Overcoming the opioid crisis in the workplace

The national crisis of the misuse of and addiction to opioids echoes in the workplace every day. A National Safety Council (NSC) poll, estimates that over one-quarter of the U.S. workforce is using opioids. The costs to employers are well documented – increased absenteeism, lower productivity, higher health care costs, more occupational injuries, fewer skilled workers who can pass drug tests, and increased workers’ compensation costs. A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that large employers experienced a sharp increase in costs for treating opioid addiction and overdoses among their workers, rising from $646 million in 2004 to $2.6 billion in 2016.

While the workers’ comp industry has made significant progress in limiting opioid prescriptions for acute pain, much work remains to be done. According to a new workers’ compensation drug trend report from Optum, forty-nine percent of injured workers receiving a prescription drug were taking an opioid in 2017, a figure that was about four percentage points lower than in 2016.

Although each workplace has its own challenges, an assessment of a company’s efforts to combat the opioid problem should focus on three areas:

  • Reducing or eliminating initial opioid usage for recently injured workers
  • Helping injured workers who have become long-term users wean off of opioids
  • Prevention – preinjury support

Reducing or eliminating initial opioid usage for recently injured workers

While efforts to curb opioids in workers’ comp vary significantly by state, customized formularies, utilization management and clinical programs, legislative action including limits on initial opioid prescriptions for acute pain, and claims professional education, have collectively worked to reduce opioid prescriptions for pain. Some states are requiring alternative approaches. In Ohio, for example, residents with work-related back injuries are now required by law to try remedies such as rest, physical therapy or chiropractic care before surgery or opioids.

Employers, too, play a powerful role in preventing the development of opioid addiction. Educating workers about the dangers of opioids may prompt injured workers to forego opioids altogether rather than accepting an initial short-term prescription. Monitoring opioids prescriptions by receiving alerts when they are prescribed and setting limits can ensure that guidelines are followed. Intervening early and ensuring that injured workers have a clear path for getting back to work helps control the fear of pain, which leads to avoidance behavior.

Physicians, who can clearly explain the advantages of alternative treatments and the dangers of addiction, as well as gain the workers’ trust, will be effective in facilitating a return to work without reliance on pain meds. Utilizing nurse case managers can provide valuable interaction with physicians and can help injured workers manage their pain, recover, and avoid opioid dependency.

Training supervisors and managers to identify workers who struggle with pain or are at greater risk for dependence will trigger a need for early intervention and behavioral programs that focus on pain management through employee engagement and resilience. Unsupportive supervisors who intimidate workers by insisting they work through the pain or ignore the problem may disrupt the recovery.

The process takes planning and must be geared to the individual. Effective change comes when workers understand the benefits of non-drug pain therapies and buy into the solution. There are some workers who will want immediate relief, the hallmark of pain meds. Others may not want to exert the effort or time involved in physical therapy, acupuncture, exercise, or yoga, and others may be skeptical of mindful therapies. It’s the employer’s role to foster trust, provide support, and help motivate the employee.

Helping injured workers who have become long-term users wean off of opioids

While averting opioid dependency in a new workers’ comp claim is no easy task it’s tenfold more difficult in legacy claims tied to long-term opioid prescriptions. There are many barriers to successfully resolving long-term claims that involve chronic opioid usage:

  • The treating physician doesn’t buy into alternatives and won’t suggest them to a patient
  • There aren’t enough physicians who have adequate training on pain management and opioid prescribing
  • There’s attorney involvement
  • The worker is in a vicious cycle of drugs trying to manage the pain – the worker hasn’t slept, has anxiety, depression or nausea, and takes other pills alongside their Vicodin or OxyContin to repress those side effects
  • The prospects of returning to work seem slim and the worker has psychosocial factors such as depression, hopelessness, and hostility
  • The worker is focused on pain and unwilling to quit or reduce their pain medications
  • Medicare set-asides allows comp claims to close with cash set aside to pay for future drugs – often strong doses – with little oversight

Although these barriers are daunting, there is promise in a recent report released by California’s Workers’ Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau. The report, Study of Chronic Opioid Use and Weaning in California Workers’ Compensation, showed nearly half of the study claims with employees demonstrating chronic opioid usage (11 months from the date of injury) weaned off of opioids completely within 24 months from the date of injury. The weaning process typically involved a gradual decrease in opioid prescriptions combined with a mix of alternative non-drug treatments and non-narcotic drugs.

Vital to success is the adjuster who must remain involved throughout the process. It begins with knowing how to look at the data, not only to identify claims where opioid usage costs are high, but to identify trends. What types of injuries are involved? Do they occur in the same department or under the same manager? Can they be linked to certain physicians? Chronic use of opioids extends disability, and data analysis is critical to building a plan.

The adjuster must be familiar with and open to evidence-based innovative treatment options and understand how best to work with the injured worker. The program’s success also relied upon peer-to-peer conversations with the prescribing physicians and developing a program specifically aimed at helping workers cope with significant chronic pain. It demonstrates that a well-designed, carefully managed program with the focus on the individual can work.

The increased awareness around the epidemic has improved the possibilities of success with legal action, as indicated by a recent decision of the West Virginia Supreme Court. In Grinnan v. West Virginia Office of Insurance Commissioner, the court ruled unanimously that a carpenter was not entitled to continued treatment with OxyContin for a 26-year old back injury. However, legal action should be viewed as a last resort because of the time, money, and hostility involved.

Prevention – preinjury support

In the past, opioids were often prescribed for musculoskeletal injuries, effectively masking the pain but doing nothing to treat the injury. Ensuring good ergonomics in work place design and processes and ensuring that workers can handle the physical demands of their job is a good first step. Listening to workers who have minor pain and providing the support to minimize it, will help prevent costly claims.

