This summer, at one of California’s numerous wildfires, the appearance of a drone over Interstate 15 forced firefighting aircraft to back off for about 20 minutes until it flew away.
Instead of 40 or 50 acres burning before that fire was controlled, a few thousand acres, along with about 20 vehicles, were destroyed, as drivers ran from the area, according to reports.
In July alone, there were about a half-dozen similar incidents in California. Anywhere from two to five drones appeared at fire sites, sometimes chasing after the air tankers and helicopters, and forcing the aircraft to delay dropping retardant or even calling off operations until the areas could be cleared.
“It has hampered our efforts,” said Dennis Brown, chief of flight operations at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), which has about 50 air tankers and helicopters that respond nearly daily to wildfires from March through November.
“The size of the drones, even though they look small, could cause significant damage to any of our aircraft,” Brown said. The tail rotor of a helicopter is particularly vulnerable and a tail rotor strike could be catastrophic. “We had one helicopter pilot coming in to land to drop off a crew and there was a near miss by a drone,” he said. “It was 20 to 30 feet away, right in the windscreen.”
Sometimes, the drones are operated by homeowners checking for damage to their property. Sometimes it’s just curiosity or a desire to photograph the scene and post it to social media that prompts the drone operators.
“The size of the drones, even though they look small, could cause significant damage to any of our aircraft.” — Dennis Brown, chief of flight operations, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire)
But regardless of the reason, interference from drone operators is obstructing firefighting efforts and increasing danger to the pilots and their aircraft.
“The pilots are flying low and they are flying fast,” said John Glenn, chief of fire operations for the Bureau of Land Management. “There are a lot of hazards there. You throw drones or UAVs into the mix and there have been a number of cases where we have shut down operations until we can clear the air.”
Open Season for Drones
Public safety hazards due to drones aren’t limited to firefighting. The Federal Aviation Administration reports about two dozen drone sightings per month at airports throughout the nation, according to reports.
In one reported case, a plane headed from Washington, D.C. to LaGuardia Airport in New York had to pull up about 200 feet to avoid a collision with a drone in its path as it tried to land.
UAVs have buzzed French nuclear plants, landed on the roof of the Japanese prime minister’s residence (with radioactive material, no less), and even landed on the White House lawn. In August, a riot broke out in an Ohio prison yard after a drone dropped a package containing significant quantities of marijuana and heroin.
Drones have flown over sporting events and city parks — to sometimes deadly effect. One 19-year-old man died in a New York park when he lost control of his drone helicopter and the fast-moving blades cut him and killed him.
Drones have been sighted during a game of the Texas Longhorns football team and at a Philadelphia Phillies game. A triathlete in Western Australia had to be taken to the hospital just yards from the finish line after a drone fell on her.
“They take a pretty decent picture and they are fun and cute, but it’s not real smart to be flying a drone in an arena,” said J. Matthew Ouellette, owner/general adjuster at Ouellette & Associates in Indiana.
“The drone could fall out of the sky … and into somebody’s lap or into their beer,” he said. “Right now, it’s open season and people are flying them all over the place. There are just some idiots out there.”
And some people don’t take kindly to it, with reports surfacing of people shooting drones out of the sky. Of course, the reverse is also a grim prospect: One teenager was arrested after creating a drone that shoots a gun.
As for insurance coverage, the typical general liability, property or homeowners’ policy does not cover aircraft, experts said.
Insurance policies covering drone use are generally purchased by either the owner/operator of the drone or the manufacturer, said Patton Kline, senior vice president, Marsh Aviation. “Obviously, the risks for those two groups are very different.”
And, in the end, he said, it is the manufacturers that may face the greatest liability.
“If there is a significant event, we are concerned that litigation will come back to the UAS [unmanned aerial system] manufacturer because they will have the deep pockets,” he said.
“If you have a weekend warrior flying a drone for fun, they don’t necessarily understand the risks and if they are involved in a significant loss, they may not have insurance to pay for damages.”
