Keeping Employees and Clients Safe During COVID Has Been Key for Every Company. These Optum Execs Share Their Insights on What Works

David Young and Tron Emptage share what Optum Workers’ Comp and Auto No-fault have been diligently working on all year to keep their employees and clients safe and informed during COVID-19.
By: | December 15, 2020

It’s no question that 2020 has been a year of major disruption. The novel coronavirus has impacted every business, industry and individual across the globe in some way.

From social distancing and working from home, to safety precautions and business continuity plans, many businesses — and their employees and clients — have had to learn to adjust to this “new normal.”

“There are still significant unknowns that are likely going to put emotional stress on not only workers but also workers’ families as we continue forward,” said David Young, president and CEO of Optum Workers’ Comp and Auto No-fault.

Tron Emptage chief clinical officer at Optum, added, “It will be some time till we see how we all get through this, but we know it will take the right safety precautions and open communication with our teams.”

Both Young and Emptage sat down to discuss the virus, its implications and trends, and how it’s affected employees and clients alike.

Risk & Insurance: At the beginning of the pandemic, what were some of the plans Optum put into place?

David Young: At the beginning, we moved approximately 1,600 workers to a work-from-home environment. Our IT team was out in front, ensuring we had the appropriate connectivity and that those connection points were secure to protect patient data.

David Young, president and CEO, Optum Workers’ Comp and Auto No-fault

Procurement was ahead of the curve as well. We had heard of a number of our clients and other companies struggling to access necessary technologies to allow work-from-home, whether that was keyboards, headsets, and VPNs connectivity challenges.

We also stayed in constant communication with our teams and tried to be as transparent as possible with our employees, sharing what we knew about the virus in real time. This included weekly updates from the chief medical officer, Dr. Richard Migliori for UnitedHealth Group. Our staff was able to get global information from a trusted, reliable source.

Tron Emptage: Education and the communication were important internally and externally. Early on, there was so much unknown. As much as we could get information in front of our clients and as quickly as we could — we did.

We stayed very nimble and flexible with them … We held some informational sessions early on, to showcase the knowledge that we could share and directing clients to resources. We acted as that extra set of eyes and ears in the research available.

R&I: Now that we’re several months in, what has the company done to maintain these early plans?

DY: As we continue to see COVID evolve and infection rates spike in a number of the communities where we have workers, we’ve evaluated what our return-to-work strategy should look like. We’re maintaining a nimbleness, and we always bring our strategy back to open communications, just making sure that our employees understand any local or state ordinances.

There’s an emotional component to this, so we’re actively making sure they’re comfortable returning to the office.

TE: Clinically it’s about staying up on research and answering pressing questions: What’s happening in the medical arena, what resources are available, where do patients get tests, how do we get that information out to clients?

Those questions are highlighted on our website, which has been a crucial tool in relaying to employees and clients alike.

Beyond that, we’re helping clients understand what’s happening in their medical spend, because it is very different right now.

R&I: The pandemic has certainly had a major impact on businesses, people and the world. Can you tell us what you’ve seen happen as a result?

DY: We’ve seen unprecedented unemployment across the country in many businesses and industries.

We’re paying very close attention to the weekly unemployment update from the Department of Labor, because … we think that’s a leading indicator of the recovery of the economy. We’re in an uncertain environment, and work looks very different.

As a result of this high unemployment rate, we’ve seen a significant decrease in new claims volumes as well. Industries like travel and hospitality have been extremely hard-hit due to closures. In some cases, those industries were showing claims down 60% on a year-over-year basis.

TE: One thing to add, from a clinical perspective, as we’ve seen claims volumes drop, we’ve seen a dramatic drop in prescriptions as well. That’s because we don’t have as many injuries, therefore we’re not having as many prescriptions.

Tron Emptage chief clinical officer, Optum Workers’ Comp and Auto No-fault

But then, when we look at longer-term existing claims, typical utilization patterns are still there. The ratio between opioids and non-opioids has remained steady in those already-existing claims. If there are newer claims, however, we’ve seen a drop in opioid use.

R&I: What are some of the other trends you’ve seen stem from the virus?

TE: We’re definitely seeing a lot of use of COVID-type injury descriptions in claims now. That helps us drive formulary, but not a lot of medication is actually being used there, because heavy medical intervention and medication is happening in the hospital when folks are very sick.

One of the other things we’re really trying to keep our eyes on and look at is the behavioral health side of this. As we know, there are a lot of challenges around the work-from-home setting. All the changes, all the additional stressors being put on the workforce, could potentially lead to negative behavioral health outcomes.

R&I: In knowing the trends, what are the ways you and your teams are preparing for the next phase of the pandemic while still working with employees and clients every day?

DY: We are evaluating all our processes, starting with how we onboard people and how we train them in this virtual world. We’re investing in our public policy group, as well, so that we remain close to each of the jurisdictions we provide services in as they start to make policies surrounding what will be compensable.

We’re also focusing heavily on analytics. Risk and insurance has always been about trend. Real-time data is going to become more and more important as trends re-establish post-COVID.

Lastly, there is a focus on re-entry or reassembly of the workforce and what that might look like. There will be a psychosocial aspect, whether it’s the emotional response to leaving loved ones at home or the fear of being in close proximity to coworkers again. Looking at hybrid work models will be part of that next phase.

TE: From our clinical team’s perspective, we’re keeping that eye on utilization patterns and making sure we’re staying on top of the research that’s happening with changes in therapies.

R&I: We’re in an uncertain environment and it’s hard to predict, but can you share what you think are some of the things you expect to see in the coming months?

DY: I think, as we enter the first quarter of 2021, what we’re going to see is a pent-up demand for the non life-threatening surgeries that had to be pushed back in 2020. If you think about the majority of injuries in the workers’ comp arena, they’re often musculoskeletal in nature. So, whether it’s back surgeries, elbow surgeries, shoulder surgeries — there is a pent-up demand for those types of services.

TE: We have to think about the coming of the vaccine and what that looks like. How many will be out there? What will distribution to essential workers look like? And then how will it get out into the population?

We need to think through how that works.

We’ve also seen an increase in telemedicine, and that’s another thing to keep an eye on moving forward. What might that do to future comp claims?

Working Toward a Bright Future

The promise of a vaccine is ever growing, as Emptage hinted. But it is clear the virus will not disappear overnight.

Young and Emptage stressed the importance of reviewing the data available and preparing now for the trends arising from COVID-19.

The Optum clinical teams, they explained, are doing this by staying informed on the real-time research data being released every day. “We’re making sure we’re on top of the research, the changes in therapies — everything that could impact an injured person and our clients,” Emptage said.

“There are still many questions, but we have the right team in place to watch what is happening to the industry and react and adjust as needed for the best outcomes for our clients and their injured persons,” Emptage said.

“We’re always evaluating all our processes,” said Young. “We’re keeping in touch with each jurisdiction in which we work and provide services as they make policies related to what will be compensable and how they’re addressing risk in the new world.”

This, they said, is how other workers’ compensation teams can not only keep their employees and clients safe, but also drive success for the industry and beyond. &

The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected].

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