A Paramount Parable
Disclaimer: The events depicted in this scenario are fictitious. Any similarity to any corporation or person, living or dead, is merely coincidental.
Home for the Holidays
Neal Chambers surveyed the holiday turkeys on display at his local grocer on Nov. 23 and mused. Fresh or frozen? Tom or hen? Free range or kosher? Locally produced or from the foothills of the Smoky or the Sierra Mountains?
Chambers threw thrift to the wind and plunked down $52 for a 16-pound organic bird from Upstate New York.
What the heck? After four brutally slow years, the construction company he managed risk for was showing signs of reemergence.
True, the company’s estimators were not happy. Where once they needed to bid 10 jobs to land one, each job now took 30 or 40 bids to land.
Neal’s company, Paramount Construction Co., based in Des Moines, Iowa, worked with larger companies historically.
But in order to land projects, it was now moving down to the middle market and competing against smaller regional operators with local expertise. This was not an easy road to hoe.
But Paramount was doing what it felt it needed to do to compete successfully.
At the office holiday party on Dec. 19, held at the River Bluff Country Club, Neal could see signs that the C-suites were feeling a little better about things. Nice carving station, good wine in the glasses and some generous door prizes. He took in a deep breath and let it out.
Things had been tough for a while. He’d been working hard. He’d been worried.
“Go ahead, have a drink,” he told himself. “It’s free and now is as good a time as any.”
Neal had one glass of wine in him and was waiting his turn to fill his plate at the sushi appetizer table when he saw one of the vice presidents, Tom Murphy, lift his phone to his ear.
As he listened to the caller, Murphy turned and looked at Neal. With his other hand, he gestured to Neal to join him. Murphy’s hand was free because he did not drink at company functions … ever.
“It’s Constantine,” Murphy said in a whisper when Neal got closer. “Something’s up. He tried to reach you but…”
Murphy shrugged non-judgmentally.
Constantine, head of operations. Good guy. No nonsense.
“This is Neal Chambers,” Neal said into Murphy’s phone.
“Neal, it’s Jonny Constantine. We’ve got a bit of a situation.”
“Shoot,” Neal said.
Constantine exhaled audibly into the phone. Neal could tell that Constantine was a little upset.
Neal shot a look of worry at Murphy.
“Look, we just had an accident with an excavator operator on the site here in Mille Lacs. We’ve got one seriously injured employee and some structural damage to a neighboring building.”
“How bad is the injury?” Neal said.
“It’s not pretty. I think this poor kid is going to lose his left leg below the knee,” Constantine said.
“And the building?”
“Well. The wall on the demo wasn’t supported right and the operator knocked it into this neighboring wall. It was a pretty big bump.”
Neal hung up with Constantine and gave Murphy his phone back.
As he turned his own phone on to check messages, Neal Chambers felt any holiday warmth drain out of him. The wine that had been so enjoyable 20 minutes ago now struck him like a cheap depressant.
2014 was supposed to be Paramount’s breakout year. But now Chambers had a significant workers’ compensation and general liability claim to worry about.
Looking around the brightly lit room at his fellow employees, Neal Chambers had an uneasy feeling that 2014 wasn’t going to be that great after all.
No Bench Strength
What worried Neal Chambers were the personnel cuts Paramount undertook to survive during the brutal commercial construction downturn that seized the country during the Great Recession.
The most worrisome cuts came in the area of safety, where some highly paid talent had been laid off. But there were also cuts in estimating, where other senior personnel with beefier paychecks left the company.
You couldn’t put the cart before the horse. Although things were turning around, Paramount was not yet at a place where it could hire big ticket talent to fill the gaps. Not yet.
Yet the company was trying to grow again and take on more projects. The combination worried Neal Chambers.
The accident with the excavator in Mille Lacs wasn’t catastrophic. But it was the beginning of a series of workplace accidents that plagued the company through the first six months of 2014.
Neal’s conversations with finance added to his anxiety.
“We’re just not making the money on these projects I thought we were going to be,” said Tom Murphy’s elder brother Pat Murphy, the company CFO.