“Right now, it’s open season and people are flying them all over the place. There are just some idiots out there.” — J. Matthew Ouellette, owner/general adjuster, Ouellette & Associates
For large aerospace companies that use or manufacture drones, it’s fairly easy for them to work with their insurers to add drone coverage to current policies or to add a stand-alone policy, Kline said.
Coverage may include physical damage to the UAS, propulsion units, payload/cargo (imaging, sensors or specialty equipment that may be more expensive than the UAS itself), ground station control units, spare parts and transit coverage.
All of that is available, he said, from up to a dozen insurers including AIG, Global Aerospace, Allianz, Starr Aviation, United States Aviation Underwriters and Berkley Aviation, as well as insurers that do not historically provide aviation coverage.
In addition, ISO has crafted a drone endorsement as a coverage extension to some of their commercial general liability (CGL) policy forms for insureds that seek to add drone coverage to CGL policies, he said.
The cost of physical damage coverage (also known as hull coverage) can be expensive, particularly for new or unproven unmanned aerial system platforms. Insuring $1 million in value could cost up to $100,000, depending on the UAV platform, with many policies typically in the $50,000 range, experts said.
Third-party liability, such as for bodily injury or property damage due to drones is also available, and is much less expensive, experts said. Product liability coverage would also be an important coverage to consider for UAV manufacturers.
A commercial stand-alone UAV liability policy for $1 million could start as low as $1,000, said Vikki Stone, senior vice president, Poms & Associates.
She said she has seen interest in such coverage from organizations that use drones in their business, such as entertainment, aerial mapping, residential construction and pipeline construction.
“We are seeing a lot of individuals who may have been hobbyists or pilots who are seeing an opportunity to start up a business,” she said.
“The bigger concern is rogue flyers. The industry has not yet really had enough time to assemble any sort of loss experience. As that evolves, we are likely to see changes in the marketplace, but it’s too new yet.”
Another issue that carriers and brokers are still grappling with is invasion of privacy, which could offer potential litigation concerns. That coverage is currently excluded by all drone insurers, according to Marsh’s recent report, “Dawning of the Drones: The Evolving Risk of Unmanned Aerial Systems.”
Eamonn Cunningham, chief risk officer, Scentre Group, said the first step to purchasing coverage would be to analyze meaningful gaps between what is in existing policies and what is needed.
“Absolutely do your homework in advance and sometimes you might need experts from outside the organization to understand what’s appropriate and what’s not,” he said.
“The processes that you go through in trying to determine what this relatively brand new risk means to you — it’s a real challenge.”
An organization may not need bespoke coverage once a gap analysis and risk assessment is performed, he said.
He compared drone coverage today with the purchase of cyber coverage a half-dozen years ago. At that time, many companies ended up buying a commodity — the typical cyber policy — instead of coverage that protected the specific risks faced by the organization.
“If you know exactly what you are buying, there’s less chance you will be disappointed when something happens and you find it doesn’t fit the specific manner in which you use, operate, sell or manufacture the drone,” he said.
Ella Atkins, associate professor, aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan, said federal regulations have hampered the safe use of drones because Congress exempted hobbyists flying under 500 feet from FAA rulemaking in the 2012 FAA reauthorization act.
“The problem is … the FAA’s policies focus on unmanned aircraft operating near airports,” she said.
“You need people on the ground to enforce low-altitude airspace flight, not the FAA. They have no presence away from airports [to control the situation].”
While Atkins doesn’t expect it to happen, some others are anticipating that the FAA may issue final regulations related to drone use by the end of this year.
But, if the FAA puts its focus on bans or strict regulations for low-altitude drone use away from airports, the effort will come to naught, she said. Instead, local and state governments and private landowners should be empowered to apply disorderly conduct and trespass laws as ways to control the hazards of rogue drone use.
“We need to start realizing that it’s a matter of what the person does with the drone, not the drone itself that is bad or good,” Atkins said.
In addition, she said, the FAA is ignoring a 1946 federal legal case that ruled property owners have control over the airspace immediately above their land.
Current rules mean that a farmer could be struck by a drone on his own property and have no recourse, or that Amazon.com could fly 10 feet over a home on its way to deliver a package and owe the property owner no compensation for use of the airspace.
