Workers’ comp hospital costs – implications for payers

WCRI’s report on variations in hospital outpatient costs is yet more evidence of the wide and seemingly nonsensical variations in work comp regulations, fees, payments, and practices among and between states.

Among the findings:

  • an eight-fold variation in costs from the lowest-cost state – NY – to the highest – AL.
  • Shockingly, fee schedule states’ costs are a LOT lower than non-fee schedule state costs.
  • Costs in percentage-of-charge fee schedule states were much higher than those in states with Medicare-based fee schedules.

There’s a wealth of information in the report; here’s my takeaways.

Captain Obvious Alert.

In many states, workers’ comp is a huge profit generator for hospitals and health care systems.  Anyone following the drama in Florida surrounding “negotiations” around facility reimbursement in past years saw this play out in vivid color.

Hospitals are almost always much more politically influential than workers’ comp stakeholders, giving them a decided advantage in influencing legislation, and sometimes regulation as well.

As Medicaid and Medicare continue to clamp down on costs, hospitals and health care systems will get even better at maximizing revenue from workers’ comp.  Moreover, network discounts provided to workers’ comp payers are fading as payers realize the opportunity inherent in comp, and work comp PPO contractors confront the “yeah but you’re only 1 percent of my revenue” argument.

There is an entire industry devoted to revenue maximization; claims adjusters and bill review folks would be well-served to brush up on the techniques used by these folks. Here’s just a couple examples from quick research…

Considering the dollars paid to facilities and hospitals account for at least a third of work comp medical spend in most states, this is a big problem.

So, what to do?

  1. Analyze your data! Where are you spending your dollars – by state, facility, employer.
  2. Compare it to WCRI’s information – not just in this report, but the others these brilliant researchers have produced
  3. Direct, channel, refer – even in states where you don’t have an absolute right to “direct”, you CAN influence where your patients go to get care.
  4. Find and work with a medical bill review specialist with expertise in the specific states of most concern.
  5. Get creative – talk to your adjusters with long and deep experience to find out what works and what doesn’t.

Kudos to WCRI’s Olesya Fomenko and Rui Yang for their work – they’ve taken a shipload of data and turned it into information that’s understandable  – and actionable.

Tuesday update

Not to rub it into my friends and colleagues who are “working” in Orlando this week, but here in Montana it is 73, dry, sunny, and the mountain views are spectacular. Of course, flying into Bozeman isn’t nearly as…challenging as the obstacle course of strollers, elderly folks (my mom is 95, so don’t flame me), clueless travelers, little-kids-running-in-circles and mouse-hat-wearing families that is MCO.

While the attendees at the Montana Governor’s Conference on Workers’ Compensation won’t be partying to ThirdEyeBlind, these westerners have just as much fun at their annual confab as anyone.  Some have even more.  Film at 11.

I’m sure Bob Wilson will report back after his keynote talk here tomorrow; in what might well be a preview of the Clinton:Trump debate the esteemed WorkCompKing and I will be on the stage discussing matters of great import.  As we are the last session before the cocktail hour, don’t expect us to run long.

On to more serious matters.  And not much is more serious than the goings-on in California these days.

In California, we’ve learned that a big chunk of the liens filed are the work of individuals convicted or criminally indicted.  A total of $600 million in liens fall into this category, with a total of $2.5 billion – yes, that’s with a “B” – filed by “68 businesses comprising the top one percent of lien filers [who] filed more than 273,000 liens totaling $2.5 billion in accounts receivable on adjudicated cases between 2013 and 2015.” 

The Department of Industrial Relations’ summary goes on to note:

The assignment of liens by service providers to those who file and collect on liens are, in essence, the buying and selling of injured workers’ treatments and fertile ground for presenting fraudulent claims.  DIR’s review of filing dates indicates that lien claimants tend to wait until after the primary case is settled rather than seeking early resolution of medical necessity.

My interpretation – these scam artists are waiting to file until AFTER the claim is settled because they know full well the fiduciary just wants the damn thing to go away, doesn’t have the resources to fight each and every lien, and is better off paying off these crooks than fighting them.

These people add no value, deliver no service, help no one, and want to get paid for it.  