Bidding for projects in unfamiliar territories and on unfamiliar scales, Paramount’s overworked estimators were missing the mark time and again.
The combination of an increased injury frequency rate and thinner margins was not making a good impression on Paramount’s surety and insurance underwriters.
Both Pat and Neal feared that year-end premium increases could be in the works.
Paramount’s revenue shortfalls created friction with subcontractors.
Jonny Constantine got into several heated arguments with subcontractors, alleging that they were botching projects by not moving more efficiently.
There were now a handful of legal proceedings underway. In those cases, Paramount was alleging that subcontractors violated the terms of their contracts by not completing the work in time, or completing it in substandard fashion.
Win or lose, those lawsuits meant one thing to Neal Chambers and Pat Murphy. They meant more costs, more margin erosion.
“We’re in a tight spot,” Neal Chambers said.
“I know we are,” Pat said, somewhat impatiently.
“The thing is, I don’t know what we can do between now and 2015 renewals to make a better impression,” Neal said.
“It’s almost like a roll of the dice,” he added. “I don’t know what else we can get out of the safety department in terms of management.”
“We need better talent and more of it,” Pat said.
The question was where.
A Horse With No Name
The answer to Neal’s question, as it turned out, was “nowhere.”
The talent crunch that Paramount was experiencing, and which was causing it so much pain, was not isolated to Paramount. But some of its competitors moved more quickly than Paramount in acquiring and retaining the talent to help them take full advantage of the upturn.
Others moved even less effectively than Paramount. But in a competitive economy, being in the middle was no place to be.
As 2014 moved from the second quarter to the third and fourth, adding to Paramount’s workers’ compensation woes and its sinking profit margins came yet another issue.
That issue was increasing commodities prices. Paramount’s overworked estimators, working in the unfamiliar middle market, failed to take into account a gradual increase in the cost of steel, copper wiring and other key construction materials.
There simply was no place to turn to hire the sort of experience in safety or in estimating that could put Paramount back on track.
As Paramount’s executives looked forward to their year-end renewals for their insurance programs, the company was looking at unpalatable premium increases.
“You’re looking at a 30 percent mark-up with your workers’ compensation premiums and at least a 25 percent increase in the amount of collateral you’re going to have to put up in workers’ compensation and in surety,” said the company’s broker, Ed Scarborough. “You’re also looking at an increase in your general liability.”
The construction market continued to recover. But Paramount now needed to play defense.
Faced with insurance and surety increases and declining margins, Paramount had no choice but to do what it didn’t want to do. Already bereft and hamstrung due to a lack of talent, Paramount undertook more layoffs.
One of the first to go was Neal Chambers.
In November of 2014, Neal Chambers and his daughter Annabelle went shopping for a turkey. Annabelle was fourteen and well versed in sustainable agriculture practices at school.
“We’re getting an organic turkey, right?” she asked her father.
“No, Annabelle, I’m afraid not,” Neal said.
Neal reached into the meat freezer and pulled out a frozen Honeybreast turkey and threw it into his shopping cart with a disheartening “clang.”
Risk & Insurance partnered with Liberty Mutual Insurance to produce this scenario. Below are Liberty Mutual Insurance’s recommendations on how to prevent the losses presented in the scenario. These lessons learned are not the editorial opinion of Risk & Insurance.
1. Value is replacing price: It’s no longer enough to be the lowest bidder. Contractors must now prove to clients that they have the capacity to deliver a project that is the most cost-effective in the long term. That means not only delivering a quality product, but having the risk management program and coverage in place to mitigate potential finger pointing and costly litigation down the road.
2. Keep an eye on commodities: Nowhere are the realities of the global economy more evident than in the area of commodities. Demand cycles for copper, steel, coal and other materials in developing or maturing economies are going to have an impact on prices here at home. Models that take into account commodities fluctuations will be increasingly important. In addition, any new rating programs based on Construction Value should be carefully evaluated compared to a payroll based program.
