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You’d think that if you surfer a life threatening emergency while undergoing a surgical procedure you’d think that your employer’s Workers’ Compensation insurer carrier wouldn’t question your surgeon’s medical decision – but that didn’t happen in my life-threatening moment. Here’s what happened.

After several years of going back and forth with Adventist Health (who’s self-insured) to get them to approve surgery on my right shoulder I finally got the green light. This process had been very contentious and time consuming, but on August 17th, I arrived at the “hospital” to have my surgery. All was going along as planned until just after the anesthesiologist performed a nerve block. I almost immediately began to experience problems breathing and informed the operating team that I was having severe chest pains and couldn’t breathe. And as they say “all hell broke loose”. I remember the anesthesiologist screaming “I need help over here” and I asked God to please let me live.

I awoke sometime later in the ICU, hooked up to a BPAP and other various monitors and medical personnel. It was then that I learned that not only had I suffered respiratory arrest but a cardiac arrest as well – in short I “died” on the table. After a little more than a day in the ICU, I was discharged home. Not long afterwards I received a letter from Excel Utilization Review (UR), the UR company that my Adventist Health claims adjuster, who shall remain “nameless to protect the guilty” so I’ll just call her Ms. CA. Apparently she thought that my surgeon’s decision to have me admitted to ICU after such a serious medical event required a review and approval of Excel, you know just in case it was an inappropriate and costly decision to admit a patient who’d suffered a full respiratory and cardiac event to ICU. Yeah, you read that right, Adventist Health, a hospital/healthcare corporation, was unsure that my surgeon had made a medically sound and financially correct decision!

Excel denied my admission to ICU! However, in their defense one of the reasons was the failure of my surgeon to send them “appropriate” information, but as a medical professional myself I was rather incredulous that they (Adventist Health and Excel) even questioned the need to admit a patient to ICU – most surgeons don’t just do this on a whim. But this is Workers’ Compensation after all so logic goes out the window and often doesn’t seem to apply.

Sometime later I received another letter from Excel that approved my ICU stay – whew! The irony was that Excel actually commented that the average ICU stays in a case such as mine was just less than 5 days, while I stayed just over 1 day. So while Ms. CA thought my stay was possibly inappropriate and costing Adventist Health unnecessary money that turned out not to be the case.

In the meantime, Ms. CA refused to return me to “total temporary disability” (TTD) status as order by my surgeon and have taken no action to discover what might have happened to cause this serious medical event.

Stay tunned for more . . . .

Just a little over a year ago tragedy struck San Bernardino (SB) County when two radicalized individuals attacked SB County employees during a training/holiday party. 14 people were killed and 22 more were seriously injured that fateful day on December 2, 2015.

Flash forward a year and the public discovered that many of the 22 seriously injured employees are having to fight tooth and nail to get treatment through our state’s horrible Workers’ Compensation program. You can read about their struggles in the coverage provided in the Pasadena Star News and in the Los Angeles Times. Being a person who, while not a victim of such a horrible attack, has been winding my way through the Workers’ Compensation system for my work-related injury felt compelled to respond. You can read my letters to the editors that were published in the PSN San Bernardino terrorist attack survivors and the LTE SB Attack.

San Bernardino County isn’t the only self-insured employer who seems to be abdicating their responsibility to care for their injured worker and help them return to pre-injury condition, as much and as quickly as possible. This employer isn’t the only one; next up I turn the spotlight on Adventist Health and how they provide compassionate and excellent care to their injured workers – NOT!

Once again, the CWC & Risk Conference organizers, exhibitors and presenters made good on their promise to deliver a conference that was packed and stacked with information. The venue was the St. Regis in Dana Point and the meetings ran pretty much from 8:00 in the morning 17:00 in the evening every day for three days.

I attended as I have for the past several years to educate both my readers and myself on the workers compensation system and to keep abreast on changes that affect the injured worker and the employer. This year’s conference didn’t disappoint.

I arrived too late in the day on Wednesday for the wonderful breakfast, but in time to attend a session that I thought might prove interesting. The session entitled “MSA Cost Mitigation: Strategies to Reduce Future Medical Exposure” was eye opening and helped shed light on how the defense side of Workers Compensation “thinks” when it comes to providing treatment to and for the injured worker.

