Seven out of ten work comp adjusters say…

Senior Associate Jack Johnston joins us again, getting us up to speed on his research into work comp adjusters -

Over the past month or so I’ve been doing research on the claims adjuster profession to get a better understanding of what adjusters like, don’t like, and what their managers can do better – both in improving the adjuster’s lot and the companies they work for. From what I’ve gathered from various online sources, for the most part, adjusters aren’t the happiest, most fulfilled workers.

Gathering information from general websites such as www.glassdoor.com and adjuster-specific websites – www.claimspages.com, www.adjusterspace.org, and fromoneadjustertoanother.ning.com has produced a few positives and a lot of negatives.  Here’s what adjusters have to say about their job and the company they work for:

The Good:

Among those with good things to say, when it came to the pros a lot of them talked about the good benefits they received.  Getting paid during time off and having a 401k; can’t complain about that!  Another somewhat common pro was the flexibility of the work schedule.  Some adjusters stated that if they were doing well enough with work, they could get permission to work from home.  Other adjuster work-life positives included satisfaction with their compensation and the enjoyable camaraderie with co-workers.

The Bad & the Ugly:

While there were a lot of different complaints listed in the many sites I was researching, there were a handful that popped up repeatedly.

Let’s start with caseloads.  There seems to be a ridiculous number of cases handled by some adjusters, forcing them to work overtime (which they don’t get paid for).  Overall, most adjusters appear to be overworked; common complaints included: we are “always behind on work” and “There was an enormous amount of work that is expected of everyone, and it can be very defeating to have most of your days end without a feeling of accomplishment. (sic)” 

Even if an adjuster is doing a good job in the office (or at home), s/he probably shouldn’t expect much of a reward.  Promotions are scarce and raises tend to be paltry, with most getting a 1-2% increase (and that’s only if you are lucky enough to be given a raise).  The lack of ability to move up in the organization has upset many of the adjusters as they feel they aren’t rewarded for the work they put in with the heavy caseloads they deal with every day.

A fair amount of reviewers I read complained that instead of promoting within their company, the firm would hire someone from an outside company and place them in the higher position.  That’s a low blow to the employees who have been working there for years, expecting their effort and loyalty to lead to more responsibility and more income only to see the new person get the job.

Another common complaint is that managers are not qualified and don’t do a good job providing feedback to adjusters.  The adjusters never receive compliments or congratulations and are always told what they are doing wrong and how much more work they have to do.  They complain that they are not trained enough to handle some of their cases efficiently and they also feel that their offices are understaffed.  The adjusters want upper management to be realistic.

Conclusion:

I understand that this is certainly not the voice of all of the claims adjusters in the workers’ comp world but this is what I’ve found.  Websites like www.glassdoor.com can be easily accessed and false information, positive or negative, can be posted by bad actors. 

With that said, 69.2% of adjusters on the glassdoor website would not recommend their job to a friend.

Summary:

  • Adjusters like their benefits, salary, and co-workers… for the most part.
  • Schedules can be flexible (can work from home with permission).
  • No raises, room for growth, and no pay for working OT.
  • Overworked, large caseloads.
  • Always behind on work.
  • Lack of feedback from upper management.
  • And perhaps the most telling quote – “Run, do not work here”

Health care cost trends – a new tool

With 18% of the economy driven by health care, cost inflation rates are vitally important. A just-released white paper reviews a new approach to measuring health cost inflation rates that will help employers, health plans, and workers comp payers assess overall trends, compare their experience to a benchmark, and forecast where things are headed.

The research, conducted by S&P/Dow Jones uses a series of indices to break out various cost areas.  The white paper is available for free here; while the statisticians amongst us (that does not include your faithful author) will find much to geek out over, this amateur’s take is:

  • the methodology is sound and carefully constructed;
  • it uses payment data from commercial health plans representing about 40% of all enrollees;
  • the data is from fee-for-service plans;
  • it is state- and in many cases area-specific; and
  • it provides details on medical, inpatient, outpatient, pharmacy (brand and generic).

Any input from real analysts on the indices would be more than welcome.