Drug policies should be reevaluated to identify the situations where testing makes the most sense as well as what tests should be used. Screening for prescription drug use, illicit drug use, and adherence to legitimate opioid medications is a sound approach to mitigate risk. Working with legal counsel, the employer should decide what testing is warranted for pre-employment screening, pre-duty, periodic, at random, post-incident, reasonable suspicion, return-to-duty, or follow-up situations.

Legitimate claims from workers who already are using opioids are among the most difficult to resolve. A recent article on lexisnexis.com by Thomas Robinson notes that a study to be published by the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine supports the widely-held notion that pre-injury opioid and benzodiazepine use may increase the risk and cost of disability after a work-related injury.

Prevalence of compensable claims was higher among cases with pre-injury opioid use compared to cases without such pre-injury use (28.6 percent vs. 19.5 percent) and prevalence of post-injury opioid use was higher among claims with pre-injury opioid use compared to cases without such pre-injury use (67.2 percent vs. 22.8 percent). Train supervisors and managers how to identify the signs of drug abuse, the steps to take if abuse is suspected, and the legal issues involved. It is in the best interest of the employer to provide support and confidential access to treatment.

Proactive employers are also altering health plans to restrict the use of prescription opioids. The Surgeon General urges employers to ensure that health providers are following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, “Use your levers on the health care delivery side.” He notes that dental prescriptions for opioids is the first step for many toward addiction. “If you tell your employees and their families that you’re not going to pay for more than 10 pills if they go to the dentist, that will have a quicker impact than anything I can do as surgeon general to educate the prescribers in the community.”

While the path to finding effective treatment of choice can be long, difficult, and expensive, doing nothing can be costlier to the employer and devastating for the worker.

Note: NCCI is doing a series exploring three viewpoints on issues surrounding opioid use and workers’ compensation: those of doctors, insurers, and workers compensation regulators.

For Cutting-Edge Strategies on Managing Risks and Slashing Insurance Costs visit www.StopBeingFrustrated.com

HR Tip: Report: why employers are getting wellbeing wrong

A new report from the Campbell Institute, A Systems Approach to Worker Health and Wellbeing indicates not all employers are getting worker wellbeing right, and it could be affecting the sustainability of their business. While many organizations today are focused on wellbeing programs that tackle smoking cessation, weight loss or nutrition, the Campbell Institute report indicates a more multifaceted approach to worker wellbeing focused on improving the areas of highest risk to their employees can have the most benefit.

Recognizing there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to worker wellbeing, the Institute proposes a systematic approach to assessing and addressing total worker wellbeing, such as the “Plan Do Check Act” model. It’s designed to identify top problem areas, develop intervention strategies at an organizational level to address those risks, and ensure that the improvements are maintained.

The report includes a 35-item questionnaire that addresses six primary stress areas on the job.

For Cutting-Edge Strategies on Managing Risks and Slashing Insurance Costs visit www.StopBeingFrustrated.com

Legal Corner

ADA

Case to watch: Do employers have to offer disabled employees reassignment to another job if there are more qualified candidates?

In December, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (covering Florida, Georgia, and Alabama) ruled in EEOC v. St. Joseph’s Hospital Inc. that the ADA “does not automatically mandate reassignment without competition.” The ruling conflicts with other appellate court decisions, and legal experts speculate that it is an issue likely to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

St. Elizabeth’s Hospital had a best-qualified applicant policy in place and the court found the ADA only requires that an employer allow the disabled employee to compete equally for a vacant position. The EEOC argued that the hospital violated the ADA by requiring the nurse to compete for a vacant position she was qualified to perform. The court stated, “[p]assing over the best-qualified applicants in favor of less-qualified ones is not a reasonable way to promote efficient or good performance.” Further “‘the ADA was never intended to turn nondiscrimination into discrimination’ against the non-disabled.”

The conflicting appellate court rulings on the issue means employers’ obligations will vary depending on the circuit in which they operate.

Broken arm can be considered disability

A U.S. District Court refused to dismiss a discrimination charge filed by a worker who was terminated after she continued to need accommodations for her broken arm, a work-related injury. She worked for Kingsport, Tennessee-based Eastman Chemical and tripped and fell and broke her arm, requiring two surgeries. The company put her on light-duty assignment but eventually terminated her arguing it could not accommodate her temporary activity restrictions on an ongoing basis because there were several essential job duties she could not perform. The worker filed suit under the ADA.

The court refused to dismiss her case noting, “pertinent inquiry is not whether plaintiff’s restrictions were labeled ‘temporary’ or ‘permanent’ or the precise length of time she was under restrictions, but whether she was essentially limited in a major life activity.”

 

FMLA

Failure to provide a fragrance-free work environment does not equate to a failure to provide a reasonable accommodation

In Alanis v. Metra, an employee began suffering from a variety of fragrance-sensitivity symptoms such as difficulty breathing and speaking after ten years on the job. She was seen by her employer’s medical provider who concluded that she could return to work but gave her 30 days to obtain a psychological clearance exam. A week later, she again experienced symptoms and claimed that she was unable to speak and could only communicate through text messages, in writing or by whispering and was determined to be “medically disqualified” from working.

She took FMLA leave and a few months later her treating physician released her to work. However, she had not had the psychological clearance exam and when she did she was diagnosed as having a fragrance sensitivity, but was allowed to return to work a few months later.

The company made every effort to accommodate her requests for accommodation, which included flexible work hours, a modified dress code, limitation on extended talking, periodic rest breaks, self-paced work-load, and efforts to create a fragrance-free workplace. But she was not satisfied and filed suit, alleging discrimination based on the fact that she was Hispanic and retaliated against because of her disability.

