Friday, July 18, 2014

Utilization Review: Tough Love is Best Practice

[A guest post from David Price, PRIUM's Compliance Counsel.  I'll direct any comments you might to have for response.]

“If you would persuade, you must appeal to interest rather than to intellect.”
                                                                                                            -- Benjamin Franklin

Promoting change is hard.  I feel like it’s particularly difficult in the sphere of workers’ compensation.  Between physicians, injured workers, payers, employers, and attorneys, there are multiple competing interests at stake, and policy makers are hesitant to change the existing laws and risk inviting backlash from the groups that don’t feel like they’re benefiting from the change.  The people that shape workers’ compensation law – whether they’re legislators, administrative officers, or judges -- want to promote the public good, but most importantly, they want to make sure that the system is fair.  They want to make sure that no one is getting cheated.  Once they feel like someone is getting cheated by the law, change suddenly becomes much easier.

When a new law is being discussed, there’s always a temptation for us to discuss only the aspects of the changes that benefit us – to only consider our side of the overall story.  What we say might be true, but it’s not always persuasive, particularly if we don’t discuss how the change will benefit other interested groups.  When we only talk about how the change benefits us, it’s no surprise when some of those other groups start to complain that the change is unfair… or when policy makers start to believe them.

Promoting good policy requires honesty, but more importantly, it requires effective honesty. 

I recently had the opportunity to attend the annual Tennessee Workers' Compensation Educational Conference.  This year, the conference was set up so that audience members could text their comments and questions to the speakers throughout each presentation.  This way, audience members could ask their questions while they were still fresh in their minds, and the speakers could finish their presentations without interruption and then come back to address the questions afterward.  As a bonus, because the comments were submitted anonymously, people weren't afraid to ask questions or offer their perspective on each issue.

For better or worse, there was a lot of honesty in the room.

Dr. Robert Snyder, the Medical Director of the DWC, discussed the DWC's plan to adopt treatment guidelines by 2016.  Additionally, several presenters made reference to Tennessee's current UR process, and there was some brief discussion of what the UR process would look like once the treatment guidelines were implemented.  

The comments from the audience, understandably enough, were more concerned with how UR could be used effectively to reduce medical costs.  Unfortunately, many of the comments were essentially expressions of outrage at the irresponsibility and attitude of entitlement of injured workers.  Commenters made a strong case for how UR (and by extension, the guidelines) could be a useful tool to beat drug-seeking claimants.  That may not have been the most effective form of honesty.

With legislators and workers' compensation judges in attendance, commenters touted UR and the guidelines as purely cost-reduction tools and, at one point, a presenter, in response to a question, made the suggestion that in 2016, adjusters, not UR physicians, should apply the new treatment guidelines, and that any request complying with the guidelines should not be subject to UR.  

The overall message was clear: the point of treatment guidelines is to reduce medical costs.  Since they’re really just a tool for the adjuster to use to “beat” the injured worker, maybe we should let the adjustor apply them directly, without getting a medical opinion.

If you ask any claimant's attorney, they'll tell you that all injured workers (or at least their clients) have a legitimate medical need for whatever treatment their doctors recommend, and that payors are just using treatment guidelines and UR as tools to get out of paying for treatment in order to save money.  UR and treatment guidelines are just tools to “beat” the injured workers -- at least, that’s how they tell the story.  Notably, their version frames UR and treatment guidelines as tools aimed solely at saving payors money.  They do this because they know that if they can show UR and treatment guidelines as being implemented solely to benefit the payor by harming the injured worker, it makes the whole process seem unfair.  Any policy maker with the slightest sense of empathy will try to find a way to undermine or limit application of the guidelines.

So here's where I say something that may be controversial:  The primary goal of UR and evidence-based treatment guidelines is to ensure proper treatment for the patient.  Cost reduction is a bonus -- a secondary effect.

Don't get me wrong: from the perspective of insurance carriers and self-insured employers, cost reduction is going to be the primary goal.  Most payers are for-profit entities, and their focus is (and should be) on reducing costs.  That said, policy makers have a different role.  Their focus should be on the public good, and if we continue to allow the debate to be framed as "patients' medical need vs. payers' bottom line," payors will lose every time.  If we talk about treatment guidelines as something that only benefits payers, we can expect to see those guidelines undermined at every opportunity.

We need to be careful in how we tell the story.

There is a very real public policy battle here, and not just in Tennessee.  In Louisiana, several courts have limited the application of the state's treatment guidelines.  In California, the infamous Dubon decision is being used by injured workers' attorneys as a means to attempt to escape the UR/IMR process.  Oklahoma has implemented a closed formulary based on the Official Disability Guidelines, but the state legislature has effectively limited application of the formulary based on date of injury.  (Only claims under the jurisdiction of the new Workers’ Compensation Commission – those claims with a date of injury of 2/1/14 or later – are subject to the closed formulary).  In multiple jurisdictions, we're seeing judges and other policy makers limit the opportunities to apply objective medical standards.  

Why?  The primary reason is a concern for due process.  At the risk of greatly over-simplifying the points raised in each of these instances, the general underlying concern is that the objective medical standards aren't really objective at all (or at least aren't being applied objectively), and so a "fair" determination of medical necessity can only come from a judge.

Now, in Tennessee, the DWC is planning to adopt treatment guidelines by 2016, but which guidelines will be adopted -- or how they will be utilized -- remains to be seen.  We can be certain that the way we talk about treatment guidelines and the UR process now will greatly affect the way the process is shaped as the guidelines are implemented, and whether or not policy makers see application of the guidelines as an "unfair" intrusion onto injured workers' right to due process.

We can be just as certain that when the guidelines are implemented, work comp and appellate judges will see a host of objections.  No doubt, many of those objections will echo the arguments that have been made in other jurisdictions.

If we talk about treatment guidelines as something designed to benefit only the payer -- and especially if we promote them as something that payers should be able to use without requiring a physician’s opinion (I don’t envy the attorney that has to defend a non-medically-trained adjusters determination that a physician’s recommended treatment isn’t medically necessary) -- we’re buying into a very dangerous story.  It’s the same story every injured worker’s attorney will tell in 2016 when the guidelines are applied.

To be honest, treatment guidelines do reduce overall medical costs, but that's not the whole story.  If that's how we allow the discussion to be framed, we can expect to see more limitations on when and how guidelines are applied -- in Tennessee and elsewhere.

The vital part that’s missing from that story is that, in reality, evidence-based treatment guidelines are designed to benefit injured workers, and that’s precisely what they do.

The reality is that injured workers usually don't know what treatment is appropriate; they only know what their doctors tell them.  The reality is that treating physicians are torn between their duty to help the patient recover as quickly as possible and the lingering financial incentive toward excessive treatment.  The very nature of the workers’ compensation system, and sometimes even the patients, can pressure physicians to treat in ways that contradict their best medical judgment.  At the same time, even the most honest and strong-willed treating physicians are hard-pressed to keep abreast of current medical evidence as they try to operate a successful practice, and many are particularly under-educated regarding the proper prescription of opioids for pain.  The reality is that evidence-based treatment guidelines provide an objective standard of care and, when used correctly, can protect the injured worker from improper treatment, overdose, and addiction.

That's the truth, and that's how we should tell the story.

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