Author Archives: Jennifer Christian

June 8, 2015

Two worthwhile conferences in Chicago this week

Two conferences on worthy topics are going on simultaneously in Chicago this week.   One is a first-time event on a topic that deserves more attention:  the special workplace risks faced by workers with disabilities and their employer’s responsibilities under OSHA and the ADA.  The other is a 35th annual workers’ compensation and occupational medicine event that delivers high quality programs every year.  The profile of attendees at the two conferences also will probably be quite different.  Which one will expand your horizons and be most useful in your career or your service to clients?  Read on, learn more, and take your pick — if you can get to Chicago this week!

To my knowledge, a conference on Promoting Health & Safety for Workers with Disabilities being held on June 9 in Chicago may be the first of its kind.  It explores the implications of the Americans with Disabilities Act (as amended) for workplace safety and health programs.  I predict this will be the bottom line:  Individualized protection plans are a natural part of “reasonable accommodation” — and the need for them should be part of any template for the interactive process.

Beth Marks, RN, PhD, came up with the idea and is the main organizer of the event. Originally trained as a nurse, she believes that people with disabilities who are trying to lead full lives and work deserve support.  She also has personal familiarity with the kinds of unusual workplace hazards faced by workers with vulnerabilities.  Among her many roles, she is co-Director of the National Organization of Nurse with Disabilities (NOND.org)

This event is being hosted by the NIOSH-funded ERC and the NIDRR-funded RRTC at UIC.  It is being co-sponsored by a unique set of organizations:  unions, disability advocacy groups, medical centers and other ERCs,  (Pardon the acronyms:  To fully disclose who is hosting it: the Illinois Occupational and Environmental Health & Safety Education and Research Center funded by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago  in collaboration with the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Developmental Disabilities and Health in the Department of Disability and Human Development in the College of Applied Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  Now, is that better? )

The second event is the 35th Annual SEAK Conference on Workers’ Compensation and Occupational Medicine.   Historically held on Cape Cod every summer, this SEAK meeting is being held in Chicago this year while the Massachusetts conference facility is being remodeled.   I have attended, spoken at, and conducted all-day workshops at this annual event many times.  It is an information-rich but not overly academic learning opportunity.  That’s because the focus is on practical application:  how to use information or how to do something important. (SEAK also offers other educational events on more specialized topics.)  The speakers come from a variety of disciplines (medicine, nursing — especially case management, law — including judges, and insurance).  They tend to have deep expertise in their topics, and the pace is lively.  The focus is mostly on the mechanics of workers’ compensation, with less emphasis on wellness, prevention, safety, large issues of social justice, etc.

If you decide to go to one of these events, please let me know which one you attended — and whether it was worth your while!


June 5, 2015

A find! Free on-line course for patients with stress, pain & chronic illness

I spent hours yesterday on the web looking for some more self-development resources for our Maze-Masters clients.  By total chance, I fell upon a FREE ON-LINE VERSION of the famed 8 week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR) developed at the University of Massachusetts.  The developer is Dave Potter, a  generous psychotherapist from Idaho who is certified as a MBSR trainer by the UMass Center.     He had to make adaptations in going from a face to face classroom experience to an individual on-line one.   In so doing, he has compiled both the resources used in the course along with others — a rich array of videos and writings from some genuinely world-renowned experts.  They include Jon Kabat-Zinn who created the original UMass program, and many other teachers of mindfulness meditation, body awareness and yoga, and stress management.

As Dave says, MBSR does not “cure” serious medical conditions.  It is an evidence-based intervention.   A doctor can recommend it to a patient and formally “order” it as part of the medical treatment.  But the patient can just go get it themselves, too.   A large and growing body of research indicates the specific techniques taught in the program – when practiced regularly —  can have a significant therapeutic effect for those experiencing stress, anxiety, high blood pressure, depression, chronic pain, migraines, heart conditions, diabetes and other ailments.   Overall, participants say that they feel better:  their symptoms interfere less with their daily lives, and they feel more alive and more “in-tune” with themselves and others.