“We need to start realizing that it’s a matter of what the person does with the drone, not the drone itself that is bad or good.” — Ella Atkins, associate professor, aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan
Recently, Amazon suggested a separate airspace lane for commercial drone delivery flights, which called for UAVs to fly between 200 feet and 400 feet. The air traffic control for that space would be handled by an automated computer system.
About 100 companies, including Amazon, Google and Verizon Communications, have agreed to work with NASA to help devise that air traffic system, according to reports.
There are no firm answers to the problem, said Jeff Power, regional aviation officer, U.S. Forest Service. He noted that one current law that could apply to firefighting is a restriction on interfering with public officials in the course of their duty.
But, he said, it’s very difficult to track down the drone operators.
“A large part of it is education of the drone operators,” Power said, although he noted that one day soon it may be emergency service organizations that are operating drones to help combat hazardous situations.
In fact, Texas A&M University held a seminar this summer about the way drone technology could be used to help deal with deadly flooding.
“We understand the capabilities,” Power said, “but when we have the recreational drone operator who isn’t necessarily familiar with the FAA’s requirements and flight restrictions — that’s the big issue. It’s a matter of educating them and hopefully no one gets hurt in the meantime.”
If I mention the Scaffold Law, what springs to mind?
One answer is scaffolding — the pipes, boards and ladders that go up around tall buildings to enable the exterior to be worked upon.
The word “scaffold” has another meaning, the one I thought it had when I recently started reading an article on the Scaffold Law. The scaffold I was thinking of was the platform to which you send a man or a woman to be hanged. One would be sent to the scaffold to be executed for one’s crimes or, at less enlightened stages of history, for the amusement of others.
The article, by Don Riggin, principal at The Art of Captives LLC consultancy, suggested that captive insurance companies can be very helpful to those involved with the scaffold. Brilliant, I thought. Hang your opponents, victims, whatever, offshore. It’s statistically nearer the water, in which the hanged man may be deposited, thus lowering the cost of the whole exercise. What profit may remain is fed into a captive insurer, which operates in a tax-neutral environment, maximizing the rate of return.
This was not the direction Mr. Riggin took in his article, however. The Scaffold Law, he wrote, “imposes ‘absolute liability’ for elevation-related injuries to construction employees on any and all parties associated with construction, repair, and demolition projects.”
(Elevation-related injuries are also known as gravity-related injuries, or, in say-what-you-mean language, falls.)
In a way, of course, gravity-related incidents are the workers’ fault.
If people managed their lives better, so that they didn’t need to work, they wouldn’t have applied for the job in the first place, and then they couldn’t have been hurt.
“Absolute liability means that any employee who falls from one level to another and sustains injury is almost guaranteed a settlement,” Mr. Riggin wrote, and who among us would disagree with that? Not paying the costs of a person who is hurt at work doesn’t sound fair at all.
“The Scaffold Law, according to its detractors, provides a strong incentive for the employee to file an action-over liability claim against the property owner, project manager, and general contractor (assuming the injured claimant is employed by a subcontractor),” the article said. I don’t know exactly what that means, but it suggests that some people feel that those hurt at work should fend for themselves from there on out.
In a way, of course, gravity-related incidents are the workers’ fault. If people managed their lives better, so that they didn’t need to work, they wouldn’t have applied for the job in the first place, and then they couldn’t have been hurt. In certain countries, laws using that logic relate to foreigners driving, but in sane places, injured workers are usually helped by employers who make money off the work achieved before the worker is injured doing it.
Here’s the punch. The Scaffold Law is apparently held directly responsible by some for rising insurance costs and the withdrawal of many insurers that used to cover New York contractors’ liability.
Such risks could be more efficiently carried in a captive, Mr. Riggin said, “at rates commensurate with the loss exposure and not driven by market capriciousness.” By golly, he’s right, except that “caprice” is the word he was reaching for.
