Calif. Case Could Redefine Peer Review
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.
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.
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.”
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.”