Here are a few of the key highlights from the initial edition, which includes data from Feb 2010 to April 2013.

  • Overall trend has been at or below 5 percent since August of 2010
  • Trend as of April 2013 was about 4.3 percent
  • Drug trend has been bouncing between 0 percent (!) and 2 percent since October 2010, with brand cost showing much less fluctuation while generic inflation was at 15 percent when last measured.
  • Hospital trend is consistently 3 to 4 points higher than professional services trend
  • There’s a LOT of interstate variation; for example as of February 2013, IL trend was around 1 percent while Texas’ was about 4.75 percent.

What does this mean for you?

All in all, a very valuable addition to the toolset available for regulators, businesses, and health plans.

Medical marijuana in work comp – take a deep breath, folks…

Sorry, no pun intended.  Not suggesting you inhale, but rather take a step back before you get all excited about a single court case.

Finally, there’s an actual real live bona fide true factual documented report of medical marijuana (MM) paid for by work comp.  To date, there’s been much speculation, a lot of pixels published, and way too much hot air – but now we have our first – and as far as I can tell only – time a work comp payer has been told to pay for MM.

Let the floodgates open.

Or perhaps not.

Our industry loves to hyperventilate endlessly on newly-emerging-highly-unlikely-but-really-scary cost drivers.  Medical marijuana, obesity, an aging population have had their day in the virtual sun, and although the latter two are worth discussing, the reality is the research indicates they just aren’t that much of a factor.

But now, a court in New Mexico has said an insurer has to pay for marijuana.  Thanks to the pros at WorkCompCentral, the case, Vialpando v. Ben’s Automotive Service and Redwood Fire & Casualty, is now on the tip of everyone’s tongue.  The claimant’s attorney is telling insurers to contract with marijuana dispensaries (!), others are opining the “floodgates” will open, and friend Mark Pew is advising employers to implement drug-free workplaces.

Before we spend a lot of time and energy on this, let’s consider the real world.

There is little credible research indicating medical marijuana is an effective treatment for pain.  Yes, there is some evidence that in relatively small populations MM has been beneficial, however they aren’t large enough, nor objective enough, to provide convincing proof.  Notably, it is difficult for researchers to study a Schedule I drug, and that has undoubtedly hampered the process.  Despite that limitation, over 40 studies have been conducted, and according to Medscape; “The majority of the studies showed an improvement in pain relief in comparison to a placebo or to other traditional pain medications. About a quarter of the studies showed no improvement.”

When one digs into the research, there’s quite a bit of variation in the study design, the pain type, duration, measurement methodology and assessment process making it difficult if not impossible to come up with an overall sense of efficacy or effectiveness. Some research even indicates THC can increase sensitivity to some types of pain.

THC – the most studied active ingredient in marijuana – has been studied extensively, with mixed results.  In a relativecly-small study of advanced-stage cancer patients, some subjects become highly agitated and anxious after ingesting THC orally.  Others reacted differently, and to varying degrees.

All that said, I could not locate any large-scale, double-blind randomized control studies addressing the effect of MM on pain.  The studies tend to be small, deal with discrete groups of volunteers (hey, want to get paid to get high?), and focus on one specific type of pain (neuropathic the most common, where the effect of MM seems to be pretty significant).

Does MM offer a possibly-better-alternative to opioids?  Absolutely.  Does it come with its own set of problems?  Absolutely: about 10 percent of users may become “addicted”; others experience very high anxiety levels; it certainly can be diverted.

What does this mean for you?

Until and unless there is credible research and a clear understanding of the risks and potential benefits of medical marijuana, we won’t see widespread – or even very little – use in workers’ comp.  Schedule I status, problematic side effects, social stigma, and legal issues are all major barriers – and will remain so.

Okay, let’s get back to real issues.

BTW, kudos to WCC; the article is comprehensive, well-researched, and provides a solid background on the overall issue as well as an explanation of the legal situation in New Mexico and other states.

Big data in work comp – no panacea

There’s so much excitement about big data and the potential for it in work comp that it would be all to easy to forget some basics.

The law of small numbers chief among them.