Here’s hoping California’s legislature jumps on this issue, prohibits lien filing by criminals and for denied claims.  Time is short…

Staying west for a minute, the fine folk at CWCI (Stacy Jones in specific) just published their evaluation of medical fees post-reform.  A main takeaway:

The amount of the reductions [below pre-reform utilization levels] varied by the type of care, ranging from 11.4% for radiology services to 49.5% for medicine services (comprised primarily of ancillary services such as cardiovascular, nerve and muscle testing, and psychiatric testing and psychotherapy), with an overall reduction of 17.7% in all medical services. At the same time, changes in total amounts paid under the schedule ranged from a 44.9% reduction in medicine services to a 12.7% increase in physical medicine services, for a net reduction of 14.3% in payments for all services. [emphasis added]

The implication is this – adoption of Medicare’s fee schedule has increased the volume of and reimbursement for cognitive services – talking with patients, rehabbing patients – and a reduction in payments for doing stuff TO patients; MRIs, nerve tests and the like.

This is good.

Thanks to CWCI’s Bob Young for the info and background.


The systems folks who do all the IT work on ManagedCareMatters updated our WordPress to the latest version last week, which led to a deluge of bounced emails from former subscribers with dead email accounts.  I’ve been ever-so-slowly cleaning up the subscriber list: this is a highly manual process, requires individually deleting a lot of addresses, and I’m absolutely sure I’ve screwed up and deleted addresses I shouldn’t have.

So, sorry about that.

This is going to take a little while, and in the interim I’m not going to be able to post as often as I’d like.  Hope to get this cleared up by the weekend, or I’m stuck sitting in front of a computer while my lovely bride and friends cavort on the lake.


Opioids – the cost of the drug isn’t the problem.

Opioid Dependence Leads To ‘Tsunami’ Of Medical Services, Study Finds

That’s the headline for a study that you – dear reader – need to read.

Here’s why – “Medical services for people with opioid dependence diagnoses skyrocketed more than 3,000 percent between 2007 and 2014.”

And that’s for privately insured people.  Based on research covering 150 million insureds, the report indicates the problem is particularly severe for younger men (19 – 35 year olds in particular).

We’ve all hypersensitive to the societal and personal cost of opioids, the Fair Health research is proof positive that the dollar cost of the drug itself is the least of the cost issues; dependency is strongly associated with much higher utilization of drug testing, overdose treatment, office visits and (my assumption) higher usage of other drugs intended to address side effects of opioids.

What does this mean for you?

Three thousand percent means you can’t afford to NOT address opioid addiction and dependency.


Work comp drug spend is going down

On average payers’ drug spend dropped 6.5% from 2014 to 2015.

And the bigger payers saw bigger reductions, with several cutting spend by double digits.

Those are the results for 30 large and mid-sized work comp payers I surveyed for CompPharma’s annual Prescription Benefit Management in Workers’ Compensation Survey.  State funds, large and mid-sized insurers, TPAs, self-insured trusts, and very large employers all participated in this, the 13th annual Survey.

The big question is – why?

Before we jump into that, allow me to address a potential criticism of payers’ drug management efforts.  This reduction is NOT because payers want to prevent their patients from getting the care they need.  Rather, payers – and their PBM partners – are focusing on ensuring patients get the drugs they need quickly and with minimal hassle, while blocking potentially problematic drugs.

This effort has paid off in the near term in lower costs for employers and taxpayers, and will almost certainly result in quicker healing and return to functionality; patients who don’t get unnecessary opioids get better a lot faster than patients prescribed these dangerous and often-misused drugs.

The Survey report, which will be out in August, will have details.  At this point in our analysis, several drivers seem to be at play here.

By far the most significant is the depth and breadth of pharmacy clinical management programs now in place at most payers.  The vast majority of payers rely on their PBM partners for most clinical management functions, with responsibility delegated to PBMs for some/most/all functions including:

  • patient enrollment
  • formulary development and management
  • prior authorization
  • pharmacist review of claims
  • prescriber outreach and follow-up
  • peer review and interaction
  • reporting
  • high cost claim assessment and intervention

This is somewhat unique in the work comp medical management world.  Unlike surgery, hospitalization, and other service types, most payers have delegated pharmacy management to PBMs.  There are several reasons for this.

  • Unlike other medical services, pharmacy is highly automated, requiring a unique electronic communication capability and expertise to accept, approve, process, and pay for the service.
  • Few payers want to invest the funds and management resources necessary to effectively manage pharmacy.  With the continued focus on reducing administrative expenses, overhead is an evil word at most insurers, so outsourcing it just makes financial sense.
  • PBMs have a lot more knowledge about pharmacy management as this is their core business.  Insurers, TPAs, and state funds have many other priorities on their collective plate, priorities that most view as more central to their core business.  They are insurers and claims handlers, not pharmacists.

That said, a handful of large payers have internalized pharmacy management – hiring pharmacists and nurses, instituting workflows specific to drug authorization, focusing on long-term opioid users, and tightening up drug formularies and approval processes.  These entities are also seeing solid payback on that investment, with costs dropping by double digits for these big payers too.