3. Talent rules: Qualified estimators and safety officers left the construction industry in droves during the downturn. Making sure the talent is in place to take advantage of the upturn in the rebounding commercial construction business is an important consideration. Don’t overlook the added value of a well-documented quality assurance program.
4. Understand new geographies: Competing in this new market may mean having to enter new geographic areas to find business. Trying to compete in New York state without understanding its Byzantine labor laws would be a mistake. So would entering into any new geography without an understanding of local regulations and how they could impact costs. Conversely, demonstrating local experience to a client would be a key selling point here.
5. Delivery methods matter: New markets mean new delivery methods. Whether it is design-build, identifying a construction manager at risk, or the complexities of public-private or international partnerships, insurance and risk mitigation are going to have to be adequate to cover these trending delivery methods. Effective communication amongst all parties including contractual relationships continues to be a vital aspect of any project.
The Scales of Justice
Disclaimer: The events depicted in this scenario are fictitious. Any similarity to any corporation or person, living or dead, is merely coincidental.
Frankie and Hector
“It’s a great day for the Irish!”
Whether they loved him or found him annoying, workers in the seafood and meat departments in the Better Harvest grocery store in Boston’s Back Bay knew the meaning of that booming morning greeting very well.
It declared that boisterous fish cleaner and erstwhile fish-counter salesman Frankie Burns was at work, and he wanted everybody to know it.
Despite his sometimes jarring presence, most people loved Frankie. Frankie knew seafood, having worked on his family’s cod boat when he was younger. Now, at 55, he provided a knowledge of local fish and shellfish that was an asset in a store catering to the Back Bay’s educated, prosperous consumers.
Barrel-chested, with forearms, shoulders and biceps solidly built from years of manual labor, Frankie cheerfully and proudly unloaded the tubs of hake, pollock and flounder sold by the market.
This May morning, though, would prove to be a wake-up call for the hard-living Frankie. As he had thousands of times before, Frankie hoisted a heavy tub of iced pollock up onto the fish-cutting counter. This time, though, his back gave out.
“Whoa,” Frankie said as he clutched his lower back, wincing at the piercing, unfamiliar pain there.
Testing revealed that Frankie had aggravated a chronic degenerative back condition. His claim was found to be compensable.
With 180 stores nationwide and close to $8 billion in sales, Better Harvest’s human resources department was well-versed in the amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act that were enacted in 2008.
Following Better Harvest’s well-documented procedures, and at Frankie’s reluctant request, Back Bay store manager Gracie Walker granted Frankie an accommodation under the ADA.
For now, Frankie was done hoisting ice-filled fish tubs. The store would need to find another fish cutter as the heaviest thing Frankie would be permitted to lift would be paper-wrapped one pound cod fillets.
“Hey, a job’s a job,” Frankie said, as he hoisted a beer and a Fenway Frank with his brother Petey at a Sox game that summer.
Hector Velasquez was the fish cutter in Better Harvest’s Brentwood, Calif. store.
At 53, Hector’s idea of a good time was to go Zydeco dancing with his latest and greatest girlfriend Vera at the Puma Club in nearby Venice Beach.
That’s exactly what Hector was doing on a steaming hot California night during a performance of his favorite Zydeco band, the Vallejo Oyster Crackers. But Hector made a misstep due to a slippery combination of spilled beer and crushed peanut shells on the dance floor of the Puma Club.
Vera tumbled to the ground with Hector but popped right back up, adjusting her hair and skirt in the process. Hector wasn’t so lucky.
“Honey, are you hurt?” Vera said.
Hector, whose love of beer, fried seafood and tortillas had left him with a stout belly, tried to get up but couldn’t.
Another dancer, seeing Hector in distress, stopped Hector from trying to move.
“Stay still, man,” the Zydeco dancer said. “You might have really hurt yourself.”
Hector’s fellow dancer put his hand on Hector’s belly to still his movements and pushed a chair cushion under his head.
“Be still a minute, man, and breathe — breathe against the pain,” the Zydeco dancer said.
