Category Archives: Policy Issues

September 27, 2017

Job loss due to medical care calendar vs. FMLA calendar

Extending medical leave beyond the FMLA period may be an UN-reasonable accommodation under the ADAAA, according to a recent decision of the US 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. The court wrote: “ADA is an anti-discrimination statue, not a medical-leave entitlement.” And it said that since the purpose of reasonable accommodation is to allow an employee to work, which a medical leave does not do, then a leave does not accomplish the law’s purpose. However, the EEOC opposes the position of the court, and is unlikely to change its view that a long-term leave IS a reasonable accommodation when it is: (a) of specific duration, (b) requested in advance, and (c) likely to result in the employee being able to perform essential job functions upon return.

ATTENTION ALL CLINICIANS and CLAIM PROFESSIONALS: Please notice this one key fact in the case before the court. A guy exhausted his 12 weeks of FMLA leave during the “conservative care” phase of treatment for his back pain. In fact, he had his back surgery on the LAST DAY of his FMLA leave — which was protecting his job!

We really have to think more about the intersection between the calendars of “evidence-based medical care” and job loss. For most of the common musculoskeletal problems (like straightforward back, knee, shoulder and ankle pain for example), the scientific evidence says that the doctor should begin by prescribing simple things like aspirin or motrin, ice packs, physical therapy, and exercise.  Unless there are clear signs of a potentially dangerous or progressive problem, the best thing is to wait for 6 weeks and give the patient’s body time to heal itself naturally.

But maybe we should be keeping our eye on the clock, and monitoring progress more actively during that 6 weeks.  When we see recovery not proceeding as hoped, we may need to ANTICIPATE the need for an orthopedic referral, make the appointment for that 6 week mark, and cancel it if things turn out better so it’s not needed.  If not, we may burn through several weeks before the specialist can be seen.

In my experience, it is more typical to see the initial treating clinician SLOWLY notice the passage of time and realize that conservative care hasn’t cut it.  Then they start talking to the patient about a referral to a specialist for consideration for surgery.  Then, when the surgeon sees the patient, they may talk about surgery and wait for the next appointment before requesting authorization from the payer.  They usually wait for a yes before scheduling the surgery — which is often some weeks in the future.   Maybe somebody ought to do a study of the weeks of time lost in this process.

Or maybe you have a better idea? How do we make sure that people’s FMLA clock doesn’t run out because of an ADMINISTRATIVE delays on OUR end, not medical ones on THEIR end? Our goal is to have them NOT lose their jobs – and right now I’m afraid we are really not paying enough attention to that critically important and NEGATIVE result of an injury/illness.

Read more about the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals decision here: https://www.natlawreview.com/article/ada-not-medical-leave-entitlement-seventh-circuit-declares


January 5, 2017

Why Public-Private Collaboration Is Necessary to Prevent Work Disability

My goal now is to raise awareness about the need for concerted governmental, philanthropic, and private sector action to find better ways to support the millions of workers who lose their livelihoods each year due to injury or illness.  In many cases, this outcome could have been prevented.  And in the New World under President Trump, it will probably be more important than ever to make sure that people get the help they need to KEEP earning a living and STAY in the workforce.

You may be wondering … why work disability is a problem?  Let’s start with the basics. As a practical matter, we already know that lack of work is bad for people and for communities.  Just think about the many millions of dollars the government spends to create jobs and reduce unemployment!  But now, formal research has started confirming how harmful worklessness really is for adults — documenting the consequences for their physical and mental health as well as for their marital, family, social and economic well-being.

Since that’s so obvious…. let’s agree that preserving people’s ability to function and work should be a fundamental purpose of health care services.  Successfully doing so should be seen as an especially valuable health care outcome, second only to preserving life, limb, and essential bodily functions.  And the failure to do so should be called a poor outcome.

Today’s reality is … that whether or not a person with an newly-acquired medical condition is able to function and work afterwards is not even counted as a health outcome!  And there are gaps in our social fabric that are actually creating job loss and work disability.