A final point that bears consideration.

Work comp PBMs, most of which are members of CompPharma (I am president of CompPharma), are doing a really good job and thereby reducing their income and profits.

They do this because this is how they win additional business; their value proposition is to ensure patients get the right medications and don’t get the wrong ones.

What does this mean for you?

PBMs are getting it done.

Work comp pharmacy – different indeed

The US spent $322 billion on outpatient drugs in 2015 – an 8.1% increase over the year before. (subscription required)

Over the next decade, CMS expects drug spending increases to outpace overall health care inflation by a significant margin at an average annual jump of 6.7%.

Things look remarkably different in the work comp world.

I’ve been surveying workers’ comp payers (insurers, state funds, TPAs, and large employers) for 13 years and the latest data indicates most are seeing a year-over-year decrease in drug spend.  I haven’t finished aggregating the data and checking the details, but this year looks like a continuation of the decreasing drug cost trend we’ve seen over the last several years (past Surveys available here).

More than 2/3rds of payers surveyed reported a drop in drug costs in 2015, and those that saw increases usually cited unique situations as primary drivers for those increases. Conversely, payers with decreases generally attributed their success to the same factors:

  • a strong focus on clinical management 
  • particular attention paid to opioid usage
  • ongoing, concerted effort to drive generic utilization

One other key driver – payers that work closely with PBMs on a variety of programs – retail network penetration, high risk patient identification, peer review, and outlier-prescriber outreach are seeing significantly better results.

I would note that work comp PBMs are spending a lot of money and resources to cut their revenues.  [I am president of CompPharma, a consortium of worker’s comp PBMs]

While there’s no question work comp can learn a lot from group health and other payers, the remarkable success workers comp payers have had in reducing the utilization of opioids shows that Medicaid and group health could and should carefully study what we’ve been doing.

What does this mean for you?

We are making progress, and work comp PBMs are leading the way.


Workers’ comp fast facts

Over the last few years I’ve had quite a few calls and meetings with folks in the investment community  looking to get up to speed on the workers’ comp industry and various aspects thereof.

While the volume of calls ebbs and flows, of late there’s been increasing interest, likely due to the credit market’s interest in OneCall Care Management and other transactions.

So, here are some key datapoints for anyone looking for basic information.

  1. Total workers’ comp premium and equivalents is about $85 billion.  That includes insurance premiums from private carriers and state funds, claims, administrative, and excess insurance costs for self-insureds, governmental programs e.g. FECA, and claims costs for minimum-premium or other “deductible” type insurance plans.
  2. Workers’ comp medical costs will be about $33 billion this year.
  3. That’s about 1.25% of total US medical spend.
  4. Medical costs account for about 60% of claims expense, with indemnity expense accounting for the remainder. (adding administrative costs to claim costs gets you close to total WC premium and equivalents)
  5. Claim frequency has been dropping by about 2-3% per year for more than two decades.  That will almost certainly continue.
  6. Drug costs will account for around 15-17% of that spend, with physical medicine in the same ballpark.
  7. Most states have some sort of medical fee schedule (FS) in place, however there’s MUCH variation among and between the states.  Some only have provider FS, others have provider, drug, facility, DME and other services covered by fee schedules.
  8. Almost all provider fee schedules are based on Medicare.  However, few states directly link their FS to Medicare, so when Medicare’s FS changes, it may – or more likely may not – change that state’s reimbursement.

There’s a lot more here; if you are looking for more information, try the search box on this page – it’s up there to the right.  With about 3000 posts on MCM, chances are pretty good there’s some discussion of pretty much every comp-related topic.

btw, good sources are: – see the workers compensation tab – everything workers’ comp – California-specific – their Annual State of the Line is really good.

We don’t need no stinkin’ science!

I think we’ve figured out why, in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary, plaintiff attorneys in California continue to argue the work comp system mis-serves a large number of workers’ comp patients.  

Before we delve into this, allow me to stipulate that many applicant attorneys are likely well-intentioned, seeking to do good, and may well believe that a lot of work comp patients are ill-served by the work comp system.  Since they only talk with work comp patients that have complaints, that would not be surprising.  And, a relatively few work comp patients are, indeed, ill-served by the system for a variety of reasons – a bad employer and/or boss, crappy doctor, under-trained and/or over-worked claims adjuster – even a lousy attorney.

That said, it appears their representative organization, the California Applicant Attorneys’ Association, is not conversant with research methodology, processes, or statistics – and that’s why they don’t understand that the work comp system is working pretty well.