The District Court for the Northern District of Illinois found that there was no evidence of discrimination or retaliation because no adverse employment action was taken. Furthermore, the Court found that the company had gone above and beyond to grant her requests for accommodation, specifically noting the changes made to reduce the existence of odors in the workplace.

Workers’ Compensation

Court supports DWC action suspending providers linked to fraudulent activities from workers’ comp system – California

Chiropractor Michael Barri, his company, Tri-Star Medical Group, and a newly formed nonprofit called the Coalition for Sensible Workers’ Compensation Reforms, filed a constitutional challenge seeking a peremptory or alternative writ of mandate blocking the state from suspending providers from the workers’ comp system and staying their medical liens when the providers are linked to fraudulent activities. Barri pled guilty to receiving illegal kickbacks to refer patients to Pacific Hospital during the spinal surgery kickback scheme.

The First District Court of Appeal took only two days in rejecting the request. The Division of Workers’ Compensation is moving to suspend providers and stay liens under new authority granted to it by the passage last year of SB 1160 and AB 1244.

EMA’s opinion that goes beyond the scope of the issues should be considered – Florida

In Hillsborough County School Board v. Kubik, the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled that a Judge of Compensation Claims erred in refusing to consider the opinion of an expert medical advisor (EMA) as to the cause of a worker’s need for medical treatment, and in denying the worker temporary total disability benefits. While the EMA had not been asked to evaluate the major contribution cause of the need for ongoing treatment, the court noted an EMA’s opinion that goes beyond the scope of the issues is admissible but not afforded a presumption of correctness.

Former Congressman collecting $100,000 annually in workers’ comp for bipolar disorder – Illinois

According to the Chicago Tribune, former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who was convicted of looting thousands of dollars from his campaign fund, is receiving a little more than $100,000 in worker’s compensation payments. Quoting Chicago attorney Barry Schatz, who is representing Jackson in a divorce proceeding, the article notes that the benefits are temporary total disability for bipolar disorder and depression.

The Federal Employees’ Compensation Act gives workers’ compensation benefits for disability “due to personal injury or disease sustained while in the performance of duty,” the Labor Department said. An employment lawyer speculated that Congressman Jackson’s attorneys convinced the government that his bipolar disorder was created by the rigors of being a member of Congress,

Inadequate urine sample did not constitute drug test refusal – Kansas

An employee who was struck in the left arm by an object while grinding a piece of metal was treated at an emergency room and returned to his employer to submit a post-injury urine sample. However, he did not provide enough urine to complete the test and the test administrator threw it away.

Lower courts found that the employee forfeited his benefits by failing to complete the drug test, however the appeals court disagreed. Kansas workers’ comp law says that “refusal to submit to a chemical test at the request of the employer shall result in the forfeiture of” workers’ comp benefits if the employer “had sufficient cause to suspect the use of alcohol or drugs by the claimant or if the employer’s policy clearly authorizes post-injury testing.” The court found no evidence that the employee had been under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the accident and had volunteered to take a drug test while he was at the hospital. Kelley v. Aldine Indep. Sch. Dist., 2017 Tex. App. LEXIS 829 (Jan. 31, 2017)

Psychologist’s testimony valid in workers’ comp denial – Minnesota

In Gianotti v. I.S.D. 152, A16-0629, the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned a decision of the Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals (WCCA) that the opinion of a psychologist was inadequate to support the denial of a worker’s claim for mental conditions allegedly caused by a concussion and post-concussive syndrome. The employee worked as a school bus monitor and fell and hit her head when the bus stopped short unexpectedly. Medical tests did not reveal a concussion, but she continued to complain of headaches, confusion, and memory problems and eventually sought psychiatric treatment.

While a judge denied the claim for a variety of emotional and psychological conditions, the WCCA questioned the competence of the psychologist as an expert witness, an issue that was not raised on appeal, and awarded benefits. The Supreme Court overturned this ruling noting the scope of the jurisdiction of the WCCA is limited to the issues raised by parties in their notices of appeal and that the psychologist’s opinion had as solid a factual foundation as any other expert in this case.

 

Failure to find work does not mean unemployable – Mississippi

The employee was a grinder and injured his right hand. Following an operation, he was released to work with restrictions, which did not allow him to work as a grinder. He performed largely janitorial and maintenance duties, but at one point was asked to operate a forklift. This irritated the hand and his physician advised him not to do so. When he was asked again, he refused to do so, and was placed on leave and given three days to obtain a written work restriction.

When he did not produce the work restriction, he was fired for insubordination. He filed a petition seeking a higher permanent medical impairment and eventually received a 50% loss rating, which he argued was too low given his permanent work restrictions. However, the Court of Appeals found that he was able to do other substantial job duties and had worked for almost a year after he was declared to have reached maximum medical improvement. Although he had been unsuccessful in finding another job after he was let go, this did not mean that he was unemployable. Harold Hathorn v. ESCO Corporation

Worker fired for failing to report medical only claim can collect unemployment – Mississippi

Although most states protect workers once they are hired from being fired if they file a comp claim, Mississippi does not. In Bedford Care Center of Marion v. Nicholson, the question for the Court of Appeals was whether unemployment benefits are available to a worker who was fired for having misrepresented her claims history. In a previous job, the worker received medical care for her injury in the hospital emergency room, but no indemnity benefits and she argued she did not realize medical benefits were workers’ comp.

While lower courts found she was fired for misconduct and not entitled to unemployment benefits, the Court of Appeals concluded that her inaccurate answers did not rise to the level of “willful and wanton” misconduct necessary to forfeit her entitlement to unemployment benefits.