As the caption to Dave’s smiling photo says, “Even if you don’t intend to take the course, I hope you take advantage of some of the wonderful videos and articles offered freely on the free Palouse Mindfulness MBSR course website site.”

This discovery is GREAT from my point of view  because we have SO MUCH TROUBLE getting payers to shell out for books, videos and other instructional materials for our Maze-Masters clients.  These are out of pocket costs — on top of our time spent finding and getting the materials to the clients and talking with them to make sure they “got it.”   Have you noticed that at conferences, everyone TALKS piously about how important patient education is.  Well, baby, I’m here to tell you the payers AIN’T putting their money where their mouths are — yet!

By the way, in case you’re not aware, there are now established CPT codes that SHOULD allow providers to bill for (a) out of pocket costs paid for educational materials  and (b) delivering structured patient education programs.    In my limited personal experience, these are not yet being use routinely  — neither billed OR paid in the “real world”.  If you HAVE seen them in use, that’s EXCITING NEWS!  Please let me know who, what, where, when, why —  and under what circumstances!

 

 


June 5, 2015

Why aren’t we saying and doing THESE THINGS about the ADA?

I’ve been listening to the prevailing conversation about the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended (ADA), in workers’ comp and disability benefits circles. Most often it has a negative tone: the ADA imposes obligations and creates complicated legal dances that can get us in trouble unless we do things exactly right. I almost never hear ANYONE in these industries (other than disability rights advocates) talking about what we can do to FULFILL the social purposes for which that law was created!

I am also a member of the US Dept of Labor’s Stay-at-Work and Return-to-Work Policy Collaborative, As a result, I met the EEOC‘s Senior Legal Counsel Aaron Konopasky, PhD, JD.  He opened my eyes to the fact that the ADA now applies MUCH EARLIER and MORE FREQUENTLY in health-related employment disruptions (both workers’ compensation and short / long-disability benefits cases) than has traditionally been thought. (See the mini-white paper Aaron and I co-authored on this issue.)

Seems like one of the key purposes of workers’ comp and disability benefits programs SHOULD BE to help workers who get injured or sick or who lose functional ability over time to KEEP THEIR JOBS / LIVELIHOODS and if needed, FIND NEW WAYS TO EARN A LIVING appropriate for their changed capabilities so they can MAINTAIN THEIR ECONOMIC INDEPENDENCE.  If that is so, then it seems like EMPLOYMENT OUTCOMES should be included in the metrics by which effectiveness / success / value of these programs is measured.   (I don’t see this being done now — do you?)

Now let’s look at the flip side:  bad outcomes.  (more…)


May 31, 2015

Overkill describes the problem PERFECTLY!

Dr. Atul Gawande’s new article called Overkill is a great asset for all of us change agents. The tagline is:  “An avalanche of unnecessary medical care is harming patients physically and financially.  What can we do about it?”   It appeared in the May 4 issue of the New Yorker magazine.  The topic is “no value” healthcare, and he describes both over-diagnosis and over-treatment.  Me and my gang know that those things also create over-impairment and over-disabling — and ruined lives!

Recommendation:  Use this article as a tool to educate yourself – and others!  It is much better than most of the stuff on this general topic in medical journals and august scientific publications  – because he explains things so clearly and in such simple yet vivid language.   There’s a powerful vignette of a guy with two prior spine surgeries whose local doctor recommends a third one – and how the story turns out.    A happy aspect of the Overkill article is that Gawande also describes how the dark forces that are driving these things are being countered by more positive ones.  Things are slowly and spottily changing FOR THE BETTER!

I am ashamed at my petty jealous hatred for this man — because he is handsome, brilliant, insightful, incredibly talented, articulate, frank, and a fabulous writer.    He has been a columnist for the New Yorker since 1998.  Based  on his photograph, he must have been a baby then.   I’ve read several of his articles and books, and recommend them to you.   In particular, if you want to be sickened at how the constant emphasis on money has corrupted the physician culture, read his earlier article entitled The Cost Conundrum – like the White House did.   I’ve just finished his latest book Being Mortal.  It is wonderful — richly informative yet with a very positive tone and personal feeling.    See more about Gawande on the New Yorker’s Contributors webpage or on Gawande’s own website.


