July 6, 2015

Why Put People Who Don’t Care in Charge of Timing?

I just realized that there are two short little sentences that are causing BIG PROBLEMS.   They are:

1.   “We can’t start looking for transitional duty for him  (or, we can’t start the reasonable accommodation process) until we get specific work restrictions from the doctor,” says the employer.

2.   “She will be eligible for job training only after her condition is declared to be medically stable (at MMI or P&S) and permanent work restrictions for all body parts are known,” says the benefits administrator.

These two sentences reveal that the speaker is in a REACTIVE posture, refusing to make an effort to get out ahead of the ball.  They are passively waiting for a PHYSICIAN or the POLICY/LAW to determine the timing of an important event  — an event which could have a huge impact on the outcome.   The problem is:  neither the physician nor the insurance policy/law are watching time slip away.

I hear these two sentences frequently during the part of my week when I serve as a physician adviser to a multi-disciplinary care management team.  Since many of the standard techniques to manage claims have previously been tried, I often suggest non-standard things.  I tend to hear those sentences AFTER  I suggest doing something pro-active in a case that’s stalled out and headed towards a predictably poor outcome.  For example, I may recommend that INSTEAD OF WAITING, we approach the doctor with an proposal for a return to work plan and some potential transitional tasks.  Or I may recommend that we acknowledge the obvious handwriting on the wall — which says the person is never going to go back to the original employer — and offer the worker some psychological or vocational counseling to help them start focusing on the future and figure out what kind of work they want to do and how to find a new job.

The PHYSICIAN doesn’t know that the longer employed people are absent from work due to a health condition, the more likely it is that they will lose their jobs, never get another one, and end up on as a long-term disability claimant.    And with a conventional medical education, the doctor doesn’t feel responsible for helping patients stay employed.

So WHY is the employer WAITING for the doctor?   WHY can’t the employer ANTICIPATE the general nature of the limits/restrictions?   If the shoulder has been affected, it’s obvious the restrictions will involve lifting and reaching!   If it’s the right foot, it’s obvious there will be limitations on walking and standing!   If you’re uncertain what workers can do, ASK them!  (The Americans with Disabilities Act expects you to do so.)   If the employer and the employee propose a plan to the doctor that they both agree on — what are the odds the doctor will say no?  VERY LOW!

The POLICY or LAW describes outer limits, not the best path.  The law usually dictates the earliest or the latest date when something must occur —  not the optimal timing of it.  So WHY is the benefits handler WAITING for the formal declaration of MMI / P&S?  This too is not part of conventional medical training.  Most doctors don’t see it as a milestone and are unaware they’re supposed to make a formal statement.  I suspect that benefits handlers are so worried about violating rules and regulations that they think they HAVE to wait to start helping a person move on and find a new job until the LAW MANDATES it.  Why can’ t that benefit handler VOLUNTARILY make a move earlier?

Seems to me that determining the OPTIMAL timing for events, and deciding whether to offer BETTER assistance than the minimum specified in the law lies within the discretionary authority of the benefits handler.  In fact, aren’t we supposed to be paying them to use their judgement?

[CAVEAT: This has been true where I have worked, but maybe in some jurisdictions or policies, I’m wrong.  If you are more expert on these matters than me, please tell me why I’m incorrect.]

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