Employee may sue colleague for work accident – Missouri

A restaurant worker climbed an A-frame ladder into a lofted space at the restaurant and while she was working there, a coworker removed the ladder. The coworker returned the ladder, but did not fully open and lock it. The ladder collapsed and the worker fell and injured her hand, elbow, and shoulder.

While the St. Louis County Circuit Court dismissed a negligence lawsuit, a three-judge panel of the appellate court disagreed, noting that a 2005 amendment to Missouri’s workers comp law “only gives employers immunity against tort claims for work-related injuries and does not afford such immunity to co-employees.”

Suicide bars survivor benefits – Nebraska

A woman who overdosed on drugs prescribed in connection with a workplace injury is not eligible for workers’ compensation survivor benefits, a state appeals court ruled. For five years, she was taking the opioids oxycodone and methadone, along with the sedative Xanax. Shortly before her death, she was told she would lose custody of her daughter and she no longer could live with relatives. She was overheard saying, “I just as well end it all.”

The trial court ruled that the overdose constituted “willful negligence and thus barred any recovery of benefits,” and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Michael B. v. Northfield Retirement Communities

Medical marijuana reimbursement required for comp claim – New Jersey

In Watson v. 84 Lumber, a New Jersey administrative law judge ordered Beaumont, California-based 84 Lumber Co. to reimburse one of its injured workers for medical marijuana prescribed for neuropathic pain in his left hand after an injury suffered while using a power saw at a lumber plant. The medical marijuana was being used to help wean the worker off of opioids. This is a division level case, so this decision is not binding on other New Jersey courts.

Other states that have allowed comp payments for medical marijuana include New Mexico, Maine, Connecticut and Minnesota. In most of these cases, physicians only recommended marijuana after other treatment regimens for chronic pain were attempted without success.

Cautious language of medical expert dooms claim for stress-related stroke – New York

In Matter of Qualls v Bronx Dist. Attorney’s Office, 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 409, a state appellate court affirmed the Workers’ Compensation Board’s determination that a worker did not sustain a causally related disability resulting from his stroke because his physician repeatedly used cautious and indeterminate language, such as stress “may have been” or “could’ve been a contributory factor.” While the court acknowledged that the law did not require that medical opinions be expressed with absolute or reasonable medical certainty, the expert must signify a probability as to the cause and his or her opinion must be supported by a rational basis.

“Last act” in employment contract key in determining workers’ comp jurisdiction – North Carolina

An Oklahoma-based union hall of a welder who lived in North Carolina sent her a notification to report to an assignment in Texas, where she was to undergo a drug test and complete forms when she arrived. The North Carolina Industrial Commission ruled it did not have jurisdiction to hear her injury claim since her injury occurred outside North Carolina and under North Carolina’s “last act” test, her employment contract was made in Texas, and not in North Carolina. Submission to the drug test was more than an administrative formality, had she not passed, she would not have been hired. Holmes v. Associated Pipe Line Contrs., 2017 N.C. App. LEXIS 52

Off-duty convenience store clerk due comp benefits – Pennsylvania

The Commonwealth Court panel has ruled that a convenience store clerk who is permanently disabled is eligible for workers’ compensation after being shot several times while sitting in his supervisor’s parked car outside of the store after the pair had just closed up shop. Earlier in the week, he had called the police on a shoplifter, whose relatives threatened retaliation, so his supervisor had been driving him home.

The Commonwealth Court panel upheld the decision of the workers’ compensation judge, saying that the shooting was retaliation-related. The court also said that the spot he was parked in constituted the employer’s property, at a location that was a reasonable means of access and egress to employer’s store, and he was within the course and scope of employment while he was in the car.

Exception to going and coming rule applies for sick employee – Pennsylvania

In Lutheran Senior Services Management Company v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Miller), the Director of Maintenance for a nursing home had a serious motor vehicle accident while going into work. At times he was called in for emergencies and received “comp time.” On this particular day, he was sick and planned to call in, but his employer called that a security camera had malfunctioned and needed to be fixed and no one else was available to do so.

While the carrier denied the claim arguing that he was commuting, the Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) granted the Claim Petition, noting “Claimant was sick on March 13, 2014, and except for the special need of the Employer to assure [that the] surveillance cameras became operative . . . Claimant would not have gone to work.” This would represent an exception to the “coming and going rule.” Upon appeal the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB), affirmed the decision of the WCJ but felt the facts represented more “special circumstances” than a “special mission,” but, still met an exception to the “coming and going rule.” The Commonwealth Court affirmed.

Third party recovery limited to injuries caused by negligence – Pennsylvania

In Serrao v. WCAB (Ametek Inc.), the Commonwealth Court ruled that an employer is not entitled to recovery of the full amount of its comp lien from a worker’s settlement unless the employer can prove the third party was responsible for all of the worker’s compensable injuries. An employee, wearing protective overalls, suffered burns when a can of powder ignited and caused a flash fire. The employee filed a third party suit against the manufacturer of the coveralls and received a $2.7 million settlement, and the employer asserted a lien against the recovery for all of its costs related to the injury.

There was a dispute if the costs related to burns to his hands and head caused by the melting of his gloves, face shield and hood should be included. The case made its way to the Commonwealth Court that concluded an employer has the burden of proving its obligation to pay comp benefits was caused by the negligence of the third-party tortfeasor and that the tortfeasor’s payment of damages are for the same injuries for which the employer paid benefits.

How a carrier can exercise its subrogation rights – Pennsylvania

In The Hartford Insurance Group on behalf of Chunli Chen vs. Kafumba Kamara, Thrifty Car Rental, and Rental Car Finance Group, the court considered how a carrier could go after a culpable third party. A carrier wanting to exercise its subrogation rights cannot force the issue by bringing a third party action on its own. Chen was waiting to rent a car in the Thrifty Car rental parking lot when Kamara accidentally hit her with one of Thrifty’s rental vehicles. Through her employer’s workers’ comp, Hartford paid almost $60,000 in medical and wage benefits. The Hartford filed a tort action against Kamara and Thrifty, asserting their negligence was responsible for Chen’s injuries, but Chen had not assigned her cause of action to Hartford and was not a party to the lawsuit.

