Adjuster X

Citizen Kane

By: | March 3, 2014 • 3 min read
This column is based on the experiences of a group of long-time claims adjusters. The situations they describe are real, but the names and key details are kept confidential. Michelle Kerr is the editor of this column and can be reached at mkerr@lrp.com.

Cynthia Kane, 58, allegedly suffered shortness of breath due to breathing in petroleum fumes over a prolonged period. Kane had already “lawyered up,” so a statement was out of the question. Her file during her 15 years with Union Manufacturing raised no suspicions. Kane was a nonsmoker, and she had never complained to the company nurse about pulmonary problems.

I arranged to tour Kane’s work location. It was separated from the machine shop, where the actual manufacturing took place, by a floor-to-ceiling wall with glass windows. The assembly area was not particularly dirty, and I verified that the HVAC system was up to specifications and maintained twice annually.

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Kane didn’t appear to be in any distress as she did her job.

Kane’s shift ended at 5 p.m., so I returned to the plant at 4:45 that afternoon and waited in the parking lot. I followed her as she made her way home in a fairly new two-door sports car. She stopped at a dry cleaner on the way. I parked and waited nearby for 10 minutes. When she didn’t come out, I decided to
go in.

This was a large operation with the cleaning machines in the back room. There were huge fans throughout the store, but even so there was an unmistakable kerosene-like smell from the solvents used in the dry cleaning process.

At the counter, I asked the clerk about dry-cleaning bedspreads while I strained to see into the back of the store. It was evident Kane was working.

I scratched my head. Why didn’t her attorneys name the shop as a co-defendant on the claims petition? It had far greater pulmonary exposure to airborne contaminants than Union Manufacturing.

The next day, I went back to the dry cleaner and asked to speak with Kane. The flustered counter person said they had no employee by that name. I went back to the dry cleaners three more times during the next two weeks, and each time, I saw Kane’s car there.

I arranged to have a disability evaluation by a pulmonologist, who confirmed that Kane had a mild pulmonary disability (5 percent PPD rating). After reading my report, the doctor concluded the condition was not due to her work at Union Manufacturing. Kane’s attorney had a disability report rating Kane at 25 percent PPD.

I couldn’t fault Kane for wanting a part-time job to help pay for living expenses (and her sports car), but she left me no choice but to deny the claim against Union.

I called her counsel and explained that we’d have to go to trial. He was incredulous, until I explained my findings.

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“Your client didn’t tell you about her ‘under the table’ deal at Salerno’s Dry Cleaning, did she?” I asked him. “I personally observed her working there on three different occasions, and noted the smell of the dry cleaning solvent was very strong.

“I am willing to bet that exposure is the proximate cause of any pulmonary disability she has, rather than from a clean and temperature-controlled environment at Union Manufacturing Co. My examining physician agrees.”

The attorney reluctantly agreed to withdraw the petition. Kane continued to work at Union, and whether she kept her night job at the dry cleaner wasn’t my concern. A good investigation paid off and the claim against Union Manufacturing hit a snag.

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Mental Injury

Rising Workplace Stress Has Big Impact on Comp

In a trend that shows no sign of reversing, American workers are reporting higher levels of stress, which contributes to injuries and illness and hinders recovery.
By: | January 26, 2015 • 4 min read
Topics: Claims | Workers' Comp
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Eight out of every ten American workers report being stressed by at least one thing at work, according to a study by Nieslen, a market research firm. Long commutes, too-heavy workloads coupled with stagnant pay, and poor work-life balance account for the top stress-inducers.

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The impact of poor mental health on physical recovery is well-known in the workers’ comp world, but as stress and anxiety become bigger issues in the workforce, it’s worth taking a longer look at how high levels of stress affect claims, and what employers can do to mitigate those effects.

States vary in how they approach claims of mental or psychological injuries at work, but by and large they are not compensable.

The employee bears the burden of proving that their mental condition — usually anxiety or depression — rose directly out of some extraordinary circumstance of their employment; normal workplace demands are not deemed sufficient reasons for a claim.

“Stress has a negative impact on overall health and return to work outcomes, and a growing body of evidence supports that.” — Trey Gillespie, senior director, workers’ compensation, Property Casualty Insurers Association of America

“There’s a lot of variance, but most states don’t recognize any form of mental-mental dynamic in terms of a compensable workers’ comp claim,” said Trey Gillespie, senior director, workers’ compensation at the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

“Typical work-related stresses, in terms of getting work done and dealing with bosses and co-workers, are generally not a basis for a claim.”

