On the way to NCCI

Headed to Florida for the annual NCCI AIS confab, one of the best-organized conferences in the workers’ comp world.  Looking forward to NCCI Chief Actuary Kathy Antonello’s State of the Line presentation; will be live-blogging as she reveals the latest data on trends, costs, inflation and drivers thereof.

The powers-that-be have invited Charles Krauthammer back once again; the ever-irascible doc will certainly share his latest views on the political landscape, and for once I’m actually looking forward to it.   If I have to listen to yet another neocon/conservative ideologue, as least this time he’ll be as cranky about his candidate as I am…

A few of the topics Mark Walls, Bob Wilson and I will be covering in our talk on Thursday afternoon will be the impact of the ACA on workers’ comp (spoiler alert – too early to tell), whether the Grand Bargain is still grand and/or a bargain, what’s happening to opt-out, and medical trends.  Should be pretty lively, with ample-yet-polite-disagreement among the three of us.

Attendance is very solid this year; hope to see you there.

Sales – the least “professional” business role?

BY that I do NOT mean sales people are NOT professional – rather the role is not really considered so by many.  Just think of the titles sales people go by: Marketing representative. Account executive.  Business development manager.

Ever notice how people who are supposed to be selling stuff aren’t labeled as sales people?  Yet “nothing happens until a sale is made” and no company exists without customers.

There are far more “chief marketing officers” than “chief sales officers”, and – with some notable exceptions – the prestige is in the marketing title.

It isn’t just the titles on business cards, although that’s a symptom of the larger problem. It’s the lack of training provided by many companies, the failure to adequately vet and hire due to a lack of understanding of what works and what doesn’t in “sales”. You can see the impact of this in the relatively high turnover among sales departments.

All of the really good sales people I know are true professionals.  They do their homework, are persistent, listen a lot, ask a lot of questions, prepare carefully and thoroughly, and don’t waste time on likely-futile lunches and golf games. There’s a mistaken impression among many that this is “natural”, that these women and men just “get sales.”

Not true.  In fact, these “pros” are likely the ones fortunate enough to start their careers at companies that invested in sales training; had mentors who helped them grow and mature, worked for managers that supported them and helped them learn from their mistakes. These managers understand the sales process, and how it works both internally and externally. Did they learn this in business school? Highly unlikely.

Sales’ task is to find out what customers’ pain points were and figure out if and how their company’s offerings will alleviate that pain.  It is NOT convincing a prospect to use your stuff, but rather to know prospects so well that you can identify the ones most likely to buy your stuff.  There’s a VERY big difference.

In the work comp world, we all know sales people who are constantly on the move. Many are pure relationships sales people; they sell to their friends, and when they run out of friends to sell their current stuff to, they move on.  In contrast there are a relative few who are true professionals, able to mix the relationship with the consultative, skilled at leveraging their personal reputation to gain entre to a prospect where they work very hard to determine if there’s a fit.

As I look at the work comp services industry, not much has changed over the last couple of decades.  At many companies there’s a lack of appreciation for and of sales. That’s not to say senior management doesn’t want great sales people, they just don’t understand what makes one a great sales person, and what management needs to do to help sales continue to deliver.  There’s usually a distinct lack of training as well, little effective mentoring, and lots of internal conflict between operations and sales – a clear indication that not enough has been done to ensure sales and operations work together effectively.

What does this mean for you?

With the ever-changing landscape in work comp – mergers, acquisitions, vertical consolidation and internalization of services by many TPAs, retirement of many senior execs in “buying” roles, the growing role of the Procurement departments at carriers such as the Hartford and Liberty Mutual, it is becoming increasingly clear that work comp service entities will have to invest in their sales departments and staff if they are to succeed.



Opioids, spines, and dead people

Friend and colleague David Deitz, MD, PhD, was kind enough to provide his perspective on two seemingly-unconnected items in the current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine that are highly relevant for medical providers treating occupational injuries.  Here’s his view:

Deitz – The first is an editorial by Drs. Thomas Frieden and Debra Houry from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reviewing the new CDC opioid prescribing guideline. It’s a concise review of what led the CDC to develop the guideline, as well as a clear statement of what CDC hopes to achieve. The money quote is this one: “We know of no other medication routinely used for a non-fatal condition that kills patients so frequently.”

