Vendor Relationships

Southwest Emphasizes Teamwork in Workers’ Comp Services

To discover and mitigate adverse claims trends, Southwest Airline’s workers’ comp program manager fosters cooperation.
By: | July 31, 2014

Subject matter expertise alone is not enough when workers’ compensation service providers want Southwest Airlines’ business.

They also need to set aside any inclination to compete with other workers’ comp companies that also provide services to the airline — even when their product offerings overlap.

And they need to adopt Southwest’s customer service culture that follows from The Golden Rule’s mandate to treat others as one wishes to be treated.


“We work really hard to foster our Southwest Airlines corporate culture and spirit into the vendors that we work with because we want our claims team, and the nurses that we have in our [workers’ comp] program, and all the [other service providers] involved, to feel like they are an extension of Southwest Airlines,” said Patti Colwell, Southwest’s workers’ comp program manager responsible for on-the-job injury care of the company’s 45,000 employees.

“At Southwest we live by The Golden Rule,” she continued. “We expect our employees to treat our paying passengers with kindness and respect so why would we expect our vendor partners to treat our employees with any less kindness and respect?”

Like many other employers, the service providers Southwest partners with include third-party administrators, managed-care companies, pharmacy-benefit managers, and attorneys.

In addition to workers’ comp expertise, Colwell looks for service providers capable of working as a team with other companies servicing her program.

There can be a tendency to compete, for example, when a TPA and a managed-care company both offer managed-care services, but under an “unbundled” arrangement, the TPA provides claims-adjusting services while the other company provides the managed-care products.

“We make it very clear they are not competing with each other for our program and we expect our data and information to be shared completely among the parties because that is the only way we will know what is going on and can come to solutions,” Colwell said.

“We also look for partners willing to be accountable for results and we do that with performance guarantees.”

“We expect our employees to treat our paying passengers with kindness and respect so why would we expect our vendor partners to treat our employees with any less kindness and respect?”

After seven years, though, Southwest recently discontinued its unbundled approach, or separating managed care and bill review services from their TPA’s services. Those services are now bundled together and provided by Sedgwick Claims Management Services Inc., Colwell said.

Even when an employer obtains a bundled product from a single source, however, there may be competing interests among a single provider’s own managers who oversee different services, she added.


“Oftentimes, which has been my experience in the past, we found even within the same company they may have competing objectives, so we still foster this team approach even when they are internal to the same organization to make sure we all have the same goals,” Colwell said.

To do that, Southwest brings together a program manager from her TPA’s claims-administration side and a program manager from the managed-care side, for both quarterly partnership meetings and monthly claims-review meetings. Other service providers also join the meetings, such as pharmacy-benefit-manager representatives

In addition to reviewing specific case files, the claims-review meetings improve communications between all the service providers and Southwest, and they provide an opportunity to spot trends needing corrective action.

“We try to find solutions to wrap claims up, but we also try to find trends that we need to address because our whole goal is to get our employees early diagnostics, get them the treatment they need, and to get them back to good health as soon as possible,” Colwell said.

One adverse trend revealed in such a meeting, for example, involved second shoulder surgeries performed on employees treated by a specific doctor.

“We had all the players at the claims review and we kept hearing the same thing over and over about second shoulder surgeries,” Colwell said. “The same doctor’s name kept coming up and it was obvious there was an issue.”

Further analysis revealed the doctor referred patients to a particular physical therapist who frequently prescribed home physical therapy after just a couple of office visits. But post-shoulder surgery therapy can be painful and injured workers were not following through with their prescribed routine.

Consequently, they suffered frozen shoulder issues requiring the second operation, Colwell said.

That occurred in a state that allowed the airline to direct injured employees to medical providers known to produce better medical and return-to-work outcomes.


Spotting and correcting the trend resulted from the relationships built through the meetings, Colwell said.

“You have to have the relationships in place to be able to act quickly and mitigate circumstances,” Colwell said.

Patti Colwell will speak on Nov. 20 at the National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference® & Expo in Las Vegas. She will be joined by Tron Emptage, chief claims officer at Progressive Medical Inc., and Julie Fortune, senior VP and chief claims officer for Arrowpoint Capital, to discuss “Approaches to Managing Nontraditional Claims Including Unions, Legacy Claims and Co-Morbidities.”

Roberto Ceniceros is a retired senior editor of Risk & Insurance® and the former chair of the National Workers' Compensation and Disability Conference® & Expo. Read more of his columns and features.

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