Here’s one big example of a gap: … None of the three professionals typically responding to workers who are dealing with life disruption due to injury or illness feel any responsibility for actively supporting the workers to keep their jobs or find new ones if necessary. That includes health care professionals, employers, and benefits administrators.  Occasionally, some of these professionals actually advise against work — not realizing the consequences, of course.  The workers are left to fend for themselves;  some lack the confidence or skills to do so successfully.  We need better public policy, stronger governmental efforts, and more support from the private sector in order to prevent this needless work disability.

Do you realize… that roughly half of the people now receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and other prolonged disability benefits started out with very common health problems like back pain, depression, and anxiety?  And do you realize that the vast majority of people in the country who develop those same conditions don’t even take any time off work or are able to return after just a short absence?   So the people who end up on SSDI are members of a subgroup that has had unexpectedly poor outcomes — including job loss.

You might ask …why does this sub-group have such poor outcomes of conditions that normally don’t cause much work disability at all?  It’s logical to assume that these people had the most severe cases of back pain or depression and so on, but in most cases there’s actually no objective data to support that idea.  For every person now on long-term disability there are others who started out with the exact same condition, but are still working.  From the strictly medical point of view, they looked identical at the beginning.  What is different is the way the illness episode unfolded in the two groups:  what happened; how others talked to them and treated them; the decisions they made about the best way to manage this life challenge; the effectiveness of the medical treatment they received; the other kinds of support they got and the opportunities that were or weren’t available.

My personal hope is that … more employed people who are dealing with new injuries or illnesses are going to get what they need at the right time to avoid needless impairment work absence, job loss, withdrawal from the work force, and long-term reliance on disability benefits — which really means a life of poverty.  That would be good for them, for the tax payers, and for our society as a whole.

Now that these issues are in the spotlight …. It is time for policy makers, employers, healthcare providers, health and disability insurers, other service providers, and affected individuals to start talking together about solutions — and then do their part to make those things happen.

For the last three years, Mathematica‘s policy researchers Yoni Ben Shalom, David Stapleton, and I have been collaborating in the SAW/RTW Collaborative sponsored by the Office of Disability Employment Policy in the US Department of Labor.  On September 13, 2016, Mathematica held a forum and webinar during which several speakers presented some actionable policy options that can improve outcomes and prevent needless work disability.

If you want to go deeper … Read my short Work Disability Prevention Manifesto by downloading it from the “Current favorites I’m Sharing” section on my blog homepage.  Or you can look at / listen to the recording of the SAW/RTW Collaborative’s September 13 forum/webinar..  Some of the ideas presented by the policy researchers came from surprising angles — and were quite creative / innovative!


October 31, 2016

Social Security Administration seeks input from YOU

I hope you will read — and respond — to this Request for Information issued by the U.S. Social Security Administration.  SSA is looking for input in order to decide whether to undertake a demonstration project (at the community level) for early intervention in musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions – in the first few weeks (<12) after onset of work disruption.

I’m sure SSA will really pay attention to thoughtful input they get from “front line” professionals and researchers / practitioners with expertise in this field — and from patients who have personal experience with the gaps and holes in our systems today that push them towards disability and job loss.

SSA will ONLY proceed with this demonstration project idea if they think it WILL decrease job loss, workforce withdrawal, and eventual applications for SSDI — by reducing needless impairment and disability while preserving livelihoods among the workers.   At this stage, SSA is asking basic questions about the level of evidence supporting the efficacy of early intervention, what the interventions should consist of, as well as the wisdom, practicalities, and potential efficacy of such an effort.

The deadline for responses is November 18.   There is a real possibility this demonstration will actually happen.  The President’s proposed 2017 budget has $200 million allocated for demonstration projects by SSA.    Whether or not that money will ever actually be appropriated will depend on many factors, including which candidate is elected President and the composition of the Congress.