Included in the same issue is one of a regular series of Images in Clinical Medicine – this one entitled Resolution of Lumbar Disc Herniation without Surgery. You don’t need a medical education of any kind to interpret this one – the pair of MRI images beautifully demonstrates a large disc herniation which resolves over a 5-month period. Nothing surprising to students of low back pain, there is abundant literature demonstrating that the best care for the majority of patients with lumbar disc herniation is conservative – maintaining physical activity as much as possible while waiting for the natural resolution demonstrated again in this case.

While I don’t think the Journal editors intended the irony, it’s sobering to think about how many opioids have been prescribed to injured workers over the last 20 years for this condition, and its (often unnecessary) surgical consequences. One of the most common conditions in WC, and a routinely-prescribed medication with potentially fatal consequences. Hopefully, we’re starting to do better.

Paduda – In a related piece, Michael Van Korff ScD andGary Franklin MD MPH summarize the iatrogenic disaster driven by opioid over-prescribing.  Over the last fifteen years, almost 200,000 prescription opioid overdose deaths have occurred in the US, with most deaths from medically-prescribed opioids.

Doctors prescribed opioids that killed well over a hundred thousand people.

Here’s one


Today, about 10 million Americans are using doctor-prescribed opioids; somewhere between 10% – 40% may have prescription opioid use disorder – they may well be addicted.

Van Korff and Franklin note that 60% of overdose fatalities were prescribed dosages greater than a 50 mg morphine equivalent.

This despite evidence suggesting “neither high opioid dose nor dose escalation improves patient outcomes.”

The authors suggest three immediate steps we can take:

  1. Avoid ill-advised and unplanned initiation of COT (chronic opioid therapy). Don’t prescribe more than 10 pills initially, check the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program database, educate the patient.
  2. Regulators and legislators need to change policies and regulations to reflect what we KNOW about COT and its inherent dangers.
  3. Considerably enhance population surveillance of opioid prescribing and safety.  The FDA should expand its postmarketing surveillance program for long-acting opioids to patients using short-acting versions.

What should you do about this?

  1. Do NOT allow opioids for “herniated” disks.  (I know, easier said than done…)
  2. Require a pre-auth for ALL acting opioid scripts, and all increases in dosage above 50 mg MED.
  3. Wherever and whenever possible, ensure prescribing docs check PDMPs, educate patients, limit initial scripts, complete an opioid agreement.
  4. Educate patients – for those already on excessive dosages, have your nurses contact the patient to educate them on the potentially fatal risk inherent in long-term use of opioids.

Monday catch-up

Happy Monday! here’s a few items you may have missed.

King v CompPartners – the California case may have implications for UR, IMR, and the “exclusive remedy” foundation of worker’s comp.

Here’s a very brief summary (see url above for more detail).

  • The underlying issue – did CompPartners’ UR reviewer do the right thing? is not in question.  The treating doc’s request was appropriately rejected as it was inconsistent with California’s evidence-based treatment guidelines.
  • However, the patient allegedly suffered seizures due to sudden cessation of the medication, and contended that the UR physician had a “duty of care” to inform the patient of that risk and recommend a weaning process.
  • The plaintiff took the case outside the work comp judicial process to civil court, where he lost.  It then went to Appellate Court, where the ruling raised this “question”: could Utilization Review be considered medical treatment, and the reviewer a treating provider?
  • This is contrary to all work comp precedent; the case is now before the State Supreme Court, which has stayed the Appellate Court’s ruling pending a decision.

Implications – talking to those who know better than I, the Supreme Court will likely reject the Appellate Court’s validation of civil court as an appropriate venue for the case, thereby reaffirming the “exclusive remedy” inherent in workers’ comp.

One issue that strikes me about this case; as the medication in question was prescribed by a physician for a condition deemed not covered by workers’ comp, why did the patient not a) pay for the medication himself or more likely b) get his health insurer to cover the script?

This would have allowed the patient to continue taking the drug and avoid the health issues experienced by the patient allegedly due to suddenly stopping the medication.

If you are in ChicagoLand and/or looking into value-based networks, read this. Really interesting piece on how a big provider system thinks about narrow networks, contracting, and what it wants to get paid for high-end services.  And will “eat” on commodities, such as MRIs for $100.

Here’s a shocker – media is all over reports on how chocolate helps athletes – even if the underlying study is pretty much nonsense. A much more important study that determined a very common spinal procedure is fraught with danger and likely counter-productive – was all but ignored.

From HealthNewsReview:

“Provocative discography” is a diagnostic procedure that’s used up to 70,000 times a year in the United States at great cost to the health care system. It’s commonly performed on patients with so-called “degenerative disc disease” who are considering spinal fusion surgery — a $40 billion per year industry”

If you have to rely on MCM to hear about critically-important research, there’s something really wrong with the mass media.