Hector looked up at the man thankfully and started to breathe more deeply, his beer belly rising and falling with each labored breath.
Hector couldn’t make it to work the following Monday and filed for leave under the Family Medical Leave Act.
Hector rested for a few days, trying to dull the pain with Ibuprofen and light beer. Given that he wasn’t hurt at work, Hector didn’t go to a doctor, thinking he might end up bearing the cost of treatment that he couldn’t afford.
On the Thursday after his injury, Hector got a ride from a buddy and came back to work. Hector is self-medicating, taking unhealthy doses of Ibuprofen in an attempt to perform his job.
He barely made it through Thursday and Friday, depending on co-workers to cover for him. Over the weekend, home resting but still in substantial pain, Hector faced the music.
“There’s no way, man,” he said, looking at his bent-over body in the bathroom mirror.
“I gotta talk to somebody.”
The following Monday, Dave Wagner, the general manager of the Brentwood Better Harvest store, got a knock on his office door.
Being the GM of this store, with its affluent and demanding customer base, was no joke. Dave Wagner was one busy man.
“Hector, what’s up?” Dave said.
“I need to talk to you, Mr. Wagner. It’s my back. I hurt it bad the other night and I can’t do any lifting, not much anyway,” Hector said.
Dave did some rapid-fire mental calculations as he gestured Hector to a chair.
“Sit down Hector, sit down,” he said.
Hector moved slowly to sit down, telling Dave everything he needed to know about how badly Hector was hurting.
“I’ll tell you what Hector, I’ll tell you what,” Dave said, as memories of Better Harvest HR emails concerning the ADA flashed through his formidable memory.
“Hold on a sec,” Dave said and popped down at his desk. In two clicks and a couple of scrolls, Dave scanned some emails from HR.
“Reasonable accommodation” is the phrase that stuck in Dave’s mind as he rapidly scanned the emails.
“You don’t have to lift,” Dave said, turning back to Hector. “You can work the counter. How does that sound?”
Hector, although in substantial pain, brightened some.
“That sounds good Mr. Wagner, thank you,” Hector said. But Hector’s feeble attempts to stand up sent Dave a message.
“Talk to Marcus and tell him what I said and I’ll talk to him too,” Dave said, as Hector made his way out.
As Hector went off to find Marcus, the manager of the seafood department, Dave engaged in professional, removed reflection.
“We’ll see what’s reasonable. I’ll give it three months,” he said to himself, before his vibrating cellphone distracted him.
“Cripe,” the harried Dave said to himself, looking at the number and picking up his phone.
“Dave Wagner,” he said impatiently to whoever was on the line.
Three months came and went, and Dave had to make a call. Hector just wasn’t that strong on the counter.
You had to have serious customer service skills to handle Brentwood and Beverly Hills customers and Hector was flailing. Complaints about him were coming at Dave from all sides, customers, co-workers, you name it.
“Reasonable means reasonable,” Dave said to himself as, worn down with complaints about Hector’s customer service shortcomings, he moved to terminate him.
The Wheel Turns
After his firing, it didn’t take long for the befuddled Hector to hook up with a gifted, ambitious employment rights attorney, Lucia Yamamoto, a graduate of Berkeley Law and a passionate defender of workers’ rights.
This is how the pre-trial negotiations went between Yamamoto’s firm, The Workers’ Rights Center, and the firm that did defense work for Better Harvest’s employment liability carrier, Apex Insurance.
“Okay guys, this is an easy one,” Yamamoto said on the phone call with the Apex defense team.
“We don’t see it that way,” was the game response from Ed Kleindinst, the defense lead for Apex’s law firm, Kleindinst, Evans, Hale & Brown.
“Oh really?” Yamamoto said, her derision palpable.
“You got two guys, practically the same age. They’re both working the same job. I mean this is beautiful,” she said.
“You accommodate one guy, and he’s still got a job,” Yamamoto said.
“Your GM in the Boston store continues to accommodate him, according to widely disseminated company policy…,” she continued.
“I don’t think you’re in a position to know how widely disseminated it was,” Kleindinst responded.
