Medical Malpractice Claims Still Rising
Medical malpractice claims increased by nearly 8 percent in severity in 2012, driven by large claims costing $2 million or more, according to new research by insurer Beazley.
The findings, which form part of Aon Risk Solution’s 2013 Hospital and Physician Professional Liability Benchmark Analysis report, uncover an upward trend that started in 2006.
The average severity for closed claims with indemnity has climbed from just above $300,000 to almost $500,000 in the space of six years.
More worryingly, however, the research revealed that the gap in the average severity for closed claims with indemnity narrowed between all U.S. states and those states where tort reform has been passed — from $100,000 in 2009 to $50,000 last year.
Steve Chang, head of Beazley’s health care claims team, told Risk & Insurance® that the report’s data supported his own findings over the last two years.
“We have similarly felt a very acute uptick in the most severe claims,” he said.<
"The most interesting part of the report was in the non-tort reform states. We have been feeling some pressure [in terms of claims] in some states that have historically been considered benign, and the report really confirmed our experiences."
Plaintiff’s attorneys “have become very savvy at circumventing the caps in place in tort reform states for non-economic damages in order to ensure their clients receive greater economic damage compensation.”
– Steve Chang, head of Beazley’s health care claims team
Chang said there has been a “spillover effect” with the migration of big verdicts awarded in favor of the plaintiff in traditionally high severity states to lower risk jurisdictions, adding that there was no longer a big geographical split as there had been before.
“We are getting a lot of these anomalies where a large verdict will push up the settlement values of subsequent cases and therefore courts are being forced to try cases they wouldn’t normally have considered five years ago, which is creating a vicious cycle,” he said.
Beazley, which maintains a claims database covering 38 percent of U.S. hospital beds, reported that plaintiffs’ attorneys were now pushing for inflated economic damages in the form of large life care plans in states where non-economic damages are capped.
“The knock-on effect is that plaintiffs’ lawyers in tort reform states have been reading about these verdicts in non-tort reform states and many are inclined to try and emulate these results,” said Chang.
“They have become very savvy at circumventing the caps in place in tort reform states for non-economic damages in order to ensure their clients receive greater economic damage compensation.”
An example of this significant shift in plaintiff attorneys’ strategy can be found in Maryland, which despite being a tort-reform state, experienced an increase in average closed claims severity from $423,000 in 2006 to $750,000 in 2012, according to the report.
These findings are backed up by Beazley’s own claims handling experience, said Chang.
The research found that plaintiffs have also switched their focus to high severity cases, driven by catastrophic injuries and the potential for large awards rather than pursuing high volumes of relatively low value cases.
Furthermore, Beazley’s research found that 43 percent of claims above $5 million related to obstetric procedures, with the rate of increase outpacing that of non-obstetric claims.
The Physician Insurers Association of America’s national database of medical professional liability claims reflects a steady increase in severity of claims for higher risk procedures such as obstetrics, and general and orthopedic surgery.
“We have known for some time that our losses are driven primarily by obstetrics claims, but what surprised me most was the significant increase in the value of closed claims between 2005 and 2012,” said Chang.
Divya Parikh, director of research and risk management at the Physician Insurers Association of America’s (PIAA), concurred with the report’s findings.
She said the PIAA’s national database of medical professional liability claims likewise reflected a steady increase in severity of claims for higher risk procedures such as obstetrics, and general and orthopedic surgery.
“While there has been a leveling off in the frequency of claims overall, it seems intuitive that there would be more interest in claims with bigger payouts attached,” she said.
“Obstetrics and gynecological surgery tend to report the highest number of paid claims on our database and in general they also account for the highest average individual payouts in most cases.”
Chang added that U.S. health care reform could accentuate this trend of increased claims in the long-term as more people begin to gain access to better medical services and coverage.
Making the Grade
Taking the time to match a tough job with a worker who can actually do it reduces the potential for costly workplace injuries, employers are now finding.
That concept is leading more employers to study their essential job functions and test the ability of job candidates, particularly when a job requires a new hire to perform functions known to cause injuries.