You can’t help feeling, though, that those pesky construction workers, pants worn too low, bellies too big, would do everyone a favor if they’d just stop working. If they must work for some obscure reason, then surely they could stop hurting themselves doing the work and costing their employers time, money and aggravation.
Is that too much to ask?
Specialty Drugs Show No Signs of Slowing Down
A decade ago, high-cost specialty drugs were commonly referred to as “injectable drugs” and were used to treat conditions not typically covered in workers’ compensation, such as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
“Today, however, new specialty drugs are emerging that will be used to treat other chronic and inflammatory conditions,” said Joe Boures, president and CEO of Healthcare Solutions, an Optum company providing specialized pharmacy benefit management services to the workers’ compensation market.
“Payers in the workers’ comp market are just beginning to feel the cost impact of greater utilization of these drugs, which come with expensive price tags.”
Specialty drugs are often manufactured using biologic rather than chemical methods, and they are no longer just administered by injections. New specialty drugs can also be inhaled or taken orally, likely contributing to the rise in their utilization.
“There isn’t a standard definition of specialty drugs, but they are generally defined as being complex to manufacture, costly, require specialty handling and distribution, and they difficult for patients to take without ongoing clinical support or may require administration by a health care provider,” said Boures.
In 2014, more than a quarter of all new therapies that the FDA approved were through its biologics division. Biologics, and similar therapies, are representative of a future trend in prescription drug spend.
“As the fastest growing costs in health care today, specialty drugs have the potential to change the way prescription benefits are provided in the future,” said Jim Andrews, executive vice president of pharmacy for Healthcare Solutions.
Workers’ Compensation payers may not recognize how specialty drugs are affecting their drug spend.
Specialty drugs like Enbrel®, Humira® and Synvisc® can be processed in conjunction with other medical procedures and, therefore, not recognized by payers as a pharmacy expense.
This leaves payers with little visibility into the costs of these medications within their book of business and a lack of tools to control these costs.
Due to the high costs of specialty medications, special due diligence should be utilized when claimants receive these medications, up to and including utilization review, said Andrews.
“Healthcare Solutions recommends that claimants using specialty drugs are monitored for proper medication handling and that the medication is administered appropriately, as well as monitoring the claimant to determine whether the medication is having its desired results and if there are any side effects,” he said.
“At $1,000 per pill for some of these specialty medications, making sure a claimant can tolerate the side effects becomes vital to making sure the claimant achieves the desired outcomes.”
Hepatitis C drugs have made their way to the workers’ compensation market, largely through coverage of healthcare workers, who have exposure to the disease.
“Traditional drug treatments that began in the 1990’s had a success rate of 6% and costs ranging from $1,800 to over $88,000,” said Andrews.
“The new Hepatitis C specialty medications have a treatment success rate of 94-100%, but cost between $90,000 and $226,000.”
Although the new treatments include higher drug costs, the payer’s overall medical costs may actually decrease if the Hep C patient would have required a liver transplant as part of the course of treatment without the drugs.
While the release of new Hepatitis C medications in 2014 demonstrated the potential impact specialty medications can have on workers’ compensation payers, there are some specialty medications under development that target more common conditions in workers’ compensation.
Pfizer Inc. and Eli Lilly and Company are currently developing tanezumab, a new, non-narcotic medication to treat chronic pain, which is common in workers’ compensation claims.
Tanezumab has demonstrated benefits of reducing pain in clinical trials and may provide non-addictive pain relief to claimants in the future. This may change how pain management is treated in the future.
Healthcare Solutions has a specialty medication program that provides payers discounted rates and management oversight of claimants receiving specialty medications.
Through the paper bill process, Healthcare Solutions aids payers in identifying specialty drugs and works with adjusters and physicians to move claimants into the specialty network.
A central feature of the program is that claimants are assigned to a clinical pharmacist or a registered nurse with specialty pharmacy training for consistent care with one-on-one consultations and ongoing case management.
The program provides patients with education and counseling, guidance on symptoms related to their medical conditions and drug side effects, proactive intervention for medication non-adherence, and prospective refill reminder and follow-up calls.
“The goal is to improve patient outcomes and reduce total costs of care,” said Boures.