While I was scanning the RFI to find the response date, I was stunned and delighted to see my name listed in one of the 3 references cited at the end!  SSA listed the concept proposal for a Community-Focused Health & Work Service that Tom Wickizer, Kim Burton and I contributed to the SSDI Solutions Initiative sponsored by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.  All of the proposals, including ours, are available here: SSDI Solutions: Ideas to Strengthen the Social Security Disability Insurance Program .Maybe our work has actually made some difference – at the very least, SSA is now interested enough to seriously explore our ideas!

Now it’s YOUR turn to make a difference — by reading and responding to SSA’s RFI.


September 26, 2016

Two faulty beliefs about IMEs & impartial physicians

Patients and their advocates tend to be skeptical about independent medical opinions.   There are legitimate reasons to be concerned.  However, I want to point out two common but faulty beliefs that create UNNECESSARY distrust in this aspect of disability benefits and workers’ compensation claim management systems.  First, despite patients’ faith in their own doctors, treating physicians as a group are NOT a reliable source of accurate and unbiased information.  Second, although justice IS even-handed, impartial physicians should not find for both sides equally.

Based on my experience leading teams on three consulting projects that audited the quality of more than 1400 reports of independent medical evaluations and file reviews I definitely share MANY other concerns about the quality of the reports, the process by which they are procured, and the physicians and other healthcare professionals who provide them.  But these two particular issues are not among them. Read on to find out why.

FACT:  As a group, treating physicians are NOT a reliable source of accurate and unbiased information

First is the incorrect belief that the treating physician is the BEST place to turn for an “independent” opinion because they are highly trained professionals who are familiar with the patient’s case.   There are two main reasons why this is incorrect:

(a) There is considerable variability in the appropriateness and effectiveness of the care delivered by practicing physicians, and patients are not in a good position to assess it.  Evaluating appropriateness and effectiveness is admittedly a difficult and imperfect process, but the best way we know to do it is through the eyes of another physician who is equally or more expert in the matter at hand — and has no axe to grind and no financial stake in the outcome:  neither a friendly colleague nor a competitor.

(b) In medical school and residency, physicians are often told they should be “patient advocates” — but that instruction may not include a definition of advocating. (True for me and many others in physician audiences when I have asked about it.)  Patient advocacy sometimes turns into doing or saying exactly what the patient wants, not what is actually in the best interest of the patients’ long term health and well-being.  (I call this being a McDoctor.)  Particularly in today’s world with fierce competition between medical groups for patients and the use of “patient satisfaction scores” in calculating physician bonuses, that is true.  The data is clear:  treating physicians provide unnecessary antibiotics, pain medications, inappropriate treatments and are even willing to even shade the truth on reports in order to keep their patients happy.

The reason why arms-length or “third party” physicians are preferred as the source of opinions is to protect patients from harm from EITHER the “first party” (treating physician) OR the “second party” (the payer — which has an OBVIOUS business interest in controlling cost).  Judges, public policy people, and I get uncomfortable when the WAY the arms length physician is SELECTED is distorted by the interests of either the first party or second party.

FACT:   Impartial physicians’ opinions should not find for both sides equally

Second is the belief that “truly” impartial physicians should come down on the side of the patient vs. insurer half the time.  Or call it 50:50 for plaintiff vs. defense.  This belief is WRONG because cases selected for review or IME have been pre-selected by claims managers and case managers.   These professionals may not be healthcare professionals but because they see thousands of cases and become very familiar with the medical landscape, they ARE often more experienced OBSERVERS of the process of care than many physicians. They learn to recognize patterns of care that fit normal patterns, and care that is unusual.  These days, they are often expected to use evidence-based guidelines to identify outlier cases.  Those who focus on specific geographical areas come to see which doctors get patients better and which ones don’t.

The VAST MAJORITY of the time, there is no need / no reason to refer a case for independent review.  The treating physician IS doing the right thing;  the diagnoses, prescribed treatment, and causation determination (if work-related) DO appear reasonable and appropriate.   If the claims managers/ case managers see no problems or have no questions, they don’t refer the case for outside review.  If it aint busted, why fix it?

