Medical coverage is a topic on everyone’s mind. Obamacare, while controversial, has started a real dialogue in this country regarding health care. Regardless of whether you are in favor of the current law, most Americans want affordable health care for themselves and their families.
Many employers pay for a substantial amount of their workers’ premiums as a benefit to them, and take this into consideration when making salary decisions due to the high cost, thereby leaving workers to pay for all or some of their medical coverage. Sometimes insurers pay for benefits that are not their responsibility because the proper entity refuses to pay. This is known as cost shifting. As a practitioner in the field of Workers’ Compensation, this idea of cost shifting has become an all too common occurrence.
By way of background, as a result of social reform, most states enacted some form of Workers’ Compensation legislation in the early 20th Century. In exchange for timely payment of medical and indemnity benefits, workers gave up the right to sue their employers. In 2007 in New York, there was a series of further reforms that led to compromise between labor groups, the insurance industry and the Business Counsel. There was an increase in the amount of weekly benefits to injured workers to conform with the State average weekly wage (now a maximum of approximately $800 per week) in exchange for a limit on the amount of weeks an injured worker is entitled to receive these benefits. Additionally, medical treatment guidelines have been introduced with the premise that they would streamline costs and get injured workers faster and more effective medical care. These guidelines are based upon the principles of Evidence Based Medicine (EBM), which is the use of clinical trials and data to determine whether a specific treatment should be recommended for a specific diagnosis. It is sometimes referred to as “cookbook” treatment.
In New York, the Court of Appeals recently ruled by a 4-3 margin that any treatment not specifically included and pre-authorized is presumptively unnecessary. In other words, if a treatment requested is not within the medical treatment guidelines, it is denied. This takes the decision making out of the hands of the treating physician who is really in the best position to determine what treatment would be most beneficial for patients. In order to overcome this presumption, the doctor now must engage in what has been seen in most cases as an exercise in futility to request a variance to overcome this presumption.
The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) reported that the New York State Workers’ Compensation Board received 202,643 variance requests in the first 10 months the guidelines were implemented. A quarter of the requests were rejected by the Board immediately. The rest can lead to protracted litigation. As a result, in many instances injured workers will now shift the cost to another party, such as their own private insurance, Medicare or even worse, pay for the treatment out of pocket. It is the path of least resistance. We all pay an additional price for medical costs borne by group health insurance carriers, Medicaid, and Medicare that should in fact be paid by Worker’s Compensation insurers. This cost shifting may increase Workers’ Compensation insurance profits, but it hurts both the employers’ and the employees’ bottom line. Injured workers don’t stop needing treatment just because their medical claim is denied. Someone has to pay for the cost of lost time and medical treatment. It is time that the proper party step up and take responsibility.
Catherine M. Stanton is a senior partner in the law firm of Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano, LLP. She focuses on the area of Workers’ Compensation, having helped thousands of injured workers navigate a highly complex system and obtain all the benefits to which they were entitled. Ms. Stanton has been honored as a New York Super Lawyer, is the past president of the New York Workers’ Compensation Bar Association, the immediate past president of the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group, and is an officer in several organizations dedicated to injured workers and their families. She can be reached at 800.692.3717.
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