It can be challenging to understand whether a workers’ compensation claim has been well managed or not. A claim’s outcome can be influenced by factors such as its initial handling and investigation, reserving, and medical management.
In her article “Controlling workers’ compensation claim costs: 3 things every self-insured should know”, Christine Fleming examines three internal claims handling areas that may impact costs and claim liabilities: Initial activities, information and data collection, and change in case reserving practices.
The following excerpt discusses initial activities:
…Activities that occur in the early stages of a claim may not be terribly significant for the large number of reported workers’ compensation claims that resolve quickly. However, for that small percentage of claims upon which the majority of the costs are ultimately expended, proper claims management from the outset is crucial to achieving optimal claims outcomes.
For example, a claimant who has had previous injuries or prior surgeries, or who otherwise presents with certain characteristics such as chronic pain, is more likely to require medical management from the outset to ensure optimal medical outcomes, which in turn reduces costs. For a small number of high-severity claims, if the medical aspects are not understood and well controlled at the outset, the claimant often does not improve and the claim can adversely develop into a larger-than-anticipated and larger-than-necessary claim—a lifetime pain management claim perhaps involving multiple surgeries, and costing hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars without optimal medical outcome or endpoint for the claimant.
Thus, it is important upon receipt of a claim to investigate all prior injuries, surgeries, prescriptions, and comorbidities (i.e., health issues that are not work-related but nonetheless could impact the treatment of the injury). In many cases, the best practice of making three-point contact has devolved in practice into two-point contact (the employer and the injured worker) and in some cases even one-point contact (the employer). This can leave basic medical questions unanswered for weeks or months. For a small percentage of claims that have the potential for developing into the highest-severity losses, these delays could be critical.
Another key initial activity is adjuster assignment. Assignment to the appropriate adjuster can be particularly important for some claims—for example, those where the claimant reports injuries to nonspecific or multiple body parts, such as “neck, shoulder, arm.” These claims present an element of subjectivity, uncertainty, and potential complexity. It is important that the adjuster thoroughly investigate precisely how the injury occurred and communicate with the medical providers about the types of injuries that can result from that activity.
This means that the adjuster needs to have the proper background and expertise to ask the right questions. If injuries or body parts are reported that are not medically connected to the work-related injury, the adjuster may only have a short period of time within which to deny those unrelated claims. An inexperienced adjuster may not identify or attempt the valid denial, in which case that injury and all subsequent treatment may be deemed accepted for the duration (perhaps for the life of the claimant), with no further opportunity to deny. In a large number of cases, this missed opportunity will not have a significant impact on the outcome, but for that small population of high-severity claims, such an error will be costly.
For perspective on external factors that affect increases in workers’ compensation claim liabilities and costs, read Elizabeth Bart’s article “Ever-increasing unpaid claim liabilities: When does the growth stop?”