So as a rule of thumb, you can assume that some feature or another in ALMOST EVERY case being sent to review has RAISED QUESTIONS in the mind of an experienced observer of the care process.  The reason WHY the case is REFERRED is because that observer has only a very superficial knowledge of medicine.  They need an adviser — an impartial and expert physician who can evaluate the clinical facts and context and then either CONFIRM that the treating physician is doing the right thing or VALIDATE the claims/case manager’s concerns.

When claims/case managers are doing a good job selecting cases for referral, we SHOULD expect that MOST of the decisions will favor the insurer / defense. The more expert the claim/case managers are, the MORE LIKELY the independent physicians will agree — because the claims/case managers are accurately detecting real problems and concerns.

(By the way, a similar ratio seems to apply in the court system.   A judge once told me that MOST defendants ARE guilty – because the prosecutors don’t want to waste their time and public funds bringing cases to trial if they think the defendant is innocent – or if they simply think they will lose.    A perfect example  of this pragmatism is the FBI’s recent decision not to prosecute Hillary Clinton.  The Director made it clear that they didn’t want to waste the taxpayers’ money on a case in which they wouldn’t be able to convince a jury “beyond a reasonable doubt.”)

Consider this:  If you are a treating physician who FREQUENTLY ends up with your care plans rejected by claims managers and utilization review, consider the possibility that YOU stick out.  Your care patterns may be more unusual than you realize.  Your outcomes may be worse than your colleagues’.

Sadly, some physicians discredit input from independent experts in front of patients.  They THINK they are advocating for their patient — on a social justice crusade, but end up harming their patient instead — by teaching them they have been wronged, are a victim of “the system,” and a helpless pawn.  This message:

  • increases distrust, resentment and anger (which in turn worsens symptoms);
  • encourages passivity rather than problem-solving (which in turn increases the likelihood of job loss, permanent withdrawal from the workforce, and a future of poverty on disability benefits).

A former president of the Oregon Medical Association said he counsels patients this way:  “Your two most important treasures are your health and your job. And  I am here to help you protect both of them.”  Healthcare practitioners really ought to do everything they can help their patients find a successful way out of these predicaments, instead of allowing them to believe they are trapped.  The “system” is not designed to solve their life predicament for them — they may have to do it themselves.  The physicians’ care plans should consist of those treatments known to restore function and work ability most rapidly.  Physicians should encourage their patients to tell their employer they want find a way to stay productive and keep their jobs.  And if the employer won’t support them, physicians should counsel their patients to try to find a new job quickly — even if it’s temporary or they have to make a change to the kind of work they do.

Adapting to loss is a key part of recovery.   When I was treating patients, I could tell they were going to be OK when they said with pride “I’ve figured out how to work around it, and life is getting back on track.”


September 9, 2016

Pithy 4-min Video & 1-page Manifesto for you to use

Mathematica just released a 4-minute video of me pointing out why the work disability prevention model is important — in plain language.  The video was made at the request of the US Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP).  The main messages in the video are:

  1. MILLIONS of Americans lose their jobs every year due to injury and illness;
  2. Worklessness and job loss have been shown to harm physical and mental health as well as personal, family, social, and economic well-being;
  3. Worklessness and job loss should therefore be considered poor healthcare outcomes;
  4. Unexpectedly poor outcomes can often be prevented and there is good research evidence about how to do that;
  5. Changes need to be made so that vulnerable people get what they need at the time when they need it — and as a result are able to have the best possible life outcome, stay in the workforce, and keep earning their own living.

In addition, the video also explains WHY and HOW some people have unexpectedly poor outcomes of conditions that do not normally cause significant work disruption and job loss.  Unless you’re in my line of work, it is hard to understand why things turn out badly in some cases and not in others — especially if they looked exactly the same at the beginning.

The video is loosely based on a one-page Work Disability Prevention Manifesto I wrote.  I put a draft of it on this blog last spring and got many useful comments.  After many revision cycles, it is now as succinct and compelling as I know how to make it.  ODEP had no hand in the Manifesto; it’s my independent work.