Work comp accounts for a tad more than one percent of US medical spend – $30 billion in comp medical vs $2.8 trillion in total medical spend in 2012.

Many docs treat just a couple of work comp claims a year, and those who do handle a lot of WC claims see a wide range of injuries: knees, ankles, backs, shoulders, hands damaged by cuts, sprains strains and severe trauma.  When looking to compare providers – or procedures for that matter – researchers need enough data points to develop a statistically-valid sample set.  In most cases, no single provider has enough claims to enable clear-cut evaluation.  And, if they do, there aren’t any other providers in their service area with the necessary volume, making comparisons nigh-on-impossible.

The issue is statistical validity and statistical accuracy. Simply put, is the measurement procedure capable of measuring what it is supposed to measure. Without enough data, there just isn’t enough information to accurately assess performance.

That’s not to say researchers can’t do very meaningful and helpful analyses; the one just published on opioid prescribing by physicians dispensing docs to work comp claimants is a perfect example; the ongoing research by CWCI, WCRI, and NCCI provide plenty of additional examples.

The problem occurs when consultants, payers or managed care firms try to make definitive statements about individual providers based on inadequate data.  In my experience, provider rankings are often – but not always – based on little more than reimbursement or “savings” figures, and in no way account for “quality” measured by return to work, disability duration, cost-per-claim.  There isn’t enough data to case-mix adjust, not enough data to make comparisons, or really “rate” docs.

I would note that some payers, most often state funds, and some managed care firms, notably MedRisk (HSA consulting client) have a wealth of data and can (and do) make valid comparisons.

What does this mean for you?

Beware of rankings, ratings, and comparisons of individual providers.  Unless the underlying data is robust.

Yet more evidence doc dispensing is a disaster

There is NO reason, no rationale, no logic behind docs dispensing drugs to workers comp claimants.  

Proponents claim it is better care, leading to speedier recovery and lower costs.

We long suspected the opposite is true; that is, claimants getting drugs from docs get more treatment, incur higher medical costs, are out of work longer and run up bigger claim costs than claimants with the exact same injury who don’t get pills from their physicians.

Thanks to CWCI, we know that’s the real impact of doc dispensing.

Now, we know even more – we know that dispensing docs prescribe more opioids for longer times, thereby increasing the risk of addiction and drug diversion and overdoses and death.  Thanks to a research paper authored by Johns Hopkins University Medical School and Accident Fund, there’s clear and convincing proof that doc dispensing is a highly risky, very dangerous, and very expensive proposition.

Here is the money quote:

“we found 39% higher medical costs, 27% higher indemnity costs, and 34% higher frequency of lost-time days associated with physician-dispensed versus pharmacy-dispensed medication. We found even more striking differences related to physician-dispensed opioids versus pharmacy dispensed opioids. The effect was nearly doubled and revealed 78% higher medical costs, 57% higher indemnity costs, and 85% higher frequency of lost-time days associated with physician-dispensed versus pharmacy-dispensed medication. [emphasis added]

And yes, the analysis was case-mix adjusted.

It’s not about convenience; Claimants get drugs for free and quickly thanks to PBMs and pharmacies who are only too happy to fill their scripts.

It’s not as if the drugs they dispense – NSAIDs, antibiotics, pain meds, stomach acid treatments – MUST be consumed within nanoseconds or the claimant dies.  None of the top 50 doc-dispensed drugs are deemed time-critical.

It’s about docs sucking more money out of employers’ and taxpayers’ wallets.  While dispensing more opioids, and keeping patients out of work longer.

Which brings up a question:

Why in hell are regulators and legislators not banning physician dispensing?