“Like it matters,” Yamamoto shot back.
“The other guy, same company, you terminate after 90 days even though it’s not presenting an undue hardship to your business. Instead, he was terminated because the manager felt he had accommodated him for long enough, which runs contrary to the company policy,” Yamamoto says.
“Been there 20 years, married with four children. Never been disciplined in his working life. Hello? Are you guys still there?” she said.
“We’re here,” Kleindinst said, this time with a little less vigor, pushing the mute button and rolling his eyes at his co-counsel in one of the Kleindinst, Evans, Hale & Brown conference rooms.
One of the partners jotted a note on a sheet of paper and slid it in front of Kleindinst.
There was a pause — orchestrated on the part of both Yamamoto and Kleindinst.
“Well, you’re not saying anything,” Yamamoto said.
“Go on, please, counsel,” Kleindinst said.
“Oh I’ll go on, I could go on all day with this one,” Yamamoto said.
“Two million,” she said.
“Oh come on!” Kleindinst said.
“See you in court!” Yamamoto replied.
Kleindinst’s partner jerks his head at the sheet of paper, trying to focus Kleindinst.
“One million,” Kleindinst said.
“One and six or we go to court and no more of this,” Yamamoto said.
There is another pause.
“Gentlemen, are we done?” said Yamamoto.
Kleindinst looked at his co-counsel, who nodded and pulled back in his chair.
“Yes, we’re done,” Kleindinst said.
“I really, really don’t like her,” Kleindinst said to his partner after he hung up.
“Like it matters,” his partner said.
Risk & Insurance® partnered with Sedgwick to produce this scenario. Below are Sedgwick’s recommendations on how to prevent the losses presented in the scenario. This perspective is not an editorial opinion of Risk & Insurance®.
1. Medical review: Make sure you request and document medical reviews of any request for leave or accommodation under the Family Medical Leave Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act as part of the overall interactive accommodation process.
2. Consistency: Different injured employees with debilitating chronic conditions should be treated with consistency under the Americans with Disabilities Act, regardless of whether their need for accommodation is due to a work-related injury, a non-occupational injury or illness or for another medical need.
3. Document, document, document: Companies need to make sure that standard procedures regarding leave or accommodation under the Family Medical Leave Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act are in place, up to date and triggering interactive process review – as well as clearly communicated to employees. Companies also need to document that they have communicated changes to those policies in a comprehensive and timely manner. A robust information management platform is key to supporting the process and necessary documentation.
4. The leave option: Although the goal of ADA/ADAAA is to keep people at work and every effort should be made to meet an accommodation request, supervisors need to keep in mind that there may be cases where a workplace accommodation isn’t possible or advisable due to the significant hardship it would place on their business; time off from work may be the only option. Shoe-horning an employee into a task they are unfit for may do more harm than good.
5. Disabled means disabled: Under the law, even if a condition is “controlled” by medication or some other treatment method, a disability is still a disability. Be very careful not to treat someone with a chronic condition differently just because they’re asymptomatic.
Medication Monitoring Achieves Better Outcomes
There are approximately three million workplace injuries in any given year. Many, if not the majority, involve the use of prescription medications and a significant portion of these medications is for pain. In fact, prescription medications are so prevalent in workers’ compensation that they account for 70% of total medical spend, with roughly one third being Schedule II opioids (Helios; NCCI; WCRI; et al.). According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), between the years of 1997 and 2007, the daily milligram per person use of prescription opioids in the United States rose 402%, increasing from an average of 74 mg to 369 mg. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that, in 2012, health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions—enough for every American adult to have a bottle of pills—and 46 people die every day from an overdose of prescription painkillers in the US. Suffice to say, the appropriate use of opioid analgesics continues to be a serious issue in the United States.