I draw this conclusion after reading an article entitled “Calling all Applicants: The Injured Worker Survey” from a July 2016 CAAA publication. In the piece, author Richard Meechan argues:

“Nothing makes sense – up is down and they (the Committee on Health and Safety and Workers’ Compensation, or CHSWC) have graphs and charts to prove it.”  

The “Injured Worker Survey” Mr Meechan refers to will apparently enable the CAAA to:

“see how the system is working for the most seriously injured workers.  That would be workers that were out of work for more than a year, our clients, to be more exact.”

This is because the CAAA apparently doesn’t (want to) believe the myriad research studies published by research organizations about injured worker outcomes and related matters.

If you, dear reader, are puzzled by this, allow me to explain. Careful and valid data analysis by experts examining credible data sets can be, and often is, translated into “graphs and charts” to help the non-statistically-endowed understand what is really going on.

In the article, Meechan states he is skeptical of research finding “95 percent of medical requests were approved and that injured workers were satisfied with their medical treatment.”  That skepticism resulted in the CAAA’s enlistment of three attorneys to help the CAAA committee on Health and Safety figure out how to “respond” to these “tales” (referring to the research presented at CHSWC meetings).

While I could find no evidence that any of the enlistees have an educational or experiential background in statistics, statistical analysis, business analysis, the physical sciences, or operations management (heavy in analytics), one of the three did study economics back in the nineteen-sixties. This isn’t to denigrate the trio, rather to contrast their relatively modest scientific research and statistical analysis credentials with those of folks who actually do research.  Like CWCI. And WCRI. And RAND.

Using SurveyMonkey, the CAAA is conducting their “survey” and will likely publish “results” in an attempt to show the information presented at CHSWC meetings, based on reams of research published after hundreds of hours invested in very sophisticated analytical processes employing highly-refined datasets and tested methodologies vetted by actual, real, live, statisticians with decades of experience and darned impressive credentials in data analysis and everything that goes into it is, well, wrong.  

And CAAA will do this based on responses from an on-line, open access survey with no data validation or proof that you are actually an “Injured Worker” needed.

Hey, you can try it yourself, here.

So here’s where the problem lies.

In the article, Mr Meechan notes that fewer than one percent (33) of the 3700+ survey responses asserted they had been out of work for a year or more. Apparently that is concerning. Mr Meechan asks others to help get the word out, as “one hundred responses is the gold standard for surveys and we are short.”

That single statement demonstrates a complete lack of of even a basic understanding of statistics.  Mr Meechan is apparently confusing statistical validity with an arbitrary “gold standard”.  Further, there’s an assumption that all that is needed is 100 SurveyMonkey responses from respondents who claim to have been injured and out of work for more than a year, and he and his associates will have what they need to refute all that science stuff CHSWC throws up there on the screen.

As anyone who has one day of stats knows, without valid underlying data to start with, the whole exercise is pointless.

More directly, garbage in, garbage out.

And in this case, the underlying data is, indeed, meaningless. A gazillion monkeys could be typing away and deliver lots of “results”. Some whizkid could figure out how to program a bot to fill them out with no human intervention at all.  More prosaically, a bunch of law clerks could earn some extra hours banging away on laptops or iPads completing SurveyMonkey surveys.

In this instance it is indeed possible that some or most of the respondents at some point had an encounter with the work comp system. Or not.

I belabor this point not to embarrass the attorneys, for that is NOT my intent. Rather it is to point out an obvious conclusion:

As reform opponents think that a SurveyMonkey random survey will be more valid than real research studies conducted by experts, we now know why “nothing makes sense” to them.

They don’t have a clue.

They are totally, fundamentally, and blindingly ignorant of even the most rudimentary statistical terms and concepts.


Note – I don’t have a link to the original article.  sorry – ask CAAA for your copy.

Work comp pharmacy – early results of 2016 Survey

I’m up to my eyeballs in the 13th (!!) Annual Survey of Prescription Drug Management in Workers’ Compensation; the response from payers willing to devote time to the project has been gratifying indeed.

Previous Survey reports are available here; note these are the Public versions; respondents get a much more detailed and comprehensive version.

A bit of background first.  I conduct these surveys telephonically, speaking to the individual at the insurer/self-insured employer/state fund/TPA/trust who is directly responsible for the pharmacy program. In addition to asking their opinions and views, we get data on a variety of key metrics including:

  • drug spend for 2015 and 2014
  • opioid spend for 2015
  • compound drug volume
  • generic fill and efficiency rates
  • mail order usage

A few early findings.