Medicare Set-Asides – current data says…

At the closing session at NCCI, Barry Lipton reported on their research on MSAs, research based in large part on 2200 files provided by Gould & Lamb. In 2011, CMS approved $1.1 billion of MSAs…

Key findings

  • MSA dollars account for 40% of the average proposed settlement
  • half of the MSA dollars are for prescription drugs
  • the differences between proposed and CMS-accepted MSA settlement are largely due to drugs”
  • only 20% of submissions are for claimants <50
  • 29% of submissions are for more than $300,000;
  • but, most submissions are for much lower amounts;
  • so 62% of costs are for the 29% that are for more than $200k.
  • The highest initial submission approval rate was about t50% before 12/12; during 12/12, the approval rate zoomed up to 92%.  this happened to be the same month where processing vendors changed…
  • median processing time has dropped dramatically to 41 days in Q4 2013
  • Median MSA approved amounts have been very stable at around $42,000 over the last four years.
  • recall CMS doesn’t cover off-label use of drugs, so any non-cancer claims with opioids are going to require full funding of future projected spend

The net – from my perspective, if you have an addicted claimant, CMS is going to want a lot of dollars set aside.

Work comp’ declining frequency rate – will it continue?

The geekiest part of NCCI is the research workshop that takes place after lunch on the second day – you know the people attending are committed if they are in Orlando on a Friday afternoon listening to economists…

Harry Shuford discussed the “mystery of declining claim frequency”, an oft-described trend that some believe will end at some point while others think it may continue ad infinitum.

While there has been a cynical pattern over the last 90 years, the overall decline has persisted since 1926 (using manufacturing claim rates, the only ones that go back that far).  That said, the decline steepened after 1990 and has continued to this day, and it is consisted across all states, industries, occupations, demographics, affected body parts…

Why?

Harry and his colleagues looked at a lot of factors to determine their correlation with injury rates and similar data points.  The correlation isn’t due to the decline in manufacturing in the US; the decline has happened globally and across all sectors of the economy, not just manufacturing.  

Harry then showed a graph of international work-related fatalities (across 120+ countries) which showed a similar decline trend, with a bit of leveling in the late eighties followed by a steeper decline till 2006  and an even more rapid drop after that.  On average, there’s been a 4.3% annual decline over the last 30 years.

The death rate decline also mirrored the increase in per-capita income, albeit at a lower rate (3.6%).

And it was, if not entirely consistent, at least similar across geographic regions.

Net – two drivers: time, perhaps driven by pressures to improve productivity; and as a country gets wealthier, there’s a decline in the injury rate.

The takeaway – the trend has been in place for 80 years (at least) and will very likely continue into the future.

What does this mean for you?

Frequency will continue to decline.

 

Bob Hartwig – drinking from the firehose

The always-entertaining and enlightening Bob Hartwig of the Insurance Information Institute was next on the podium – he violates a bunch of “presenting rules” (chiefly talking really fast) and is thereby proof that you can be a very good and very effective presenter by doing what works for you.

His view is historical trends indicate we are a few years away from a return to the bottom side of the insurance cycle.  I hope that’s true, but I’m less sanguine.

On the overall economy, he’s predicting growth of around 3% in GDP over the next few years along with a drop in the unemployment rate to below 6 percent (possibly) before the end of the year.  That would be good news – for work comp – indeed especially as it comes on top of the addition of over 9 million jobs since April 2010 (even more in the private sector).

Other good news:

  • hours worked per week are up to almost pre-recession levels
  • average hour day continues to slowly increase, it’s up 14.4 percent since the beginning of the recession.

Growth is going to come in high-frequency industries; construction manufacturing and energy will be big drivers. Construction employment alone is up 565k since January of 2011; we’re still over 1.6 million jobs down from the height just before the crash, altho that was a bubble-driven number.

Manufacturing employment is up 640,000, and those workers are making more stuff than just before the recession, even though there are fewer of them.  That means productivity is higher.

Of course, health care employment is up dramatically as well, and will grow faster than any other sector – adding 3 million new jobs over the next 8 years.  Energy exploration, production and transport will be another big driver.  Employment in this sector is higher than any time in the last 28 years and is going to increase even more.

The net?  Lots more employment in high wage sectors are ‘unambiguous positives for the workers comp sector.”

