied the forefront of VIS since winning its drone operation license in 2015. It deployed drones to inspections sites in the U.S. and abroad, including stadiums, hotels, office buildings, private homes, construction sites and energy plants.

Claims Response

At present, insurers are primarily using VIS for CAT loss assessment. After a catastrophe, access is often prohibited or impossible. Drones allow access for assessing damage over potentially vast areas in a more cost-effective and time-sensitive manner than sending human inspectors with clipboards and cameras.

“Drones improve risk analysis by providing a more efficient alternative to capturing aerial photos from a sky-view. They allow insurers to rapidly assess the scope of damages and provide access that may not otherwise be available,” explained Chris Luck, national practice leader of Advocacy at JLT Specialty USA.

“The pent-up demand for drones, particularly from a claims-processing standpoint, has been accumulating for almost two years now.” — George Mathew, CEO, Kespry

“In our experience, competitive advantage is gained mostly by claims departments and third-party administrators. Having the capability to provide exact measurements and details from photos taken by drones allows insurers to expedite the claim processing time,” he added.

Indeed, as tech becomes more disruptive, insurers will increasingly seek to take advantage of VIS technologies to help them provide faster, more accurate and more efficient insurance solutions.

Duncan Ellis, U.S. property practice leader, Marsh

One way Farmers is differentiating its drone program is by employing its own FAA-licensed drone operators, who are also Farmers-trained claim representatives.

Keith Daly, E.V.P. and chief claims officer for Farmers Insurance, said when launching the program that this sets Farmers apart from most carriers, who typically engage third-party drone pilots to conduct evaluations.

“In the end, it’s all about the experience for the policyholder who has their claim adjudicated in the most expeditious manner possible,” said Mathew.

“The technology should simply work and just melt away into the background. That’s why we don’t just focus on building an industrial-grade drone, but a complete aerial intelligence platform for — in this case — claims management.”

Insurance Applications

Duncan Ellis, U.S. property practice leader at Marsh, believes that, while currently employed primarily to assess catastrophic damage, VIS will increasingly be employed to inspect standard property damage claims.

However, he admitted that at this stage they are better at identifying binary factors such as the area affected by a peril rather than complex assessments, since VIS cannot look inside structures nor assess their structural integrity.

“If a chemical plant suffers an explosion, it might be difficult to say whether the plant is fully or partially out of operation, for example, which would affect a business interruption claim dramatically.

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“But for simpler assessments, such as identifying how many houses or industrial units have been destroyed by a tornado, or how many rental cars in a lot have suffered hail damage from a storm, a VIS drone could do this easily, and the insurer can calculate its estimated losses from there,” he said.

In addition,VIS possess powerful applications for pre-loss risk assessment and underwriting. The high-end drones used by insurers can capture not just visual images, but mapping heat, moisture or 3D topography, among other variables.

This has clear applications in the assessment and completion of claims, but also in potentially mitigating risk before an event happens, and pricing insurance accordingly.

“VIS and drones will play an increasing underwriting support role as they can help underwriters get a better idea of the risk — a picture tells a thousand words and is so much better than a report,” said Ellis.

VIS images allow underwriters to see risks in real time, and to visually spot risk factors that could get overlooked using traditional checks or even mature visual technologies like satellites. For example, VIS could map thermal hotspots that could signal danger or poor maintenance at a chemical plant.

Chris Luck, national practice leader of Advocacy, JLT Specialty USA

“Risk and underwriting are very natural adjacencies, especially when high risk/high value policies are being underwritten,” said Mathew.

“We are in a transformational moment in insurance where claims processing, risk management and underwriting can be reimagined with entirely new sources of data. The drone just happens to be one of most compelling of those sources.”

Ellis added that drones also could be employed to monitor supplies in the marine, agriculture or oil sectors, for example, to ensure shipments, inventories and supply chains are running uninterrupted.

“However, we’re still mainly seeing insurers using VIS drones for loss assessment and estimates, and it’s not even clear how extensively they are using drones for that purpose at this point,” he noted.

“Insurers are experimenting with this technology, but given that some of the laws around drone use are still developing and restrictions are often placed on using drones [after] a CAT event, the extent to which VIS is being used is not made overly public.”

Drone inspections could raise liability risks of their own, particularly if undertaken in busy spaces in which they could cause human injury.

Privacy issues also are a potential stumbling block, so insurers are dipping their toes into the water carefully.

Risk Improvement

There is no doubt, however, that VIS use will increase among insurers.

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“Although our clients do not have tremendous experience utilizing drones, this technology is beneficial in many ways, from providing security monitoring of their perimeter to loss control inspections of areas that would otherwise require more costly inspections using heavy equipment or climbers,” said Luck.

In other words, drones could help insurance buyers spot weaknesses, mitigate risk and ultimately win more favorable coverage from their insurers.

“Some risks will see pricing and coverage improvements because the information and data provided by drones will put underwriters at ease and reduce uncertainty,” said Ellis.

The flip-side, he noted, is that there will be fewer places to hide for companies with poor risk management that may have been benefiting from underwriters not being able to access the full picture.

Either way, drones will increasingly help insurers differentiate good risks from bad. In time, they may also help insurance buyers differentiate between carriers, too. &

Antony Ireland is a London-based financial journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]