May 9, 2015

Keeping Jenny Weast Employed May Take a Village

Jenny Weast’s predicament appears to be a perfect example of how today’s “system” encourages dependency instead of independence among people with disabilities — and increases the barriers to work rather than reducing them!   Jenny is a popular and energetic high school teacher in California who is quadriplegic.  She needs personal care attendants to help her with her activities of daily living, but Medicaid has decided she doesn’t qualify for coverage — because she earns too much money.    According to Jenny’s Facebook page, Medicaid says her “fair share” of these services would be $2400+ dollars per month, which would leave her with 26% of her paycheck to live on.   There is NO CHARITY and NO FOUNDATION in this country (as far as I know – and I have searched) who sees it as their mission to help people with disabilities STAY EMPLOYED.  Karen Cage who has taken up Jenny’s cause has created a crowd-funding opportunity to help defray the expenses of Jenny’s personal care attendants.  I did make a contribution to help Jenny stay employed – because if the government and existing charities won’t help people in her situation – who will?    It’s NOW that her job is in jeopardy.  Jenny will be on SSDI by the time that Congress acts and/or a foundation’s new initiative gets funded and underway.

Many people with disabilities don’t need personal care attendants – they have much more modest expenses, but can’t afford to pay for them because they earn an even-more-modest-than-that  salary.   Small things often make ALL of the difference.    As the centuries old proverb says:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

From what I read, Jenny is not alone by any means.  MIT economist Professor David Autor wrote in his report The Unsustainable Rise of the Disability Rolls in the United States: Causes, Consequences and Policy Options:  “In its current incarnation, the SSDI program spends too few societal resources helping individuals with disabilities to remain employed and too many resources supporting the long-term dependency of individuals who could be self-sufficient with the appropriate accommodation and supports.”

Perhaps the charity of individuals will support Jenny’s caregivers while we encourage Congress to figure out a way to help ALL people who ARE EARNING A LIVING despite significant disabilities to get help with the EXTRA EXPENSES that make it possible for them to work!   Or maybe, one of the big foundations will notice this opportunity to make a big positive difference and step in.  Obviously, the kinds of impairments that warrant extra services and the definition of services that are covered have to be precise enough to actually accomplish the purpose while avoiding wholesale abuse, but …… doesn’t this just plain old make sense?


May 9, 2015

2 good signs: Momentum building & mechanisms appearing

You’ll be pleased to hear about two developments that are good signs for the transition away from the fee for service payment model in healthcare and towards payment for outcomes.  Buy-in among healthcare CEOs is clearly growing, and Congress just passed MACRA — a new law will increase the mechanisms available to support value-based healthcare reimbursement, particularly for physicians. See below for more details on these two developments.

But first:  If you believe that a FUNDAMENTAL purpose of healthcare services is to enable people to participate as fully as possible in life –which for most working age people includes earning a living — then ability to function & work should be on the list of accountable health outcomes.  Thus, it is CRITICAL to ensure that SOMEONE is sitting at the table advocating for those outcomes — when the nitty-gritty details of the new mechanisms called for in MACRA are worked out!  As you read on, consider what you can do to increase the likelihood that someone IS sitting there.

First, a recent survey of healthcare CEO’s revealed that the VAST majority of them LIKE the idea of value-based payment – even though a substantial fraction of them predict difficulties and revenue reductions as a result.   Almost 8/10 of them said this statement best reflected their attitude:   “Value-based reimbursement models should play the dominant role in healthcare reimbursement with fee-for-service medicine playing a declining and minor role.” The CEO’s also predict that value-based reimbursement will improve quality of care (93% agree).  Overwhelmingly, they think the pace of change is NOT going too fast (91% agree).  NOTE:  Almost all of the CEO’s think we can’t throw away the existing CPT-based payment system entirely – because physicians need an incentive to work hard, and because the metrics that underlie value-based payment don’t work well when there are statistical challenges (unusual  conditions, rare events, low practice volumes, and other reasons for small numbers and high variability).