Stakeholders throughout the workers’ compensation industry are seeking solutions to bend the curve away from misuse and abuse and these concerning statistics. Change is happening: The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) and the Work Loss Data Institute have published updated guidelines to promote more clinically appropriate use of opioids in the treatment of occupational injuries. State legislatures are implementing and enhancing prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs). The Food and Drug Association (FDA) is rescheduling medications. Pharmaceutical manufacturers are creating abuse-deterrent formulations. Meanwhile payers, generally in concert with their pharmacy benefit manager (PBM), are expending considerable effort to build global medication management programs that emphasize proactive utilization management to ensure injured workers are receiving the right medication at the right time.
A variety of factors can still influence the outcome of a workers’ compensation claim. Some are long-recognized for their affect on a claim; for example, body part, nature of injury, state of jurisdiction, and regulatory policy. In contrast, prescribing practices and physician demographics are perhaps a bit unexpected given the more contemporary data analysis showing their influence on outcomes. Such is the case for medication monitoring. Medication monitoring tools promote patient safety, confirm adherence, and identify potential high-risk, high-cost claims. Three of the more common medication monitoring tools include:
- Urine Drug Testing (UDT) is an analysis of the injured worker’s urine that detects the presence or absence of a specified drug. Although it is not a diagnosis, UDT results are generally a reliable indicator of what is present (and what is not) in the injured body worker’s system. The knowledge gained through the testing helps to minimize risks for undesired consequences including misuse, abuse, and diversion of opioids. With this information in hand, adjustments to the medication therapy regimen or other intervention activities can occur. UDT can also be an agent of positive change, as monitoring often leads to behavior modification, whether in direct response to an unexpected testing result or from the sentinel effect of knowing that medication use is being monitored.
- Medication Agreements or “Pain Contracts” signed by the injured worker and their prescribing doctor serve as a detailed and well-documented informed consent describing the risks and benefits associated with the use of prescription pain medications. Medication agreements help the prescribing doctor set expectations regarding the patient’s adherence to the prescribed medication therapy regimen. They serve as a means to facilitate care and provide for a way to document mutual understanding by clearly delineating the roles, responsibilities, and expectations of each party. Research also suggests that medication agreements promote safety and education as injured workers learn more about their therapy regimen, its risks, and benefits.
- Pill Counts quantify adherence by comparing the number of doses remaining in a pill bottle with the number of doses that should remain based on prescription instructions. Most often, physicians request pill counts at random intervals or the physician may ask the injured worker to bring their medication to all appointments. As a monitoring tool, pill counts can be useful in confirming proper use, or conversely, diversion activities.
On a stand-alone basis, these tools rank high on individual merit. When used together as part of a consolidated medication management approach, their impact escalates quite favorably. The collective use of UDT, Medication Agreements, and pill counts enhance decision-making, eliminating gaps in understanding. Their use raises awareness of potential high-risk, high-cost situations. Moreover, when used in concert with a collaborative effort on the part of the payer, PBM, physician, and injured worker, they can improve communication and align objectives to mitigate misuse or abuse situations throughout the life of a claim.
Medication monitoring can achieve better outcomes
The vast majority of injured workers use medications as directed. Unfortunately, situations of misuse and abuse are far too common. Studies show a growing trend of discrepancies between the medication prescription and actual medication-regimen adherence when it comes to claimants on opioid therapy (Health Trends: Prescription Drug Monitoring Report, 2012). In response, payers, working alongside with their PBM and other stakeholders, are deploying medication monitoring tools with greater frequency to verify the injured worker is appropriately using their medications, particularly opioid analgesics. The good news is these efforts are working. Forty-five percent of patients with previously demonstrated aberrant drug-related behaviors were able to adhere to their medication regimens after management with drug testing or in combination with signed treatment agreements and multispecialty care (Laffer Associates and Millennium Research Institute, October 2011).
In our own studies, we have similarly found that clinical interventions performed in conjunction with medication monitoring tools such as UDT reduces utilization of high-risk medications in injured workers on chronic opioid therapy. Results showed there was a decrease in all measures of utilization, driven primarily by opioids (32% decrease) and benzodiazepines (51% decrease), as well as a 26% reduction in total utilization of all medications, regardless of drug class. This is proof positive that medication monitoring can be useful in achieving better outcomes.