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.”
Pathogens, Allergens and Globalization – Oh My!
In 2014, a particular brand of cumin was used by dozens of food manufacturers to produce everything from spice mixes, hummus and bread crumbs to seasoned beef, poultry and pork products.
Yet, unbeknownst to these manufacturers, a potentially deadly contaminant was lurking…
What followed was the largest allergy-related recall since the U.S. Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act became law in 2006. Retailers pulled 600,000 pounds of meat off the market, as well as hundreds of other products. As of May 2015, reports of peanut contaminated cumin were still being posted by FDA.
Food manufacturing executives have long known that a product contamination event is a looming risk to their business. While pathogens remain a threat, the dramatic increase in food allergen recalls coupled with distant, global supply chains creates an even more unpredictable and perilous exposure.
Recently peanut, an allergen in cumin, has joined the increasing list of unlikely contaminants, taking its place among a growing list that includes melamine, mineral oil, Sudan red and others.
“I have seen bacterial contaminations that are more damaging to a company’s finances than if a fire burnt down the entire plant.”
— Nicky Alexandru, global head of Crisis Management at AIG
“An event such as the cumin contamination has a domino effect in the supply chain,” said Nicky Alexandru, global head of Crisis Management at AIG, which was the first company to provide contaminated product coverage almost 30 years ago. “With an ingredient like the cumin being used in hundreds of products, the third party damages add up quickly and may bankrupt the supplier. This leaves manufacturers with no ability to recoup their losses.”
“The result is that a single contaminated ingredient may cause damage on a global scale,” added Robert Nevin, vice president at Lexington Insurance Company, an AIG company.
Quality and food safety professionals are able to drive product safety in their own manufacturing operations utilizing processes like kill steps and foreign material detection. But such measures are ineffective against an unexpected contaminant. “Food and beverage manufacturers are constantly challenged to anticipate and foresee unlikely sources of potential contamination leading to product recall,” said Alexandru. “They understandably have more control over their own manufacturing environment but can’t always predict a distant supply chain failure.”
And while companies of various sizes are impacted by a contamination, small to medium size manufacturers are at particular risk. With less of a capital cushion, many of these companies could be forced out of business.
Historically, manufacturing executives were hindered in their risk mitigation efforts by a perceived inability to quantify the exposure. After all, one can’t manage what one can’t measure. But AIG has developed a new approach to calculate the monetary exposure for the individual analysis of the three major elements of a product contamination event: product recall and replacement, restoring a safe manufacturing environment and loss of market. With this more precise cost calculation in hand, risk managers and brokers can pursue more successful risk mitigation and management strategies.
Product Recall and Replacement
Whether the contamination is a microorganism or an allergen, the immediate steps are always the same. The affected products are identified, recalled and destroyed. New product has to be manufactured and shipped to fill the void created by the recall.
The recall and replacement element can be estimated using company data or models, such as NOVI. Most companies can estimate the maximum amount of product available in the stream of commerce at any point in time. NOVI, a free online tool provided by AIG, estimates the recall exposures associated with a contamination event.
Restore a Safe Manufacturing Environment
Once the recall is underway, concurrent resources are focused on removing the contamination from the manufacturing process, and restarting production.
“Unfortunately, this phase often results in shell-shocked managers,” said Nevin. “Most contingency planning focuses on the costs associated with the recall but fail to adequately plan for cleanup and downtime.”
“The losses associated with this phase can be similar to a fire or other property loss that causes the operation to shut down. The consequential financial loss is the same whether the plant is shut down due to a fire or a pathogen contamination.” added Alexandru. “And then you have to factor in the clean-up costs.”
Locating the source of pathogen contamination can make disinfecting a plant after a contamination event more difficult. A single microorganism living in a pipe or in a crevice can create an ongoing contamination.
“I have seen microbial contaminations that are more damaging to a company’s finances than if a fire burnt down the entire plant,” observed Alexandru.
Handling an allergen contamination can be more straightforward because it may be restricted to a single batch. That is, unless there is ingredient used across multiple batches and products that contains an unknown allergen, like peanut residual in cumin.
Supply chain investigation and testing associated with identifying a cross-contaminated ingredient is complicated, costly and time consuming. Again, the supplier can be rendered bankrupt leaving them unable to provide financial reimbursement to client manufacturers.
“Until companies recognize the true magnitude of the financial risk and account for each of three components of a contamination, they can’t effectively protect their balance sheet. Businesses can end up buying too little or no coverage at all, and before they know it, their business is gone.”
— Robert Nevin, vice president at Lexington Insurance, an AIG company
Loss of Market
While the manufacturer is focused on recall and cleanup, the world of commerce continues without them. Customers shift to new suppliers or brands, often resulting in permanent damage to the manufacturer’s market share.
For manufacturers providing private label products to large retailers or grocers, the loss of a single client can be catastrophic.
“Often the customer will deem continuing the relationship as too risky and will switch to another supplier, or redistribute the business to existing suppliers” said Alexandru. “The manufacturer simply cannot find a replacement client; after all, there are a limited number of national retailers.”
On the consumer front, buyers may decide to switch brands based on the negative publicity or simply shift allegiance to another product. Given the competitiveness of the food business, it’s very difficult and costly to get consumers to come back.
“It’s a sad fact that by the time a manufacturer completes a recall, cleans up the plant and gets the product back on the shelf, some people may be hesitant to buy it.” said Nevin.
A complicating factor not always planned for by small and mid-sized companies, is publicity.
The recent incident surrounding a serious ice cream contamination forced both regulatory agencies and the manufacturer to be aggressive in remedial actions. The details of this incident and other contamination events were swiftly and highly publicized. This can be as damaging as the contamination itself and may exacerbate any or all of the three elements discussed above.
Estimating the Financial Risk May Save Your Company
“In our experience, most companies retain product contamination losses within their own balance sheet.” Nevin said. “But in reality, they rarely do a thorough evaluation of the financial risk and sometimes the company simply cannot absorb the financial consequences of a contamination. Potential for loss is much greater when factoring in all three components of a contamination event.”
This brief video provides a concise overview of the three elements of the product contamination event and the NOVI tool and benefits:
“Until companies recognize the true magnitude of the financial risk and account for each of three components of a contamination, they can’t effectively protect their balance sheet,” he said. “Businesses can end up buying too little or no coverage at all, and before they know it, their business is gone.”
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Lexington Insurance. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.