Washington hails success of Stay-at-work program on first anniversary
But returning injured workers to their places of employment can speed recovery and help an employer's bottom line. Workers' comp officials in at least two states are addressing the issue by paying employers to take back injured workers and finding that the small up-front investment is a win-win for all involved in the workers' comp system.
"We were estimating savings in the first year through cost avoidance -- time loss costs or disability awards -- in the neighborhood of $15,879 million," said Beth Dupre, assistant director for Washington's Department of Labor & Industries' Insurance Services. "It's a really high return on investment."
Washington is marking the first anniversary of its Stay-at-work program. Modeled after a similar program in Oregon, it gives employers money in exchange for putting their injured workers back on the workforce within medical restrictions.
How it works. "It's an incentive-based program to encourage employers to bring back injured workers to the workforce," Dupre said. "In doing so, they are compensated through wage reimbursement and some other miscellaneous expenses, up to a certain amount."
Employers who bring their injured workers back to light- or transitional-duty work can be reimbursed up to half the worker's base wages for 66 days or $10,000 per claim, whichever comes first, within a consecutive 24-month period. Additionally, they can receive monies for training materials and fees, tools, and special clothing that may be needed to help the worker perform the light duty.
In cases where L&I denies the reimbursement request, the employer can appeal the decision by writing to the L&I within 60 days. If the employer makes a good-faith effort but the worker fails to follow through, the employer may still be reimbursed for any expenses incurred.
The money to reimburse employers comes out of the Medical Aid Fund portion of the rates paid by employers and employees. Washington's workers' comp system is funded partially by employees.
The program has claims managers and vocational counselors available to help employers identify or create light- and transitional-duty assignments.
Advantages. In addition to saving money for employers, program officials believe workers and medical providers benefit as well. "We know the longer an employee is separated, the less likely they are to return to work or return to work with good relationships and similar productivity," Dupre said. "Also, you lose that institutional knowledge when the person is out of work."
There is also substantial evidence that injured people recover faster if they are working. That, she says, gives medical providers a model to work toward.
"I see that providers struggle in the system trying to find solutions to gradually build up an employee's preinjury status," Dupre explained. "When an employer says 'we don't have anything for them,' it just creates a demotivated situation for that injured worker and the provider having to treat the worker with little work hardening. I think for them [the program] provides an opportunity."
First-year results. To date, the program has returned approximately 1,328 workers, impacted 620 employers, and has reimbursed over $3 million. Officials hope to double the participation rate in the next year.
"I don't think there is a problem once employers know this program is available," Dupre said.
One hurdle is making sure employers are aware of the program, especially since 80 percent of Washington's companies are small businesses. The department is doing extensive outreach to the business community.
"It's not a field of dreams where everybody flocks to it," she said. "One of the challenges is getting the word out in a way that resonates."
But once employers hear about the program, they are getting onboard with it -- even in industries such as construction and logging that have been hard hit in recent years. "Where they may not have made accommodations previously, they are now because they realize 'I can keep this worker on-site and get reimbursed.' I think it is making more of an impact."
One key to the program's participation rate is ensuring it is easy to use. Dupre said they are constantly simplifying the process through lean methodology and striving toward a 30-day period to turn around the reimbursement requests.
"The next step is to automate it through the Internet," she said. "People can apply online, send requests electronically, and we can process them electronically. We are looking to make that more seamless."
Program officials believe incentivizing employers will ultimately save more than $32 million annually once the program matures by keeping workers on the job and reducing the chance of long-term disability. "In an economy that is fairly slow and with employers saying, 'hey we can't afford to lose any amount of productivity,' this program is enabling people to come back to work, providing they have the necessary [medical] releases," Dupre said.
Read more at the WorkersComp Forum homepage.
July 30, 2012
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