Increased nationwide hiring, the rising cost of treating workplace injuries and a less physically fit job applicant pool are driving more employers to employ the practice known as post-offer employment testing.
Post-offer employment testing, or POET, involves simulating the lifting, pushing, pulling and other physical activities that make up a job’s essential functions. Employers are increasingly making employment offers conditional upon a job applicant’s physical ability to perform those activities.
And in another recent trend, employers are expanding the strategy to help determine when to return an established employee to their duties following a workplace injury or a non-occupational disability leave.
“Pre-work screens are not a good strategy if your injuries are coming three years into employment.”
–Drew Bossen, founder, Atlas Ergonomics
At Cooper Standard, the Novi, Mich.-based automobile parts manufacturer, for example, workers desiring a strenuous job first participate in “simulated work.” That helps determine whether they are physically capable of performing the real job, said Patricia Hostine, the company’s global manager of workers’ compensation.
A job requiring continual force to press rubber hose into a mold that forms radiator hoses is desirable because it is one of the better paying tasks the auto parts manufacturer offers, Hostine added.
But it’s also one of the company’s most physically demanding roles.
“It’s very hard work,” Hostine said. “That is where a lot of our injuries are found.”
After performing the simulated work, more applicants decide against taking the job than the company disqualifies. That’s because the testing showed them they couldn’t do the job anyway.
Cooper Standard also requires a functional evaluation, conducted by physical therapists, for any worker who has been away from work either because of a workplace injury or a non-occupational disability.
That requires employees who normally form radiator hoses to show that they are once again physically capable of performing the work after returning from an absence.
Employers that have benefited from conducting POET evaluations for newly hired employees are increasingly adopting a similar worker evaluation as part of their return-to-work programs, several experts said.
“Historically, these [physical evaluations] have been used at the point of offer, at the point of employment,” said Drew Bossen, a physical therapist and founder of Atlas Ergonomics. “But in the last 12 months, we have clients formulating methodologies to use them for return to work as well.”
Data from an initial POET exam can also provide a measured baseline of an employee’s abilities that can be reviewed post injury to help determine when the worker has regained their ability to return to their original job, or whether they should take up other duties.
Using data that way can reduce return-to-work durations by providing support for a doctor’s determination to release their patient.
Most employers using a POET system, however, still use it only to test newly hired workers.
Evaluating whether potential new hires have the physical ability to perform certain tasks can substantially reduce a company’s injury rate because newer workers typically account for a greater number of injuries than their more-experienced counterparts, POET advocates said.
Data compiled by the National Council on Compensation Insurance Inc. showed that workers on the job less than a year in 2007 accounted for nearly 34 percent of injuries although they made up only 23 percent of the labor force.
“Pre-work screens are not a good strategy if your injuries are coming three years into employment,” Bossen said.
Now, as the U.S. Labor Department reports increased hiring across the country, vendors that provide physical ability testing programs said they are seeing increased demand, which had dropped off during the recession.
“We have seen a big uptick in companies interested in doing this across all industries,” including transportation, mining and health care, said Connie Vaughn-Miller, vice president of business development for BTE Technologies.
The testing may be more beneficial for the most strenuous types of work.
Hostine at Cooper Standard said, for example, that she does not see a cost/benefit advantage for testing workers engaged in light production jobs.
Most employers adopting a POET strategy do so for certain positions and many start with a pilot program, experts said. It’s best to decide which job categories to include in a pilot program by reviewing the company’s claims history to pinpoint where injury frequency and severity are problems. Or, they recommend starting with the company’s most physically demanding jobs, then add others if the pilot results warrant doing so.
“We can’t be a better place to work if we’re hiring people that are not able to perform the job. That’s bad for the company and the associate.”
–Libby Christman, vice president of risk management, Ahold USA.
Making Work Safer
“One of our company promises is to be a better place to work,” said Libby Christman, vice president of risk management at Ahold USA.
“We can’t be a better place to work if we’re hiring people that are not able to perform the job. That’s bad for the company and the associate.”