Although a judge dismissed Hartford’s complaint, the Superior Court ruled that the case could proceed. The court noted that the Hartford was not pursuing a subrogation claim on its own behalf – it was seeking to establish the defendants’ liability to Chen. Because the carrier also was not limiting its requested recovery to the value of its subrogation claim, the court reasoned that it was not impermissibly “splitting” the cause of action Chen would have had. It’s important for carriers to use the right language in the complaint to make it clear that it is bringing the employee’s suit.

In this case, Chen is cooperating with Hartford’s effort to obtain recovery, but did not want to pursue the claim on her own. Such action could be more difficult in cases where a recalcitrant employee does not want to cooperate.

For Cutting-Edge Strategies on Managing Risks and slashing Insurance Costs visit www.StopBeingFrustrated.com

Legal Corner

ADA
Severe obesity claim of discrimination can proceed

A bus driver of the Chicago Transit Authority sought to return from an extended medical leave and was cleared through a fitness exam to return to work, but failed a safety assessment and was not allowed to return to work. The Authority argued that obesity is not a disability unless it is due to a physiological disorder and the employee had not alleged a physiological disorder.

However, the Court noted that there is a split among Circuit Courts on what is required for obesity to be considered a covered disability. The court did not take a position on what approach is right, but said “[e]ven if Plaintiff is ultimately required to prove that his obesity was caused by a physiological disorder, he was not required to allege the same.” Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 143485 (N.D. Ill. 2016)

 

FMLA
Medical privacy protected under FMLA

In Scott Holtrey v. Collier County Board of County Commissioners, the Florida U.S. District Court ruled the employer violated the FMLA when a management-level employee allegedly disclosed the employee’s serious health condition with his genitourinary system to co-workers and subordinates at a staff meeting. The employee became the subject of jokes and obscene gestures. While the County Board argued that the interference claim failed because it granted the employee FMLA leave, the Court disagreed, “The enforcing labor regulation makes clear that confidentiality of medical information is a right provided and protected under the FMLA.”

Doctor’s certification and job description key factors in defining essential functions

A laborer for the City of Red Bank in Tennessee, who rose to the position of Assistant to the Director of Public Works, did significant outdoor work. His job evolved and required different responsibilities, more and more of which were outdoors. He developed skin problems and was diagnosed with lupus. His dermatologist said he needed to be indoors.

After an indefinite FMLA leave lasting six months, he returned to work and bought protective clothing, but it failed to provide adequate protection. He sought another FMLA leave and his doctor ‘s certification emphatically stated that he must work indoors. When it was determined he was not qualified for the two open indoor positions, he was terminated.

The City prevailed at the federal court level, and upon appeal the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that the worker did not show that he could perform the essential functions of his job with or without accommodation. While the employee and the doctor attempted to modify their position after the termination decision, the City had a right to base its decision on the information available at the time of termination. Mathis v. City of Red Bank, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 19423 (6th Cir. 2016)

Workers’ Compensation
Michigan federal court reiterates that RICO may not be used for bad faith claims – United States

Citing two earlier precedents, a federal district court sitting in Michigan ruled that racketeering activity leading to a loss or diminution of benefits that a worker expects to receive under a state workers’ compensation system does not constitute an injury to “business or property” under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (“RICO”) Act. The worker tried to distinguish his case by alleging tortious activity by “independent medical examiners.” Gucwa v. Lawley, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8698 (E.D. Mich., Jan. 23, 2017)

Medicare reimbursement is limited to related injuries identified by diagnosis codes – California

The U.S. District Court for the Central District ruled in favor of the California Insurance Guarantee Association (CIGA) in its ongoing challenges against the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) over the Medicare Secondary Payer (MSP) practices. CIGA faced Medicare Conditional Payment demands for three separate workers’ compensation claims that had settled. Included in the demands were diagnosis codes unrelated to the accident.

CIGA noted to the court that it is not uncommon in conditional payment letters from the CMS for multiple diagnosis codes to appear under a single charge – some of which relate to a medical condition covered by the primary plan, but others that do not. CMS routinely determines if any of the codes relates to a covered condition and seeks reimbursement for the full amount. California Insurance Guarantee Association v Burwell, et al case no. 2:15-cv-0113odw (ffmx)

Broad interpretation of employment finds union responsible for member’s injury – California

In Mason v. S.E.I.U. Local 721, 2016 Cal. Wrk. Comp. P.D. LEXIS 618 (Lexis Advance), the WCAB, reversing the WCJ in a split panel opinion, held that an employee of the County of Los Angeles, Department of Children and Family Services who was a member of S.E.I.U. Local 721 was acting as an employee of S.E.I.U. Local 721 at the time she suffered an injury while participating in a union rally. The WCAB found employment by the union, noting the injured worker was rendering service for “another,” (the union), and that the union provided transportation, food and water while at the rally, and that the services and goods provided by the union were akin to economic substitutes for wages.

Injured worker can’t switch to doctor in different specialty – Florida

In a case of first impression, the Florida 1st District Court of Appeal ruled that a worker exercising his statutory right to a one-time change in physician was not entitled to choose a new doctor in a different specialty simply because the carrier did not respond in a timely fashion. In Retailfirst Insurance Co. v. Davis, an employee who had injured his leg had received authorization for treatment with a family practice physician and later sought authorization for care with an orthopedist. The court noted that procedures exist for such a request.