Friday catch up and idle speculation

Lots of big info out this week, and a few tidbits about pending deals in the workers’ comp services space too.  Here are the highlights…(for the latest on deals in the work comp space, scroll down)

There’s a lot of confusion about the Obamacare signups; I’ll cover this in detail next week, but here are the facts as of today…

  • more than 7.1 million signed up via the federal and state exchanges (we won’t know the total for a week or so as some state exchanges haven’t posted final March numbers)
  • a lot more – i’d guess a million to two million – bought insurance via the private exchanges
  • about 20 percent won’t pay the premium and there’s some duplication between all the exchanges and other enrollment methods for reasons we’ll discuss next week
  • more than 5 million MORE Americans have insurance today than at the end of 2013.

The net – Obamacare has increased coverage substantially; the uninsurance rate has dropped by 2.7 points.

Meanwhile, Fitch reports the P&C industry is doing just grand, thank you.  Profits are up, loss ratios declined, underwriting margins are improving, and revenue is too.  Thank the continued hard market and expanding economy.

Work comp is doing better as well, altho there’s still a negative underwriting margin.  It remains to be seen if pricing discipline holds, or if some big carriers cross the stupid line.

The “doc fix” is in; Congress passed and the President signed a bill that will increase Medicare reimbursement for physicians by 0.5% for the next 12 months. The bill also:

  • delays implementation of ICD-10 for a year till October 2015 – for an excellent discussion of how this will affect workers’ comp, read Sandy Blunt’s piece at workers compensation.com
  • and does some other stuff which you probably don’t care about and I won’t bore you with.

Work comp services Coventry is trying to sell their marginally-profitable work comp service business lines - we’re talking CM, UM, MSA, peer review, and likely pharmacy. They will NOT be selling the jewels – bill review and the network, because a) they make huge profits; b) bill review really isn’t sellable as the application is quite dated and would require the buyer to transition to a different platform likely resulting in customer defections; and c) they can’t sell the network.

Coincidentally, another large case management firm is also for sale; word is Apax/OneCallCareManagement is currently the leading contender; most likely they will add the asset to their ever-growing list of companies.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t speculate that Apax is looking hard at the Coventry assets as well. OCCM CEO Joe Delaney has certainly proved himself a competent manager, but methinks the thought of adding these two to the portfolio would give even the best of execs pause…

Enjoy the weekend, watch some baseball, get out in the gardens, and ride your bike.

Sorry about that…

well, not really.

I’m referring to yesterday’s annual April Fool’s Day post, in which I “reported” Obamacare would include a single-payer federal workers’ comp system for small employers.  While some chalk it up to my sophomoric attempt at humor, (and they would be right), there’s another, more important takeaway, one that is particularly relevant in the work comp industry.

There’s a lot of mis-information out there, much in the form of reports, statistics, metrics, findings, research, and it often goes unchallenged.  Here are a couple examples.

“Research” published by benefits giant AFLAC claims companies that set up voluntary disability programs saw reductions in work comp claims.  Except the “research” is not credible, isn’t reproducible, is based on nothing more than opinion, and therefore is just marketing BS. (hat tip to Mark Larsen of WorkCompCentral for the info)

The key here is don’t believe “research” unless it is credible, which means there was a solid methodology (asking people their opinion then drawing a statistical conclusion from those opinions is NOT a solid methodology).

Vendor claims that they can “save” X% more than your current vendor on pharmacy/medical bills/provider costs/whatever are often – but not always – pure speculation.  Fact is, unless the vendor making the claim really, really understands what your current program/vendor is doing, how they are doing it, the methodology they are using to calculate results, and reviews the bill/provider/script data, their claims are suspect at best.

That’s not to say that some programs don’t deliver measurably better performance, but unless the vendor pitching you can provide a detailed analysis of why and how they can do better, they’re just blowing smoke.  How can you figure this out?  Simple – ask lots of questions – starting with how, when, who, how much, where.  Dig deep and do not be satisfied with generic marketing-speak answers.

You will find some vendors are only too happy to get into the details, while others get really uncomfortable.  And that tells you a lot about their REAL ability to deliver.

Finally, the April Fool’s post caught more than a few readers, so if you were one, you’re in pretty good company (there were several clients and a few regulators – all shall remain nameless – who fell for it).

What does this mean for you?

Don’t be an April – or any other month – fool.