Ahold is a retailer with about 120,000 employees operating stores under the names of Stop & Shop, Giant Food Stores, Martin’s Food Markets, and Peapod, an online grocery ordering unit.
Late last year, Ahold launched a pilot program for Peapod delivery drivers and for certain strenuous jobs in two warehouses, Christman said. The warehouse jobs require pushing, pulling, bending and lifting.
Since September, Christman has found that about 25 percent of job applicants could not pass its physical demands test. Screening for an employee capable of doing the job, though, not only reduces injuries, but improves productivity.
“We know that obtaining an accurate assessment of an applicant’s physical abilities can help us place him or her in a suitable job, potentially eliminate injuries and ensure efficiency and performance on the job,” Christman said.
Stepped-up hiring is not the only factor driving employer demand for POET services, observers said.
Employers — continually pushing for more sophisticated safety measures in the face of an aging, more obese, and less physically fit U.S. workforce — are also driving the demand, BTE Technologies’ Vaughn-Miller said.
The Discrimination Question
Employers cannot discriminate when hiring, but they can legally ask a worker to demonstrate that they can meet the physical demands of a job’s essential functions, experts said.
That requires careful analysis, however, to clearly understand a job’s essential functions, so the designed test measures just those functions and does not go beyond evaluating a worker’s ability to perform those specific tasks.
Employers have run afoul of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission when implementing POET programs that evaluated for abilities beyond those required by the job.
If employees must lift 75 pounds only once a year, and can use a mechanical lift assist to help them when they do so, then testing to see whether a worker can lift 75 pounds is not a fair test, advised Colleen M. Britz, managing director and ergonomics practice leader for Marsh Risk Consulting.
Employers may also face discrimination complaints if they do not require a POET evaluation of everyone seeking a specific job, experts warned.
The tests themselves, however, vary substantially, depending on the vendor or employer providing them.
Some resemble gym equipment with electronic systems for measuring a worker’s strength and agility. Those results can then be compared to computerized measurements of a task. Other tests may be as simple as requiring a worker to lift bags of sand.
“I do consider it a best practice to have a well-designed post-offer employment test that truly is measuring an employee’s capacity to meet physical demands,” Britz said. “It’s a matter, from my perspective, of whether some of the methodologies are truly testing that.”
The wide variation in testing methodology has hampered the collection of data on POET’s impact on overall employee injury rates across industries or multiple employers, experts said.
But individual employers have experienced success, Britz said.
“I don’t know of any company that has stopped doing POET after starting — because they are seeing a positive return on investment,” she added.
A physical abilities test helped Prince William County in Virginia mitigate a double loss driven by candidates seeking to become firefighters.
The county was losing tens of thousands of dollars on hiring and training costs each time a job candidate washed out of a 26-week training course simply because they could not perform the physical challenges firefighters face in the line of duty, said Tim Keen, assistant chief for the county’s Department of Fire and Rescue.
Because firefighting is a tough job, a lack of physical capability also contributed to recruit training injuries.
“Not only is it a hard job, but when you add all the gear they wear, their air packs, as well as the functional movements that it takes to accomplish certain tasks, it puts strains on the body,” Keen said.
Those strains became costly workers’ compensation claims when recruits could not return to an existing job as would occur after an established firefighter suffered an injury, added Lori Gray, the county’s risk management division chief. That forced the county to continue paying workers’ compensation benefits to recruits who did not have a job to return to.
So in 2003, the risk management and fire department helped the county establish its own facility where applicants wanting to become firefighters must first participate in a standardized Candidate Physical Ability Test.
The International Association of Fire Fighters and the International Association of Fire Chiefs developed the CPAT test the county licenses.
The test used by fire departments across the country requires candidates to climb stairs while wearing weight vests, drag hoses and simulated bodies, simulate forcing their way into a building, and conduct other physical feats within a certain time period.
“There are a variety of firefighting tasks they must go through in this course,” Keen said. The course tests their aerobic capabilities, their flexibility, core strength, and upper and lower body fitness.
The test’s standardization ensures it is true to the firefighter’s actual work role and that is legal and fair to all candidates, he added.