Looking forward to NCCI next week; will be on a panel moderated by Peter Burton with Mark Walls and Bob Wilson discussing regulatory issues.

Hope to see you there.

ACA’s 20 million increase in insureds – implications for workers’ comp

That’s a bit of a misstatement; ACA alone is not responsible for increasing the number of insureds by some 20 million, but there’s no question it was the primary causal factor.

Be that as it may, let’s examine who the newly-covered are, what they do, and where they reside.  The insured population’s demographics may be of interest to workers’ comp payers.

As noted yesterday, the newly-insured population is poorer, more likely to be recent immigrants, and much more likely to be Hispanic than the rest of the country. For work comp, what may be of more interest is the jobs they hold and where they live.

First, the percentage of part-time workers insured rose by 5.8 points, while the full-time population’s coverage went up 2.8 points. Those concerned with so-called Monday-morning injuries, may see this as a plus for work comp as more working people have insurance to pay for non-occ injuries.

Next, what do these workers do?

Pretty much everything; of particular interest to the work comp community, several high-severity &/or high-frequency industries saw significant jumps in the percentage of workers with health insurance. (details below)

  • agriculture +5.4%
  • construction +4.7%
  • transportation/warehousing +4.0%
  • manufacturing +3.3%
  • natural resources + 3.9%

Why is this important?  A few reasons.

Insured people are healthier than the uninsured, so they will heal faster if they do get injured on the job.

Work comp payers won’t have to foot the bill for medical conditions non-occ-related for insured workers.  This isn’t the case for claimants who do not have health insurance; actually work comp payers technically don’t need to pay for non-occ conditions, but end up paying for those conditions if by so doing the claimant gets better faster.

Monday-morning injury frequency may be reduced (if it is a real problem and not just commonly-accepted wisdom).

(chart below from NYT article)

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 12.33.44 PM

I bring this to your attention, dear reader, because clients, friends, and all manner of industry folk are keenly interested in the “impact of ACA on work comp.”  Fact is, we don’t know what it will be, but we can prepare if we look closely at what’s happening and make some educated, experience-based guesses.

What does this mean for you (work comp payers)?

A long term and incremental plus…perhaps.

Why be a crook when you can be a dispensing doc?

WCRI’s latest report on physician dispensing confirms what we weary soldiers have known for years; the physician dispensing industry is way better at figuring out how to screw employers and taxpayers than workers’ comp payers and regulators are at stopping them.

We’ve tried eliminating the upcharge for repackaged drugs; they came up with custom-manufactured medications.


Here’s the summary from WCRI:

the mechanism involves the creation of an opportunity to assign a much higher AWP to these new-strength and new-formulation products. Consider cyclobenzaprine HCL (a muscle relaxant), for which the most common strengths are 5 milligrams and 10 milligrams. If a new strength of 7.5 milligrams comes to market and the original manufacturer of that new strength sets a new AWP, this AWP could be much higher than the AWPs set by the original manufacturers for the existing 5- and 10-milligram strengths. These new strengths and formulation, almost all dispensed by physicians, are labeled as drugs made by generic manufacturers, not repackagers, and therefore, are not subject to the new reimbursement rules targeting physician-dispensed repackaged drugs.

Shockingly, Florida and California, two states that have attempted to control doc-dispensed drug costs with a repackaged drug cost cap have seen these “new” drugs become the most popular versions of the drug – and the most costly, with an average price of $3.01 per pill compared to $0.38 for the “regular” formulations.

Why has this 7.5mg version become so popular?

Is it better than 5mg or 10mg versions?

Of course not.

Make no mistake, these dispensing docs – and the industry that supports them, are quite clear about the money.

Proof.  More proof. And even more proof.

WCRI used data from 2 years ago; if anything it’s way worse now.

The solution is both simple in concept and difficult in execution.  Enable employer direction to pharmacies, a situation that currently exists in NY and MN (and in some cases in CA as well).

Yes, limiting doc dispensing to the first few days helps – legislation in IN and PA has been quite helpful in limiting the shameless profiteering of corrupt docs. However, the dispensing industry is quite creative in coming up with ways to circumvent regulations; don’t be surprised if:

  • docs rent a corner of their office to a “pharmacy”, and/or
  • docs get ownership in a pharmacy down the hall, and/or
  • companies are setting up vending machine-like dispensaries in medical office buildings

In fact, these all – and likely other maneuvers – are already operating in many states.  As I noted a year ago, these bad actors “will find any loophole, whether in a states’ pharmacy licensing process, medical board regulation, work comp statute or scope of practice to find a way to continue screwing employers and taxpayers.”