“There are circumstances in which an employee can be compensated for workplace stress, but there are a lot of ‘buts’,” said Bruce Wood, vice president and associate general counsel, American Insurance Association. “States have erected speed bumps or barriers that a claimant would have to pass to be compensated.”

Those speed bumps include higher evidentiary standards for compensability.

Employees must present a preponderance of evidence that clearly and convincingly establishes their work environment as the primary cause for their psychiatric condition — a tall order when other stress-inducing factors like personal finances or troubles at home come into play.

In most states, in order for a mental condition to be compensable, it must be accompanied by some sort of physical injury.

But again, proving that mental stress led to a physical disorder — such as a heart attack, high blood pressure, or other cardiovascular condition — can be difficult.

That’s why these types ‘mental-physical’ claims are not common, but could see an uptick if U.S. workers continue to report high levels of stress connected to unreasonable workloads or long hours.

Specific Exceptions

Some states make exceptions for causes involving PTSD or depression stemming from either experiencing or witnessing a traumatic injury. Connecticut, for example, strictly prohibits mental-mental claims with no physical component, but is seeking legislative amendments to its workers’ compensation act after the Sandy Hook school shootings in 2012.

“Teachers and first responders came upon a horrific scene, and may face PTSD or other emotional distress,” Wood said.

“There’s an attempt to change the law to eliminate the prohibition on mental-mental, or to specifically state that where a trauma is witnessed, that trauma constitutes a physical component of a valid claim.”

Even where mental stress does not constitute a compensable claim, everyday pressures and anxiety nonetheless worsen the outlook of a purely physical claim.

“If a worker has an injury and is trying to get back to their norm, meaning getting back to work in some capacity and back to their usual routine, anything that delays that recovery can trigger some psychological conditions,” said Deirdre Doyle, vice president of quality and continuing education at Procura, a Healthcare Solutions company. “That could be stress, anxiety, depression or all three.”

Doyle also said she believes workers’ comp payers will see more mental health issues as secondary diagnoses on claims going forward.

“Stress has a negative impact on overall health and return to work outcomes, and a growing body of evidence supports that,” Gillespie said.

The good news is that, while stress-free work environments may never be the norm, employers are becoming more receptive to employees’ mental health needs.

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“There’s been a trend for the past 20 years or so in which employers fully understand how day-to-day work environment affects performance and also length of time off due to injury,” Gillespie said.

“There are proactive movements in human resources departments to create environments where employees feel valued, and to not set an adversarial tone if a worker becomes injured.”

However stress comes into play during a claim, whether as a contributing factor to or result of a physical condition, it’s clear that employers and their workers’ comp providers can improve outcomes and save dollars by recognizing the mental component of an injury early and attentively.

Katie Siegel is a staff writer at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at ksiegel@lrp.com.
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Sponsored: Healthcare Solutions

Diversifying Top Management in Workers’ Comp

Inaugural Women in Workers’ Compensation (WiWC) Forum focuses on advancing more women into top leadership roles.
By: | January 7, 2015 • 5 min read

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The panel at the inaugural Women in Workers’ Compensation (WiWC) Forum. From left to right: Eileen Ramallo, Elaine Vega, Nina Smith-Garmon, Nancy Hamlet, Michelle Weatherson, Nanette de la Torre, Danielle Lisenbey.

Across the country, the business community is engaged in a robust conversation about women being under-represented among c-level positions.

Why aren’t more women breaking into upper management roles? Does gender bias still exist? And, perhaps more importantly, what can women and men do to add more diversity to top leadership ranks?

Elaine Vega and Nancy Hamlet, of Healthcare Solutions, the Duluth, Ga.-based health services provider to the workers’ compensation and auto liability/PIP markets, have discussed the issue between themselves many times over the years.

The duo agreed that starting an industry-wide conversation would be an effective start to addressing the challenge. After three years of internal discussions, the inaugural Women in Workers’ Compensation (WiWC) Forum became reality. Judging by the attendance, content and feedback, it was an auspicious, very successful, debut.

Nancy Hamlet, Senior Vice President of Marketing, Healthcare Solutions

Nancy Hamlet, Senior Vice President of Marketing, Healthcare Solutions

Specifically, Healthcare Solutions and LRP Publications teamed up at the National Workers’ compensation and Disability Conference (NWCDC), held Nov. 18-21, 2014 in Las Vegas, to present the first WiWC event focused on the development of women as leaders within the industry. The WiWC debut featured a keynote speaker, a panel discussion and a networking cocktail hour.