MSA or Medicare Set Asides need to be calculated in many Workers’ Compensation cases, especially in those cases where the injured worker is already a Medicare beneficiary or will become Medicare beneficiaries within 30 months or where the injured worker is eligible or receiving Social Security Disability Insurance benefits (SSDI). Since this can have an impact on yours truly, needless to say I listened with rapt interest.

The speaker provided us with many examples of how an employer could control medical costs, however as a nurse I thought that some of these cost-saving measures came at the expense of the injured worker. The speaker gave the example of Gabapentin versus Neurontin. Gabapentin as with generics cost much less than the brand name medication Neurontin. She explained that by switching to the generic the employer could save as much as 2,124.30 a year on a claim. She went on to explain that even more money can be saved depending on the number of pills ordered based on milligrams; for example if the physician ordered one 800 mg pill a day an even greater cost saving can be realized if the following combination was ordered two 300mg pills (at a cost of .03 cents/pill) and two 100mg pills (at a cost of .02 cents/pill). The cost then goes from $85.80 to $3.00 a month. Of course this means that the injured worker must take a total of four pills a day instead of one pill a day, but hey what a cost savings!

The speaker explained that to make such adjustments the client must be a willing participant and that other conditions such as generic must already be available on the marketplace and that the client must already be using the generic. She suggested that if the employer took the long view and was in a position to anticipate when the generic of a specific medication would become available on the marketplace then it might serve the employer well to delay the MSA until the generic was available so the cost of the generic could be included instead of the brand name, once again providing a cost saving to the employer.

And while I am very much in favor of saving, I think it’s critical that the injured worker be truly part of the decision making process. Though the speaker made a point of using the term willing participant to refer to the injured worker I think there’s a fine line between willing and coerced.

Once a year more than 2,000 people gather in Las Vegas to attend a five-day conference on all things pain related. The attendees aren’t just researchers, but all types of healthcare providers and patients as well. I started attending PainWeek nearly three years ago and each year I return with even greater knowledge about pain and more specifically the latest in treatment for my condition — Complex Regional Pain Syndrome; a condition I developed as a direct result of my work related injury.

This year’s conference had several session regarding workers’ compensation and I had the opportunity to attend Dr. Matthew P. Foster’s session on “Pain Management in Workers’ Compensation: Overview of Spend, Utilization, and Treatment Guidelines”. The room filled up quickly, leaving only a few empty seats.

Dr. Foster’s presentation moved quickly explaining how workers’ compensation treatment and drug prescription moved from whatever, without questions, that the doctor ordered for the injured worker to more and more states adopting guidelines that were either created by the state or that followed the Office of Disability Guidelines (ODG) or that followed the recommendations of the American College of Occupational & Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) or that followed some combination.

His presentation showed that by using treatment guidelines, most states had shown some “control” over the rising costs of workers’ compensation, with the exception of State of New York (which has created its own treatment guidelines). One area where treatment guidelines seem to have the greatest impact was in the approval of opioid treatment for injured workers suffering extreme and/or chronic pain. Many insurance companies and their adjusters have used these guidelines, not such as a guide but much more like something which to adhere to very strictly without wiggle room. Nowhere is this more apparent than with prescription opioids.

It was during the question and answer section of Foster’s presentation that members of the audience brought up very similar tales of adjusters using guidelines to basically “cut off” the injured worker from any opioid medication beyond what the “guidelines” suggest. A common thread was the following: the earliest the insurance company will allow a patient refill of their opioid prescription is 28 days (2 days before the patient’s current script ends), when the patient turns in a new script at the 28 days mark some insurance companies then ask for 7 to 10 days to authorize the new opioid script thus leaving the patient without opioid medication to cover for that time period placing the patient at risk for withdrawal, not to mention the emotional and psychological impact the fight every month to fill their physician order medication has on the injured worker. Meanwhile in California a great many of the utilization review physicians are from ER specialty a discipline that doesn’t prepare the physician to take care of patient for the long term, an observation that I shared with the audience and with which the audience agreed.

So in short when it comes to opioid prescriptions the injured worker is basically made powerless by the very program that’s been put in place to “help the injured worker return to pre-injury condition as quickly as possible”.