Because that is precisely what they are doing.

What does this mean for you?

It is long past time to stop playing nice.

Making work comp services more “efficient”

That is the reason there’s been so much investor interest in workers’ comp – we are the epitome of the “yellow sticky” business…


Workarounds abound, driven by individual adjuster’s requests, insurer system limitations, ever-changing state requirements, unrealistic-but-nonetheless-mandatory employer demands, and system “upgrades” that eliminate prior changes built specifically to accommodate a specific customer.

A couple examples…

Some state regulations require insurers to allow physician dispensing of drugs only within seven days of the date of injury. This requires the payer, Pharmacy Benefit Manager, bill review processor, and adjuster to have a “counter” to make sure they aren’t approving/allowing/paying for doc dispensed drugs they shouldn’t be. Data feeds have to be designed and built and tested, new fields added, new alerts coded, and staff trained and monitored and QA processes developed.

Or, more likely, put a yellow sticky with “do not pay Doc Disp Rx w/i  DoI” on that computer.

A large employer’s risk manager does NOT want Dr Awful to perform any Independent Medical Examinations (IMEs).  The employer TPA has to ensure its adjusters never use Dr Awful.  The adjuster that usually handles that employer’s claims is out on maternity leave, and somehow their replacement is supposed to KNOW this, perhaps by puzzling thru the SLAs (Service Level Agreements), reading the special handling instructions, or asking their manager.

Or, more likely, just put a yellow sticky with “DO NOT USE DR AWFUL FOR COMPANY X’S IMEs” on that computer

Pretty soon you get a cube that looks like our photo above.

Our industry is seen – rightly so – as horribly inefficient, ripe for automation, desperate for change. It is also inherently un-automatable, for several reasons.

First, it’s a state-driven system.  And when you’ve seen one state, you’ve seen one state.  Fee schedules, billing rules, employee direction to preferred providers, clinical guidelines, utilization review, state forms, dispute resolution processes, documentation requirements, all vary from state to state, and are constantly changing.  It’s just very, very hard to stay on top of these changes, figure out how to implement them, and also educate adjusters, clinical staff, bill processors, employers, lawyers and patients.

Second, payers chronically under-invest in technology, so even if the vendors have this whiz-bang terrific artificially intelligent tech platform, chances are pretty good they are trying connect with a payer just a generation away from the green screen era…if they ever left it.

Third, TPAs and service vendors have gotten very good at figuring out how to jury-rig their platforms and workflows to accommodate demanding customers.  It’s a hyper-competitive business; it’s either accommodate or lose the business.  Often it comes down to Martha or Mike in operations knowing that Fred the adjuster wants his reports on pink paper on Tuesdays and purple on Wednesdays.  And if that’s what Fred wants, that’s what you need to give him to earn – and keep – his business.

What does this mean for you?

Smart people who really understand the business can find lots of ways to do things more efficiently, increasing performance while stripping out cost and eliminating errors. However, if one doesn’t really understand the business, making things more efficient may well disrupt and break processes put in place because customers want and need them to work that way.

Rx Drug Abuse Summit – key takeaways

I’ll keep this short.  Heading home from Atlanta and an incredibly disturbing Rx Drug Abuse Summit.  A few key takeaways.

  • The increase in the prescription opioid death toll is terrifying.  These are drugs ONLY AVAILABLE WITH A DOCTOR’S PRESCRIPTION.
  • cdc-us-overdose-deaths-2014_jr-2
  • Heroin is getting even worse – driven largely by the rampant over-prescribing of opioids.  75% of heroin users started with prescription opioids.cdc-us-overdose-deaths-2014_jr-5
  • We are making progress.  Lots of different approaches, very passionate people, truly impressive effort by the Feds.
  • There’s disagreement around the margins, but not with the central issue – opioid abuse is an unmitigated disaster.

The net is this.  There are far, far too many docs writing way more opioid scripts than they should.  Tens of thousands of people are dying, families are destroyed, kids left without parents.

You want to talk about treating pain?  

How about the pain of kids without parents, moms without daughters, sisters without brothers, communities without hope.

Who is treating their pain?

and who is causing it?