In another development, while repealing the dreaded Medicare fee cuts called for under the SGR legislation (Sustainable Growth Rate), Congress opened the door to some (potentially) HUGE changes in physician payment.   MACRA – the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 – lays out a general plan for changes in CMS’ physician reimbursement methods.   MACRA replaces the uncertainty about SGR and its draconian 21 percent cut to physician fees this year with tiny but predictable payment increases for the next four-and-a-half years. Then, starting in
2019, MACRA removes some irritating and burdensome penalties and gives physicians two ways to earn performance based incentive payments, either by participating in a new Merit-based Incentive Payment System or an Alternative Payment Model, like a Patient-Centered Medical Home.

Here’s how the White House blog portrayed this legislative achievement.  And here is a brief summary of the key features from the point of view of the American College of Physicians (the ACP) which also provided a more detailed discussion of the law’s provisions concerning physician payment   And here is a one page handout summarizing these provisions of MACRA prepared by ACP for its member physicians.

Lots more to come on this!


April 27, 2015

Why no physician leadership in disability at the Federal level?

I just returned from a trip to England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales studying their new national work disability prevention program, the Fit for Work Service and the events that led up to its creation.  It was a professional dream trip, and there are stories to tell.  But the MAIN THING I want to tell you today is a realization that dawned as I was on the plane back home.   I suddenly noticed that virtually all of the people I had met who have been persistently, solidly, visibly, and credibly leading or supporting the change efforts in the UK and Ireland are CLINICIANS, and nearly all of them are PHYSICIANS.   I met with Sir Mansel Aylward, Dr. Debbie Cohen, Dr. Kim Burton, Dame Carol Black, Dr. Bill Gunnyeon, Dr. Rob Hampton, Dr. Ewan MacDonald, and Dr. Clem Leech.    It was quite a shock once I noticed it, because I realized that there are few or no physicians playing equivalent roles in the US.   I wonder why not, and whether this should change.

I’m not talking about the political leaders.  I’m talking about the subject matter experts who analyzed the problems (made a diagnosis)  and came up with the ideas for what could improve it (treatment plan), and then patiently championed the cause, speaking on behalf of specific ideas for what needed to be done in order to provide more effective HELP to people to reduce the impact of injury, illness, age and congenital conditions on their lives – and then designed the initiatives and run the pilot programs, etc.

I have spent more than 30 years in the private sector, and only in the last couple of years have entered the Federal disability “marketplace of ideas”.   I’ve been rather steadily introducing the work disability prevention approach and the CLINICAL implications of the biopsychosocioeconomic (BPSE) model for the TREATMENT of sickness and disability into their world.   The strange thing is:  as a physician, I am nearly alone here.  There is a dearth of physician input much less actual leadership here.

The biggest message that physicians can bring:  some people on SSDI today have been over-disabled by the care they got in today’s inadequate and inequitable medical and disability benefits systems.   The right care could let them be less impaired and more functional — or even “un-disabled”.  This is particularly true of people disabled by common everyday conditions that DON’T disable most people.  The impairments they have today might have been avoided or minimized and their work disability could have been prevented by APPROPRIATE treatment in a RESTORATIVE system of care.  Today’s systems OVER-emphasize bodily anatomy and physiology (and over-aggressive treatments such as opioids, injections, and surgeries that often actually worsen outcomes).  Today’s systems UNDER-acknowledge the influence of the individual’s brain (memories, knowledge, thoughts, beliefs, reasonable concerns, fears, expectations and intentions) on their response to the predicaments that arise when symptoms appear that interfere with daily life and work .   As a result, treatments that have been shown to effectively address these things are NOT AVAILABLE.  Chronic pain is the poster child for this failure.   It really DOES MATTER whether the reason a person cannot perform a function is because of (a) paralysis or a fused bony joints  or (b) protective self-limitation and deconditioning.    Sometimes BOTH impairment and work disability are preventable – or remediable.