I’m glad I can now share these two items with you because the WORLD needs to know more about these issues—and most PEOPLE in the world have a very short attention span and no interest in the topic to begin with.   I hope you will pass this stuff along to the people whose thinking you want to change or whose buy in you need. Then maybe THEY will pass it along to others as well.  Social norms ONLY SHIFT when people share powerful mind-opening ideas with one another.

Lastly, let’s all stop speaking ABOUT these problems.  It is time for us all to start speaking FOR action and FOR changes.

WORK DISABILITY PREVENTION MANIFESTO
©Jennifer Christian, MD, MPH August 2016

Preventable job loss demands our attention

  • Millions of American workers lose their jobs each year due to injury, illness or a change in a chronic condition.
  • Preserving people’s ability to function and participate fully in everyday human affairs, including work, is a valuable health care outcome, second only to preserving life, limb, and essential bodily functions.
  • A new medical problem that simultaneously threatens one’s ability to earn a living creates a life crisis that must be addressed rapidly and wisely. Most people are unprepared for this double-headed predicament. It can overwhelm their coping abilities.
  • When medical conditions occur or worsen, especially common ones, most people are able to stay at or return to work without difficulty. However, many prolonged work disability cases covered by private- and public-sector benefits programs began as very common health problems (for example, musculoskeletal pain, depression, and anxiety) but had unexpectedly poor outcomes including job loss.
  • Loss of livelihood due to medical problems is a poor health outcome. Worklessness is harmful to people’s health, as well as to their family, social, and economic well-being.

Why do such poor outcomes occur?

  • Medical conditions by themselves rarely require prolonged work absence, but it can look that way. Both treatment and time off work are sometimes considered benefits to be maximized, rather than tools to be used judiciously.
  • Professionals typically involved in these situations (health care providers, employers, and benefits administrators) do not feel responsible for avoiding job loss.
  • Unexpectedly poor outcomes are frequently due to a mix of medical and nonmedical factors. Diagnosed conditions are inappropriately treated; others (especially psychiatric conditions) are unacknowledged and untreated. The employer, medical office, and insurance company (if there is one) operate in isolation, with little incentive to collaborate.
  • Without the support of a team focused on helping them get their lives back on track, people can get lost in the health care and benefits systems. With every passing day away from work, the odds worsen that they will ever return. After a while, they start to redefine themselves as too sick or disabled to work.
  • When people lose their jobs and do not find new ones, they barely get by on disability benefits and are vulnerable to other detrimental effects.

How can we fix this problem?

  • Good scientific evidence exists about how unexpectedly poor outcomes are created, how to avoid them, and how health care and other services can protect jobs.
  • Health-related work disruption should be viewed as a life emergency. Productive activity should be a part of treatment regimens.
  • When work disruption begins, it can be both effective and cost-beneficial to have a coordinator help the individual, treating physician, and employer communicate and focus everyone’s attention on maximizing recovery, restoring function, accommodating irreversible losses, and making plans for how the individual can keep working, return to work, or quickly find a more appropriate job.
  • We must urgently establish accountability for work disability and job loss in our workforce, health care, and disability benefits systems and build nationwide capacity to consistently deliver services—just in time, when needed—that help people stay at work or return to work.

August 5, 2016

CMS announces where they will start transforming physician payment plans

If like me you’ve been kinda following Federal physician payment reform (and hoping that what is learned there there will lead to payment reform in the private sector or maybe even workers’ compensation), the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) made a big announcement this week.

Starting 4 months from now, (January 2017) they will be rolling out / testing a really quite revolutionary change in payments to PRIMARY physicians in 14 regions that include 11 whole states:  Arkansas, Colorado, Hawaii, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island and Tennessee.    Other areas are the Greater Kansas City, MO area; the North Hudson Valley in New York state, the Greater Philadelphia area, and a region that includes all of Ohio plus northern Kentucky.