Change in economic conditions not basis for increased benefits – Illinois

In Murff v. IWCC (City of Chicago), No. 1-16-0005WC, 01.06.2017, an injured worker returned to work in a modified capacity. Later, he was determined to have reached maximum medical improvement and was awarded benefits and continued to work in the modified capacity for about six months. He was then told him that if he could not return to his old job duties, he’d have to go home, so he went on disability leave and filed a claim seeking additional comp benefits.

The Appellate Court upheld the findings of the lower courts that there was no evidence he had not suffered any material change in his physical or mental condition since the award of benefits. An increase in economic disability is not a basis for additional comp benefits.

Lung disease from pigeon droppings lead to lifetime of benefits – Missouri

In Lankford v Newton County an investigator with the county prosecutor’s office would smoke frequently on the courthouse roof, which was a popular place for pigeons. In 2002, he was diagnosed with COPD as a result of ammonia exposure from investigating a meth lab and in December 2007, after undergoing lung surgery, to remove half of his right lung, which contained a nodule that was suspected to be cancerous, he suffered a stroke that left him unable to work.

He filed a workers’ comp claim asserting that he was exposed to pigeon droppings during the course and scope of his employment. Doctors noted that a biopsy of his lung nodule showed the growth contained bacteria and a fungus linked to pigeon droppings. He died of complications and his wife became the claimant. The case was appealed up to the Court of Appeals, but in each case, the award of $167,811.62 in permanent total disability benefits to the deceased worker, as well as more than $500 in lifetime weekly workers compensation benefits to his wife, was approved.

Change in job duties means claim compensable despite pre-existing condition – Missouri

In Clawson v Cassens Transport Company, a union car hauler had a pre-existing knee condition as a result of a work-related accident a few years earlier. After working for 3.5 years after the accident, his workload increased and he began working 6-7 days per week. When he complained of pain in his knee, the employer denied the claim and declined to provide medical treatment. He sought medical treatment on his own, was advised to have surgery and a doctor opined the issue was casually related to the increase in his job duties.

At a hearing, an ALJ found that although there was a pre-existing condition, the prevailing factor in causing his worsening condition was the change/increase in his job duties.

Subcontractor found guilty for worker’s death – Missouri

The U.S. District Court in Kansas City found Pacific-based DNRB Inc., a steel erection company doing business as Fastrack Erectors, guilty in the 2014 death of an employee who fell while working on a warehouse construction project in Kansas City. The court found that “Fastrack was aware of safety violations but willfully ignored them, with tragic results.” Fastrack was a subcontractor to ARCO National Construction – K.C., Inc. and the contract required that personnel who were working or present at heights in excess of six feet shall be provided adequate fall protection and Fastrack failed to do so.

Undocumented worker due comp benefits – New York

A U.S. District Court judge dismissed an insurer’s request to forgo payment of workers’ compensation benefits for an undocumented landscaper’s injury. The insurer, NorGuard Insurance Co., sought a declaratory judgment that it wasn’t obligated to pay medical expenses, indemnity payments or comp benefits because the worker had entered the U.S. illegally.

The court noted that the insurers allegations simply do not “fall within the zone of interests protected by law invoked. Such violations are the concern of the Internal Revenue Service, Homeland Security, and like agencies.”

Opera singer can sue Met for injuries sustained in fall – New York

Finding that her employment contract was with her personal holding company and not the Metropolitan Opera House, an Appellate Court found that a prominent opera singer can sue the famous facility that featured her in over 500 performances. Noting that New York law generally considers a person engaged in the performing arts an employee of the establishment where he or she performed, the exception here was the singer was stipulated to be an employee of another employer. Therefore, the exclusive remedy provisions of workers’ comp do not bar her suit. White v. Metropolitan Opera Assn., Inc., 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 90 (Jan. 5, 2017)

No reason to stop compensating attendant care by wife – North Carolina

In Thompson v. International Paper Co., No. COA15-1383, 01/17/2017, a worker was burned over 23% of his body in a work-related accident. His wife took FMLA leave from her job to care for her husband and, when she returned to work, she arranged her schedule to accommodate his medical needs. While the company accepted the burn injuries as compensable, it denied reimbursement for attendant care services provided by his wife. The full Industrial Commission ruled that attendant care by his wife was unnecessary after Dec. 31, 2012, but the appellate panel disagreed. While the need for care may have lessened, treating physicians had found attendant care was medically necessary.

Futility in finding another job allows continuing benefits – North Carolina

In Neckles v. Teeter, a 68-year-old employee who had moved to the U.S. from the Caribbean island nation of Grenada had worked as a meat cutter and suffered an injury to his lower back, right hip, and right arm and leg for which he was compensated and received temporary total disability. A functional capacity evaluation concluded he couldn’t go back to his job as a meat cutter, but he was capable of a job that required light physical demands, however, a vocational rehabilitation specialist determined it would be difficult for him to get any job.

Three years later, the employer filed a form alleging the worker was no longer disabled. After a series of appeals, the Court of Appeals ruled that the worker should continue to receive TTD benefits and coverage of medical expenses. According to the court, it was necessary to look at the totality of the evidence, including age, education, work experience, work restrictions for the compensable injury, other unrelated health conditions (i.e., diabetes, gout, and angina), and trouble communicating (a thick accent).

IRE that didn’t consider worker’s psyche invalidated – Pennsylvania

A divided Supreme Court ruled that an impairment rating evaluation (IRE) that failed to consider a worker’s psychological injuries from an industrial accident was invalid, noting an IRE doctor must consider all conditions that he or she believes are related to the worker’s injury, not just those that are designated in the notice of compensation payable (the “NCP”.)