“Regardless of age or gender the course is the same for everybody,” he said.
“The test is appropriate so you are not losing people due to injuries, especially early in their careers, Keen said. “It’s the right thing to do, making sure they are physically capable of doing the job.”
The screenings have resulted in fewer recruits lost due to a lack of physical ability.
“We have also seen a huge reduction in the number of injuries that were occurring because recruits are coming in more physically fit to do the job,” Keen said.
POET advocates said the screening results have other applications as well.
In some cases, post-offer physical test results provide employers with a defense in permanent disability cases, Britz said.
In states allowing employers to apportion responsibility for permanent disability claims, for example, the baseline results from the initial post-offer exam can limit an employer’s liability by showing that a worker lost only a certain portion of their functional ability during their employment tenure.
Britz added that she expects to see more large, sophisticated employers counter rising claims severity driven by factors such as aging and obesity by integrating their ergonomics, wellness intervention and physical ability testing programs.
For example, an employee returning from a leave might undergo a fitness for duty exam to evaluate their ability to perform the job without injuring themselves.
Simultaneously, the employee could be referred to the employer’s wellness program to address health-related issues such as high body mass index or to learn exercises that would strengthen certain body parts, such as their shoulders, if frequently used in their daily work routines.
“That is the evolution of post-offer employment testing into fitness-for-duty programs,” she said.
“Not so they lose the job, but to recognize that this person needs to work on shoulder strength. So we create an opportunity to increase shoulder strength. I think that is going to be the wave of the future.”
The Promise of Technology
The field of workers’ compensation claims management seems ideally suited as a proving place for the power of technology.
Predictive analytics in the hands of pharmacy and medical management experts can give claims managers the data they need to intervene in troublesome claims. Wearables and other mobile technologies have the potential to give healthcare providers “real-time” reports on the medical condition of injured workers.
Never before have the goals of quick turnaround and transparency in managing claims appeared so tantalizingly achievable.
In the effort to learn more about technology’s potential, in September, Risk & Insurance® partnered with Duluth, Ga.-based Healthcare Solutions to convene an information technology executive roundtable in Philadelphia.
The goal of the roundtable was to explore technology’s promise and to gauge how advancements are serving the industry’s ultimate purpose, getting injured workers safely back to work.
Big Data, Transparency and the Economies of Scale
Integration is a word often heard in connection with workers’ compensation claims management. On one hand, it refers to industry consolidation, as investors and larger service providers seek to combine a host of services through mergers and acquisitions.
In another way, integration applies to workers’ compensation data management. As companies merge, technology is allowing previously siloed stores of data to be combined. Access to these new supersets of data, which technology professionals like to call “Big Data,” present a host of opportunities for payers and service providers.
Through accessible exchange systems that give both providers and payers better access to the internal processes of vendors, a service provider can show the payer the status of the claim across a much broader spectrum of services.
“One of the things I see with all of this data starting to exchange is the ability to use analytics to predict outcomes, and to implement workflows to intervene.”
–Matthew Landon, Vice President of Analytics, Bunch CareSolutions.
“Any time that we can integrate with a payer across multiple products such as pharmacy, specialty and PPO services, what it does is gives us a better picture of the claim and that helps us to drive better outcomes,” said roundtable participant Chuck Cavaness, chief information officer for Healthcare Solutions.
Integration across multiple product lines also produces economies of scale for the payer, he said.
Big Data, according to the roundtable participants, also provides claims managers an unparalleled perspective on the cases they manage.
“One of the things that excites us as more data is exchanged is the ability to use analytics to predict outcomes, and to implement workflows to intervene,” said roundtable participant Matthew Landon, vice president of analytics with Lakeland, Fla.-based Bunch CareSolutions, A Xerox Company.
Philadelphia roundtable participant Mike Cwynar, vice president of Irvine, Calif.-based Mitchell International, agrees with Landon.
“We are utilizing technology to consolidate all of the data, to automate as many tasks as we can, and to provide exception-based processing to flag unusual activity where claims professionals can add value,” Cwynar said.