Obama, Pew, Landers and Paduda

Headed to Atlanta for Operation Unite’s fifth Rx Drug Abuse Summit, an event I’ve been privileged to participate in every year (this year Mark Pew of Prium, Michelle Landers of KEMI, and I are going to discuss formularies in work comp, an issue near and dear to my heart).

This year, President Obama is also speaking.

Think about that.

The leader of the free world is taking a day to fly down, talk, and fly back.  It’s not like the guy has nothing else on his plate – the Middle East, Apple v FBI, global warming, Congress, SCOTUS nomination of Merrick Garland, Pakistan, Iranian cyber attacks, China, trade policy…

and yet Pres. Obama a) decides to go to Atlanta; b) does the prep work necessary to speak on a panel about opioid policy, the FDA, drug approvals, law enforcement, heroin, treatment v incarceration; c) make the trip with all that entails; and d) speak on the panel.

While I’m pumped he decided to make the trip, I’m equal parts disheartened that the President of the United States has to do this.  Moreover, there’s a really impressive list of speakers; Governors, Congresspeople, the US Surgeon General, head of the FDA, Senators, head of the DEA, the CDC Director…

Those of us who’ve been up to our eyeballs in the crisis for a decade are gratified indeed to see the level of attention focused on the issue, and sad beyond measure that this has risen to the level that the President is devoting this amount of time to opioids.

What does this mean for you?

I’d suggest we focus on the positive here, as the negative is just emotionally crushing.

Opt out – the final word from the experts

Wrapping up WCRI’s opt out marathon, a four-person roundtable dove into the issue with AIA’s Bruce Wood leading off.  Bruce began with something I kept thinking during the earlier talk: what problem is opt out solving?

Work comp rates are down, no systems are in crisis, benefits are decent and in many states improving, and medical costs are, with a couple notable exceptions, not increasing too much.

Yes, there are problems in many states, some much worse than others – opioids, crappy docs, too much litigation, some outright lousy incentives that motivate bad behavior, and some bad employers, but overall, we’re doing ok.

Bruce went thru a litany of reasons opt out isn’t viable or appropriate; as one of the nation’s most knowledgeable experts on all states’ systems, he knows of what he speaks. One key point is that opt out is a federally regulated plan, therefore states can’t require financial stability or standards or minimums or audits.  Thus, even if states pass laws requiring financial standards, guarantee funds, etc, these laws will not apply to opt out.

Next up Elizabeth Bailey of Waffle House gave her views; the covered-smothered-chunked-and-served company is a non-subscriber in TX and insured thru the work comp system in OK. For those unfamiliar with WH, they sell waffles and related foodstuffs in sort of a mini-diner setting.  WH opted out in TX because the system was broken back in 2002; Bailey indicated that the lack of settlement ability and lifetime medical benefits coupled with the strength of providers made the TX WC system untenable.

That’s worked out pretty well – according to Bailey their plan features solid benefits, the ability to direct to specific medical providers, a strong focus on workplace safety have delivered much lower costs due to a dramatically lower injury rate, almost no indemnity expenses, and an overall decrease of almost 90% in costs.

My based-on-almost-no-real-knowledge-of-WH’s-program view is these folks are doing things the right way, which benefits their workers greatly – far fewer have injuries, which is the core goal of any occupational program.  And they get back to work quickly, so they don’t get stuck in a disability mindset.

Attorney Alan Pierce then weighed in; his slides were very detailed (much better for future reading than trying to follow live).  Perhaps his key point was the contention work comp is a right, not a benefit; a right owned by the employer.

Aside – Pierce’s pontification was more than a bit annoying; his attempt to denigrate the sessions and attendees by asserting that there were few/no injured workers in the audience, and therefore he, as an “injured worker advocate” was somehow uniquely qualified and special.  A physician friend and colleague noted afterwards that this was offensive indeed as there were several treating docs in attendance, all of whom likely had just as much experience “advocating” for injured workers.

Pierce made a case that opt out results in a dramatically greater cost shifting.  While I don’t agree with all the examples of potential issues, he made a reasonable case that opt out may well increase cost shifting of both medical and wage replacement expense away from the employer.

The session wrapped up with a representative from the Oklahoma Insurance Dept, James Mills.  He provided a concise overview of the program, which is regulated much more tightly than Texas’.

The key takeaway is one offered by…once again…David Deitz MD.  There just isn’t enough data, or, arguably, any data that would allow anyone to make a reasonable assessment of opt out and/or a comparison with workers’ comp.

Until and unless there is, it is difficult if not impossible to evaluate opt out.