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National health reform – implications for workers comp

I’ve gotten several queries about the future of work comp if/when health reform occurs. The real answer is – no one knows. But I’m happy to take an educated guess.
I very much doubt comp will be directly impacted by or addressed in any health reform bill. It is going to be difficult at best to pass health reform legislation; adding comp is unlikely to increase support but would almost certainly drive work comp stakeholders to lobby against the bill. There’s just no upside for including comp in health reform.
Back in the Clinton health reform days, comp was part of health care reform, where it ran into objections (most warranted) from employers, industry types, insurers, and providers. Work comp was addressed in Title X, which “would have required that employees receive all of their health care through the same insurance plan, regardless of whether the injury or illness occurred at home or at work.” For lots of reasons, this was a non-starter.
President Elect Obama may well have learned from his future Secretary of State’s errors: nowhere do the words ‘workers compensation’ or similar terms appear in President Elect Obama’s website, policy papers on health reform, or in the several speeches he has made on the subject.
Finally comp is not linked to/mentioned in the Baucus plan, Wyden/Bennett Healthy Americans Act, or on Sen. Kennedy’s policy pages. These should be viewed as drafts of final bills; if policymakers were actively considering incorporating work comp it is likely we’d have seen it appear in one or more of these bills.
What does this mean for you?
Don’t expect to see work comp directly addressed in reform legislation on the Federal level.
But, any reform initiatives will undoubtedly affect workers comp. Here are a couple specifics.
Physician reimbursement
The fall will be highlighted by a debate over Medicare physician compensation. With docs scheduled to see their reimbursement drop by around 20% in 2010, the caterwauling will be heard loud and clear inside the Beltway. Don’t look for a major policy change, but rather something to satisfy the physician community and build a little equity for the future. My sense is CMS will increase reimbursement for E&M codes (cognitive services). Almost all WC fee schedules are based on Medicare, so any change in Medicare directly and immediately impacts comp reimbursement. Watch Capitol Hill carefully; if Congress passes legislation signed by future President Obama affecting Medicare reimbursement, clinic companies may be big winners.
This will also be good news over the long term for comp in general. Good work comp medical care requires physicians to spend time listening to patients, and talking with employers, adjusters, and case managers. Docs don’t get paid (at least not adequately) for this time, therefore any increase in reimbursement for office visits will encourage docs to spend time with claimants instead of doing procedures. Well, at least not discourage doctor-patient discourse…
Medical care delivery
If there is a major reform initiative passed, there will likely be fundamental changes in the way health care is delivered, the virtual ‘location’ delivering that care, and the evaluation of care.
And that would dramatically affect workers comp.
Today, health care is delivered episode by episode; diagnosis, care plan, treatment, assessment, and repeat steps 2-4 until the situation is resolved. This episodic model of care will (over time) change to one based on functional outcome management – care focused on returning the patient to functionality, and maintaining that functionality.
This will be in large part driven by the growing influence of chronic care and need to develop a better care model to address chronic care, one that will heavily emphasize patient education and monitoring. It will also require a different ‘location’ of care – the medical home.Dr Kathryn Mueller of the University of Colorado sees the medical home model as a big part of the solution in workers compensation, as the medical home may well be the dominant model for delivery of care throughout the health system in years to come. Studies indicate the home decreases medical errors and improves the quality of care delivered. Notably, the medical home model is NOT a primary-care gatekeeper model – but rather a model wherein the physician is tasked with and responsible for coordinating care and educating the patient.
If Congress calls for the Feds to negotiate drug prices, this will affect comp in one of two ways. Either comp payers will be able to piggyback on the Feds’ negotiated rates, in which case per-pill prices will come down, or (more likely) comp payers find their per-pill prices increase due to cost shifting.

2 thoughts on “National health reform – implications for workers comp”

  1. Excellent posting. The transformation of medicine towards function-based goals will be very slow. The AMA guides for permanent impairment, new 6th Ed, tries to do that it has sparked a conflagration.

  2. Good analysis of the past scenario. Unfortunately the 1911 system just can’t cut it in this economy and its path to recovery. The age of modern medicine requires a new delivery system. Those who hang on to the past are still on the Titanic.

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Joe Paduda is the principal of Health Strategy Associates



A national consulting firm specializing in managed care for workers’ compensation, group health and auto, and health care cost containment. We serve insurers, employers and health care providers.



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