“We believe this is just the beginning for the WiWC organization,” said Hamlet, senior vice president of marketing, adding that the event’s main theme was the conversation regarding challenges that still exist for women in the workplace is “current, real … and relevant.”

Originally the forum was allocated a room to hold 150 people. Vega and Hamlet worried about the room being too large, so they asked LRP what the contingency would be to make the room smaller if they couldn’t fill it. They needn’t have worried, as more than 400 women, and some men as well, registered and attended, requiring an even larger room.

“Clearly, the topic is relevant and there was plenty to discuss,” said Vega, senior vice president of account management.

Hamlet explained that WiWC was formed to create an open forum to promote a strong sense of community and support for current and future female leaders in the workers’ compensation industry. Going forward, the WiWC forum will provide insight and ideas with opportunities for members to:

  • Engage … with accomplished industry professionals and build lasting relationships.
  • Enrich … their knowledge base with tactical insights from speakers and panelists.
  • Explore … opportunities and challenges facing women leaders today.
  • Encounter … senior executives’ perspectives on leadership.
  • Examine … leadership strategies and how to effectively apply the strategies.
  • Empower … themselves and others to achieve success and groundbreaking results.

At the inaugural event, keynote speaker Peggy Holtman, co-author of “Leading at the Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition,” discussed how a seemingly unconnected historical event can offer critical lessons on leadership in the workplace, especially for women looking to move into top executive spots.

Elaine Vega, Senior Vice President of Account Management, Healthcare Solutions

Elaine Vega, Senior Vice President of Account Management, Healthcare Solutions

After Holtman’s talk, a panel discussion, moderated by Vega, offered the perspectives of five workers’ compensation industry executives on ways in which women can navigate past the glass ceiling. Panelists included Eileen Ramallo , EVP Healthcare Solutions; Danielle Lisenbey, CEO Broadspire; Nanette de la Torre, VP Zenith; Nina Smith-Garmon, EVP Mitchell International; and Michelle Weatherson, Director, Claims Medical and Regulatory Division, State Fund of Calif.

The panelists discussed a wide range of topics related to women in workers’ compensation. For example, one topic focused on the need to take the big risks when it comes to moving past workplace barriers. Other topics included the importance of women in higher positions serving as sponsors and advocates for younger, less experienced women; and the impact of industry consolidation on women’s careers and how to best manage that change. Another topic was how women could best master conflict and emotions in the workplace.

“What’s clear is conflict has to be managed; it will not go away. It will only get worse,” said Healthcare Solutions’ Ramallo. “It then can create other rifts that won’t necessarily be visible immediately, but can have a very large impact. You have to be able to understand what it is early on from another’s perspective, why the situation exists, and then encourage and try to resolve a conflict situation, whatever may be driving it.”

In the wake of the first WiWC Forum, Hamlet noted that while there are countless general reports showing that women have not yet achieved equal representation in top leadership positions in the workplace, studies deal with averages rather than individual stories. And while women must continue to look at the data and work toward closing the gap, hearing from accomplished women in the workers’ compensation industry at NWCDC drove home critical messages on a person level.

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Today, Vega and Hamlet are looking to expand WiWC to make it “truly owned” by the industry. For example, they expect to recruit companies interested in becoming sponsors, forming an advisory council, creating a charter and discussing future possibilities for the organization on both the national and regional levels.

“Much remains to be done, but I have confidence that we will come together and make the organization stronger so that it prospers for years to come,” Hamlet said. “After all, it’s clear that our industry is filled with talented women who can make things happen!”

Vega added that WiWC has already received requests to live stream the event in the future, so it will examine the feasibility of that option in an effort to be even more inclusive.

“We have a shared vision for improving opportunities for current and future women leaders in workers’ compensation,” Vega said. “It doesn’t matter our gender or our title, it’s all about supporting the greater vision. As was said several times at the event, this is just the beginning. We hope more women and men will join us in this continued dialogue.”

For more information about the WiWC, send email to wiwcleadership@healthcaresolutions.com or join our WiWC group on LinkedIn.

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This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Healthcare Solutions. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.




Healthcare Solutions serves as a health services company delivering integrated solutions to the property and casualty markets, specializing in workers’ compensation and auto liability/PIP.
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