In this case, an employee suffered an electric shock and received 104 weeks of temporary total disability benefits at which time the employer requested an IRE. The doctor assigned a 6% permanent impairment rating, but the employee argued his compensable injury included damage to his psyche as well as his hands. A workers’ compensation judge found the worker had adjustment disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder that were compensable consequences of the accident. While the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board and the Commonwealth Court reversed this decision, the Supreme Court overturned their ruling, noting that the IRE doctor must determine the level of impairment and in this case did not assess psychological conditions, nor determine whether those conditions were fairly attributable to the accident. Duffey v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Trola-Dyne, Inc.)

Supreme Court affirms franchisors do not employ their franchisees’ employees – Pennsylvania

In Saladworks, LLC v. W.C.A.B. (Gaudioso), the question revolved around whether the franchisor, Saladworks, was a statutory employer. Under Pennsylvania law, when an employee is unable to recover from its direct employer, the employee can file a workers’ compensation claim against a “statutory employer.” A Workers’ Compensation Judge initially held that Saladworks was not a statutory employer, however, the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board reversed that decision. On appeal, the Commonwealth Court reversed the Board’s decision recognizing the difference between Saladworks’ business model and the business engaged in by its franchisee. The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal, effectively upholding the Commonwealth Court’s decision.

Penny wise and pound foolish: attorney’s fees of $27,000 awarded for $187 medical claim – Tennessee

In Grissom v. UPS, 2017 Tenn. LEXIS 4 (Jan. 9, 2017), the Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel of the Supreme Court affirmed a trial court’s award of attorney’s fees and expenses in the amount of $27,353.63, in connection with an employee’s petition to compel the employer to pay $187 for two trigger point injections. The workers’ compensation carrier had sought a peer utilization review (UR), although it had paid for earlier injections. An authorized physician provided the injections to the injured employee, but the UR provider found the injections unnecessary. Following a hearing, the trial court disagreed.

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Pressure to meet earnings expectations negatively impacts worker safety

New research in the Journal of Accounting and Economics, “Earnings expectations and employee safety” examined the relation between workplace safety and managers’ attempts to meet earnings expectations. The finding: significantly higher injury/illness rates in firms that meet or just beat analyst forecasts compared to firms that miss or comfortably beat analyst forecasts.

Changes in operations or production, specifically increased workloads and abnormal reductions of discretionary expenses, that are meant to increase earnings impacted the number of workplace injuries. The relation between benchmark beating and workplace injuries is stronger when there is less union presence, when workers’ compensation premiums are less sensitive to injury claims, and among firms with less government business.

Employer takeaway: When pressure is applied on managers to meet earning expectations, they can detract from safety by increasing workloads, hours, speed of workflow or cutting corners. Contrast these findings to a study published in the January 2016 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM), that found 17 publicly held companies with strong health and/or safety programs significantly outperformed other companies in the stock market. Two additional studies also found that financially sound, high-performing companies invest in employee health and safety. Rather than deviate from normal business practices to meet earnings expectations in the short-term, these companies have an ongoing, long-term commitment to a healthy and safe workforce that tangibly contributes to the bottom line.

For Cutting-Edge Strategies on Managing Risks and slashing Insurance Costs visit www.StopBeingFrustrated.com

HR Tip: Incivility at work begets incivility to co-workers: study

Lack of civil behavior in the workplace can cause employees to experience mental fatigue and strike back, with negative consequences for employees’ well-being and companies’ bottom-lines, according to a study from Michigan State University. Researchers tested how experiencing incivility precipitates instigating incivility towards others at work via reduced self-control.

People who are recipients of incivility at work feel mentally fatigued and lack the energy to suppress terse or impatient responses to colleagues. It is primarily a problem in work environments that are perceived to be political, when intentions and motives are less clear.

To combat incivility spirals, which can cost employers an estimated $14,000 per worker annually in lost workdays and lost productivity, researchers said employers should provide clear feedback about appropriate workplace behaviors. This can be accomplished informally by enhancing the quality of feedback provided during day-to-day interactions, as well as formally through the performance management process.

The findings also may have ramifications for worker safety. According to NIOSH documents, although more research is needed, “there is a growing concern that stressful working conditions interfere with safe work practices and set the stage for injuries at work.”

The study was published in June in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

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HR Tip: Employee happiness enhances productivity and the bottom line

A new study by health and performance experts Global Corporate Challenge (GCC) confirms the role emotions play in business, and that happiness is critical for productivity and talent retention. While employee happiness can reap rewards for employers, the workplace doesn’t seem to be promoting it. A joint study by the University of Sussex and the London School of Economics found that being at work reduced employee happiness by up to 8 percent – second only to being sick. And more than half of U.S. employees (68 percent) are disengaged, according to Gallup.

Psychological health can impact physical health as well as attitude. Disengaged workers are not hostile or disruptive, but they do the minimal amount of work required, rarely put in extra effort, and are less vigilant. They are also more likely to miss work and look for other jobs. They’re thinking about lunch or what to do after work, rather than better ways to do their job or how to move the company forward.

GCC’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Batman urged employers to look for signs of discontent long before they spiral into resignations. Quoted in an EHS Today article, he said, “Interpersonal relationships often provide key insights into whether employees are happy or not. So leaders should look around their teams; if there’s a continual lack of collaboration, or tension and conflict, then these may be signs that all isn’t well… So just as workplace wellbeing strategies create opportunities to manage stress and improve psychological wellbeing, so too should they provide opportunities to be positive.” Reflecting on achievement, practicing gratitude and saying thanks are small things, Batman acknowledged, but he added, “Our findings show they add up to a big difference.”