If you’re in any of those areas, it would behoove you to learn more about this –- and follow it as it unfolds.    CMS is estimating that 5,000 primary care practices serving an estimated 3.5 million beneficiaries could be touched by this model.   They are currently taking applications for providers in eligible practices in these areas, and don’t expect much trouble recruiting because the care-management fees can be a boon for practices.  Providers may be able to earn an additional $100,000 to $250,000 per year under the model, depending on the number of patients who participate.

The new model CPC+ (Comprehensive Primary Care Plus) has two tracks. Under track one, providers get a monthly fee for specific services in addition to the usual fee-for-service Medicare payments. But in track two, practices get an upfront monthly care-management fee coupled with reduced fee-for-service payments. The purpose of this hybrid model is to let practices provide care outside of the traditional face-to-face encounter.

Learn more here:  http://www.modernhealthcare.com/article/20160801/NEWS/160809989?utm_source=modernhealthcare&utm_medium=email&utm_content=20160801-NEWS-160809989&utm_campaign=financedaily


July 14, 2016

Why we need a 1:1 ratio of healers to lawyers when designing reforms for “comp”

While Linda Rudolph was Medical Director of the California workers’ compensation regulatory agency in the mid-1990’s, she defined workers’ compensation as a medically-driven legal system.  I still use that definition when I give my annual lecture on work comp at the Harvard School of Public Health.   Based on my interpretation of what that succinct and elegant summary really means, I believe that any group setting out to improve the workers’ compensation system should have a roughly equal number of people at the table who were originally trained in a healing art and the law — because of the way their minds were indelibly imprinted by that training.

As you may have heard, I was among 38 workers’ compensation experts of various stripes who participated in the Workers’ Compensation Summit co-hosted by blogger Bob Wilson from workerscompensation.com and blogger Judge David Langham, Deputy Chief Judge of the Florida workers’ compensation system.

I was surprised as we went around the room introducing ourselves.  I was one of only two physicians in the room.  There were no others with healthcare professional training.  There was one person whose original training had been as a vocational counselor.  By far the largest group had had legal training, although many of them were now in other jobs — judges, legal scholars, workers’ compensation system administrators, corporate executives.

Training in both law and in medicine shapes a student’s worldview, teaches a precise vocabulary, builds a foundation of factual knowledge as well as rigorous intellectual discipline, and defines how things work in a certain part of human life.  The training also establishes a finite range of things that seem possible, and offers a particular inventory of potential solutions.  A behavioral acculturation process accompanies it, too.  The point here, though, is that the actual shape and content of those worldviews, vocabularies, knowledge bases, intellectual disciplines, possibilities and solutions — and behavioral cultures — differs in most respects between the two professions.

Earlier in life, I spent 20 years as a physician married to a lawyer.  For many reasons, it was kinda like a nice cat being married to a nice dog.  We had a primordial kind of incompatibility.  But I did get to know what made that particular dog tick pretty well.

Lawyers seem to have a predilection for solutions that involve clarifying rights, justice, entitlements, boundaries, and who is responsible to pay for what.  Lawyers are trained to advocate for their clients’ rights and interests.  Most lawyers seem to spend an awful lot of their time and energy anticipating arguments or actually arguing, fighting, and trying to win  — because the everyday grist of their vocational mill is broken promises and disputes.

As I was pondering the difference between the “head set” of medicine and law, I found a quote from an article in the May 31 Boston Globe about a 35 year old man, a published author and poet, now  graduating from Yale Law School — who at age 16 had hijacked a car at gunpoint and served 8 years in prison.   He said “The law is a way to think and argue, and a way to find solutions….. Law is the language of power, and understanding that language is important to understanding power.”  This quote struck me — not because he’s so amazing (which he obviously is) but because he articulated so precisely what I had predicted a lawyer would say.

Physicians and others in the healing professions have a predilection for solutions that reduce peoples’ suffering and restore the integrity of their bodies/minds.  Medicine has nothing to do with winning.  The first precept of medicine is to do no harm.  Physicians are trained to advocate for their patients’ health, to meet their immediate needs today and maximize their future well-being in the future.  The everyday grist of their vocational mill is providing comfort, relief, and reassurance to a stream of patients coming through the door with symptoms, with bodies or minds that aren’t working right, distressed and worried about the meaning of those things for their health and everyday activities (and often secretly fearing death).