  1. Pharmacy continues to be seen as more important than other medical ost areas, primarily due to the “downstream” effects of opioids on claim duration, return to work, and related pharmacy spend.
  2. Most respondents are seeing a decline in drug spend.  This is a bit of a surprise, as national research suggests drug costs are going up.  A possible explanation is that (most of) these payers are pretty sophisticated, have been working diligently on pharmacy issues for years, and most (but certainly not all) have employed a variety of programs to reduce unnecessary use of potentially dangerous drugs.
  3. The percentage of spend that goes to opioids varies greatly, from around 21% to over 50%.  Some of this is due to regional or state differences, but much is not. Much more to dig into here.
  4. Mail order continues to be woefully under-used, with most respondents reporting penetration rates in the low single digits.  Argh.
  5. Compound drugs are seen as highly problematic and payers have a wide variety of programs/efforts/mechanisms in place to address compounds.

Much more to come; when the Survey Report is done I’ll post a link.

Enjoy the weekend!


Monday catch-up

Summer’s arrived in upstate New York – and boy do we appreciate it. While I was watching all the trees turn green, I missed reporting on a bunch of stuff last week.

So better late than never, here it is.

P&C industry outlook

Let’s start with the macro stuff.  A couple weeks back, Fitch published a piece wherein they opined the P&C industry is in for a tough time this year. After several years of stellar performance, Fitch expects prices to decrease as competitors battle for market share. Here’s how they put it:

Renewal rates are flat or declining for most commercial market segments following a hardened market from 2011-2014. The price competition comes from underwriting success and market capacity expansion from earnings accumulation. As price competition intensifies however, this will likely be a drag on premium growth, according to Fitch. Commercial lines written premium volume grew by only 1.8 percent in 2015.

For work comp, Fitch identified prescription drug costs and continued low interest rates as problematic; the first increases costs while the second reduces investment income.


The number of opioid scripts in the US actually declined last year. And that was the third year in a row. That’s the best news we’ve heard in quite a while. Since 2012 – the peak year for opioid script volume – the number of scripts has dropped by 12% – 18% (depending on the data source).  

In case you’re interested, prescription opioids accounted for about $10 billion in total spend in 2015. Workers comp accounted for around 14% of that, a rather striking figure when you consider total work comp medical spend accounts for 1.4% of overall US medical spend.

Yup, work comp uses about ten times more opioids than other payers.

And how the bad news; the drop in scripts hasn’t been accompanied by a decrease in the death count, which stands at 28,000 for 2014.

California Workers’ Comp

Well, at least it hasn’t gotten any worse.  That’s my take on the just-released CWCI study on the UR/IMR process for Q1 2016.

  • IMR volume is about the same as last year at 160,000 determination letters per year;
  • the overall IMR uphold rate is the same as last year at 89%;
  • Rx drug requests still account for nearly half of all disputed medical service requests submitted for IMR (and 40% of the Rx drug IMRs are requests for opioids or compound meds);
  • and a small number of docs still account for the majority of the disputed  service request that undergo IMR (the top 10% of medical providers accounted for more than ¾ of the IMR service requests).  

My take – the IMR process is preventing people who don’t need opioids from getting scripts for opioids.  That’s a very, very good thing.  Yet the same docs keep prescribing this crap to patients knowing full well these requests will be rejected.

I’m very much looking forward to hearing all those “injured worker advocates” heaping praise upon the system for protecting their clients’ health and wellbeing, and that of their kids as well.

I’ll personally nominate each of them for a Comp Laude Award.

What’s with the gloom and doom?

“The economy seems to pulse — surges a little bit, pauses, surges a little bit, pauses,” said Kevin Logan, chief U.S. economist at HSBC. “And in the end it’s nothing.”

That’s the money quote from a very readable piece in today’s Washington Post, one that seems at odds with the doom and gloom emanating from some politicians and pundits.

Before my inbox overflows with tales of woe, I fully understand there are places where the recovery is halting at best.  And there are still too many who have decided to exit the workforce – although the number isn’t nearly as high as many think.

And, the percentage of the population that is without health insurance continues to decline – down to 11.0% in Q1, 2016. Deductibles are increasing for many – as they have for the last two decades – but it’s still far better to be insured than not.

Wage growth has increased, the unemployment rate is half what it was at the peak of the recession (and likely headed lower), manufacturing is growing, consumer spending is high, and most stock market indices remain relatively high.  Consumer confidence is in a six-month slump, but one wonders if that’s partially driven by the incessant drumbeat of negativity from Trump et al.

All that said, it’s abundantly clear the employment world is going to change dramatically over the next decade, and it is possible if not likely some of the unease is due to fears that automation and offshoring will continue to eliminate stable, good-paying jobs.

I bring this to your attention, dear reader, to add a bit of perspective and data to the discussion.

Enjoy the first weekend in June