The Germanwings tragedy: challenges of mental illness in the workplace

When a young airline pilot with a history of depression deliberately crashed a Germanwings plane in the French Alps, it stunned the world. It also put the spotlight on a dilemma that has confounded employers and mental health professionals for years: how to balance the employer’s obligation to keep the workplace safe with the worker’s right to medical privacy and disability accommodation.

In spite of education efforts and increased awareness, mental health issues are still treated differently than physical disabilities. Yet, mental illness results in more lost days than back pain and arthritis. Some of the issues facing employers include: persistent workplace stigma, concern for violating workers’ rights, limited use of screening, poor use of fitness for duty exams, and return to work reliance on primary care physicians.

Workplace issues

  • Workplace stigma
    According to a recent study by the Disability Management Employer Coalition (DMEC), from 2012 to 2014 there has been an increase in the percentage of employers that believe workplace stigma surrounding diagnosed psychological or psychiatric disorders is growing. The executive director indicated that the report shows ” …stigma in the workplace is at higher levels than it’s ever been.”

    The issue is particularly difficult because it extends beyond the workplace. As a society there is much misunderstanding about behavioral health issues, treatment possibilities, and successful outcomes. As a result of the stigma, many workers are unwilling to disclose information or seek help for fear of losing their job. Less than a third of them receive treatment, according to the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health.

  • Concern for violating workers’ rights
    While it is the employer’s responsibility to make sure workers are fit for duty and can perform their duties without creating a risk of harm to themselves and others, the employer cannot violate workers’ rights under federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). A decision earlier this year from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania illustrates the dilemma facing employers. In Walton v. Spherion Staffing LLC, an employee who was terminated three weeks after he told his supervisor that he was having homicidal thoughts and asked for help protecting others in the workplace from him, and also requested that someone call his parents and the police, was allowed to proceed with his disability discrimination claims. Although the company could have made better decisions in handling of the case, including responding promptly, offering paid medical leave, and requesting a fitness-for-duty evaluation, the decision rattled some employers.

    Even more difficult is when the employer does not know whether an employee really is a threat and a common propensity is to do nothing.

  • Limited use of screening
    According to the DMEC report, the use of screening for underlying psychological or psychosocial issues is used by a little less than one-third of employers and more than one-half do not screen at all for stress, anxiety, substance abuse, depression, or child/spousal/senior abuse. The most prevalent method used to identify “at risk” workers experiencing a work absence due to a psychiatric disability is self-reporting or claims.

    It is interesting to note that workers’ compensation (at 43.7%) was the most common area employers screened in 2014.

  • Poor use of fit for duty exams
    Fitness for duty exams are used following a conditional offer of employment, when a written, consistently applied fitness-for-duty policy allows the employer to order a physical and/or mental health evaluation of a worker when a problem is identified, and the exam is job-related and based on business necessity.

    While the exams can be helpful, several issues exist. First, hiring departments are often separate from safety departments and there is no communication or follow up about the pre-employment exam. There can be important information about an employees’ problematic behavior in one part of the organization that is not shared. Second, some legal counsels are wary of the exams, unless required by law, because they can conflict with laws such as the ADA. Third, once a pre-employment assessment is satisfactorily passed there is no guarantee that the employees’ behavior will remain appropriate over the lifetime of their employment. Very few employers require continuous, routine checkups so it is easy for an employee to evade detection. Fourth, due to patient privacy rights, employers don’t have access to a worker’s diagnosis or treatment plan.

    Yet, the exams can be valuable in determining whether an employee does pose a threat.A recent California court decision, White v. County of Los Angeles, concluded that requesting a fitness for duty examination after an employee has been reinstated from an approved FMLA leave is within an employer’s purview and does not violate the employee’s FMLA rights, so long as the fitness for duty exam is job-related and based on business necessity. An objective reason for questioning the worker’s release to return to work and compliance with all other laws is critical.

  • Return to work reliance on physicians
    Although the DMEC report notes that return to work (RTW) efforts are becoming more formalized and interactive, the most significant barrier to RTW initiatives for behavioral health issues is employees relying on their primary care physician rather than seeking treatment with a mental health professional.

What can be done?

To support employees with mental illnesses, the National Mental Health Association and the National Council for Behavioral Health recommend the following actions:

  • Work to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness
    Creating a culture where workers feel comfortable sharing their illness and getting treatment is key. Mental illness is real, common, and treatable. As the suicide of the beloved actor, Robin Williams, painfully reminded us mental illness can affect anyone, regardless of their age, wealth, status or apparent disposition.

    Encourage workers to talk about stress, workload, family commitments and other issues in a way that they don’t feel something is wrong with them. It helps to educate workers that they may be entitled to leave under FMLA and that they may seek help through the company’s employee assistance program. Early detection and treatment of mental illness can prevent a crisis and reduce employers’ health care costs.

  • Educate workers about the signs and symptoms of mental illness
    Colleagues can be afraid of what they don’t understand and may avoid employees with psychiatric disorders or inadvertently make the situation worse. Education is critical on identifying the signs, knowing the right things to say, and the resources that are available. Yet, employees should never attempt to diagnose peers, so a carefully planned program is essential.

    As one example, DuPont’s Employee Assistance Program developed The ICU Program, which includes a five-minute video that teaches employees about emotional health and how to assist peers.

  • Help employees transition back to work after they take leave
    RTW programs should recognize the needs of those who are returning from mental health leave in the same thorough manner that they address those returning from physical injuries.
  • Invest in mental health benefits and resources

Other steps include:

  • Making thorough background and reference checks and assessment tools part of pre-employment screening
  • A systematic approach to intervention ranging from supervisor to HR to a referral to EAP to Fitness for Duty assessment to leave to return to work
  • Expert professional guidance, including legal and mental health professionals

 

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