Technology is also enabling the claims management industry to have more productive interactions with medical providers, long considered one of the Holy Grails of better case management.
Philadelphia roundtable participant Jerry Poole, president and CEO of Malvern, Pa-based claims management company Acrometis, said more uniform and accessible information exchange systems are giving medical providers access to see how bills are moving through the claims manager’s process.
“The technology is enabling providers to call in or to visit a portal to figure out what’s happening in the process,” Poole said.
Another area where technology is moving the industry forward, according to the Philadelphia technology roundtable participants, is mobile technology, which is being used to support adjustors and case managers and is also contributing to quicker return to work and lower costs for payers.
The ability to take a digital tablet to a meeting with an injured worker or a health care provider is allowing case managers to enter data and give feedback on a patient’s condition in real time.
“Our field-based case managers have mobile connectivity to our claims systems that they use while they’re out of the office attending doctor’s appointments, and can enter the data right there into the system, so they’re not having to wait until they are back at the office to enter critical clinical documentation,” said Landon.
Injured workers that use social media, e-mail and the texting function on their mobile phones are staying in better touch with those that are charged with insuring that they are in compliance with their treatment plans.
Wearable devices that provide in-the-moment information about an injured workers’ condition have the potential to recreate what is known in aviation as the “black box,” a device that will record and store the precise physical state of an employee when they were injured. Such a device could also monitor their recovery process.
But as with many technologies, worker and patient privacy also needs to be observed.
“At the end of the day, we need to make sure that we approach technology enhancement that demonstrates value to the client, while ensuring patient advocacy,” Landon said.
As payers and claims managers set out to harness the power of computing in assessing an injured worker’s condition and response to treatment, the cycle of investment in companies that serve the workers’ compensation space is currently playing a significant role.
The trend of private equity investing in companies that can establish one-stop shopping for such services as medical case management, bill review, pharmacy benefit management and fraud forensics has huge potential.
“Any time that we can integrate with a payer across multiple products such as pharmacy, specialty and PPO services, what it does is gives us a better picture of the claim and that helps us to drive better outcomes.”
— Chuck Cavaness, Chief Information Officer, Healthcare Solutions.
The challenge now facing the industry, one the information technology roundtable participants are confident it can meet, is integrating those systems. But doing so won’t happen overnight.
“There’s a lot of specialization in the industry today,” said Jerry Poole of Acrometis.
Years ago there was a PT network. Now there’s a surgical implant guy, there’s specialized negotiations, there’s special investigations, said Poole.
The various data needs to be integrated into an overall data set to be used by the carriers to help lower the cost of risk.
Securing Sensitive Information
Long before hackers turned the cyber defenses of major national retailers inside out, claims management professionals have focused increased attention on the protection of data shared across multiple partners.
Information security safeguards are changing and apply to what technology pros refer to “data at rest,” data that is stored on a particular company’s servers, and “data in flight,” data that is transferred from one user to another.
Mitchell’s Cwynar said carriers want certification that every company their data is being sent to needs to have that information and that both data at rest and data in flight is encrypted.
The roundtable participants agreed that the industry is in a conundrum. Carriers want more help in predictive analytics but are less willing to share the data needed to make those predictions.
And as crucial as avoiding cyber exposures and the corresponding reputational damage is for large, multinational corporations, it is even more acute for smaller companies in the workers’ compensation industry.
Healthcare Solutions’ Cavaness said the millions in loss notification and credit monitoring costs that impact a Target or a Home Depot in the case of a large data theft would devastate many a workers’ compensation service vendor.
“They’d be done in a minute,” Cavaness said.
The barriers to entry in this space are higher now than ever before, continued Cavaness, and companies wishing to do business with large carriers have the burden of proving that its security standards are uncompromising.
Workers’ compensation risk management in the United States is by its very nature, complex and demanding. But keep in mind that those charged with managing that risk get better results year after year.
Technology has a proven capability to iron out the system’s inherent complications and take its more mundane tasks off of the shoulders of case adjustors.
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.