In my view, a good “medically-driven legal system” for people injured at work should concern itself primarily with helping injured workers get back on their feet.  That requires paying roughly equal attention to

  1. Helping them manage any life predicament the injury has caused (reducing worry, suffering, and distress, arranging good care promptly that maximizes healing and restores function as quickly as possible, preserving daily routine, minimizing work disability and job loss or providing assistance to find a new job quickly.  The goal is to get everyday life back to normal as soon and as completely as possible.  Time spent in limbo is destructive.
  2. Minimizing their short-term financial stress as well as long-term financial loss, sorting out their rights, and dealing with disputes.

Everyone’s goal should be to expedite the activities in #1 even if there are difficulties in #2, instead of allowing #2 to delay #1 as is common today.

 


July 6, 2016

Where does working age end? Who is too old to work?

I’ve been trying to draw more attention to the special healthcare needs of the working age population since they power the engine of the economy.  The healthcare industry needs to expand its focus beyond symptoms and select treatments that rapidly restore the ability to function in this group  — to help them recover faster and more completely, to keep their jobs and livelihoods, and avoid the negative consequences of prolonged worklessness for them and their family!  Doctors and other healthcare professionals often don’t really THINK ENOUGH about the impact of their treatment regimens on working people’s lives outside the office.

But as I advocate, I’ve begun pondering that definition: “working age”.  It seems safe to use 18 as the low end of the range (even though kids younger than that do work, most of them are still in school).  But what about the top end?  At what age should we stop seeing work as the norm?  Stop expecting anyone to work?   Start thinking it’s silly to insist on working?  What term should we use to describe those who have lived for a really long time but are still very active and working?  What term should we use to describe people who are the exact same age but the press of years has made them too feeble to work anymore, even though they are “healthy”?  We all know people in both of these categories.  Simply calling them both old seems inaccurate.

I found a thoughtful article from the World Health Organization (WHO) exploring how to define “old” or “elderly” — in Africa!   Have you noticed how often we notice oddities about our own culture when we look outside it?  That’s when we notice the automatic assumptions and blind spots we’ve been living with.

I think you’ll enjoy reading the excerpts I’ve pasted below from the full WHO article.  I have colored in red the parts I found most eye-opening.  They are a breath of realistic and straight-spoken fresh air about how humans age.

Bottom line as I see it:  In developing societies where the administrative and legal fictions of retirement and pensions do not exist, the people tend to define old and elderly straightforwardly and on a case by case basis depending on the actual circumstances of humans as they accumulate years (and as younger generations come behind).  Old age begins when one assumes the social role of an elder, when one withdraws from social roles either because it is time for someone younger to take over or because of decline in physical / mental capability.  And finally, when it is no longer possible to actively contribute, one is definitely well into old age.

By that reasoning, if you are still able to play the roles and carry the same load of a person a decade younger, you are not old yet.  I still don’t know what to call you though.  Or, more truthfully, I don’t know what to call myself.  I am still in there pitching though I turn 70 years old this year.  I did recently give up one of my roles to make room for a younger person who deserved her day in the sun.  Didn’t want to hog it and hold her back.

Proposed Working Definition of an Older Person in Africa for the MDS Project

Most developed world countries have accepted the chronological age of 65 years as a definition of ‘elderly’ or older person, but like many westernized concepts, this does not adapt well to the situation in Africa. While this definition is somewhat arbitrary, it is many times associated with the age at which one can begin to receive pension benefits.

Although there are commonly used definitions of old age, there is no general agreement on the age at which a person becomes old. The common use of a calendar age to mark the threshold of old age assumes equivalence with biological age, yet at the same time, it is generally accepted that these two are not necessarily synonymous.

As far back as 1875, in Britain, the Friendly Societies Act, enacted the definition of old age as, “any age after 50”, yet pension schemes mostly used age 60 or 65 years for eligibility. (Roebuck, 1979). The UN has not adopted a standard criterion, but generally use 60+ years to refer to the older population (personal correspondence, 2001).

The more traditional African definitions of an elder or ‘elderly’ person correlate with the chronological ages of 50 to 65 years, depending on the setting, the region and the country. ….. In addition, chronological or “official” definitions of ageing can differ widely from traditional or community definitions of when a person is older.  Lacking an accepted and acceptable definition, in many instances the age at which a person became eligible for statutory and occupational retirement pensions has become the default definition. ….

Defining old
“The ageing process is of course a biological reality which has its own dynamic, largely beyond human control. However, it is also subject to the constructions by which each society makes sense of old age. In the developed world, chronological time plays a paramount role. The age of 60 or 65, roughly equivalent to retirement ages in most developed countries, is said to be the beginning of old age.

In many parts of the developing world, chronological time has little or no importance in the meaning of old age. Other socially constructed meanings of age are more significant such as the roles assigned to older people; in some cases it is the loss of roles accompanying physical decline which is significant in defining old age. Thus, in contrast to the chronological milestones which mark life stages in the developed world, old age in many developing countries is seen to begin at the point when active contribution is no longer possible.” (Gorman, 2000)

Categories of definitions
When attention was drawn to older populations in many developing countries, the definition of old age many times followed the same path as that in more developed countries, that is, the government sets the definition by stating a retirement age. Considering that a majority of old persons in sub-Saharan Africa live in rural areas and work outside the formal sector, and thus expect no formal retirement or retirement benefits, this imported logic seems quite illogical. Further, when this definition is applied to regions where relative life expectancy is much lower and size of older populations is much smaller, the utility of this definition becomes even more limited.

Study results published in 1980 provides a basis for a definition of old age in developing countries (Glascock, 1980). This international anthropological study was conducted in the late 1970’s and included multiple areas in Africa. Definitions fell into three main categories: 1) chronology; 2) change in social role (i.e. change in work patterns, adult status of children and menopause); and 3) change in capabilities (i.e. invalid status, senility and change in physical characteristics). Results from this cultural analysis of old age suggested that change in social role is the predominant means of defining old age. When the preferred definition was chronological, it was most often accompanied by an additional definition.

…… If one considers the self-definition of old age, that is old people defining old age, as people enter older ages it seems their self-definitions of old age become decreasingly multifaceted and increasingly related to health status (Brubaker, 1975, Johnson, 1976 and Freund, 1997).


June 14, 2016

Take an important step BEFORE the sausage making starts …….

Do you know the Bible story about wise King Solomon and his response to the two mothers fighting over two babies — a living one and a dead one?   Each claimed the living one was hers and the dead baby belonged to the other.  King Solomon offered to cut the living baby in half and give each mother a fair share. The real mother was revealed when she said she would give up her claim to the baby rather than have it die.

The efforts being made now to “modernize” workers’ compensation and other large scale disability benefits programs may end up dividing the live baby in half by becoming prematurely dominated by the sausage-making and log-rolling among powerful vested interests on all sides.  In particular, past efforts at “reform” in workers’ comp have been feeding frenzies for those who live off system inefficiencies and inequities.  The result is the continuing sacrifice of the metaphorical living baby — the well-being and long-term quality of life of the individuals these systems are intended to protect, and the economic and social health of our society as a whole (as represented by the taxpayers).

By their nature in a pluralistic and democratic society, legislative and regulatory reform ARE sausage-making and log-rolling activities.  As a regulator commented at last month’s Workers’ Comp Summit, good government must “account for the multiplicity of interests”.  That said, we have a better shot at creating a more satisfactory system IF we give the sausage-makers a North Star to guide their efforts.   As they write legislative language, they need to be using a written “spec sheet” of requirements that the solution must meet — a list of the major design principles or performance specifications that a twenty-first century replacement would need to satisfy.  A credible group needs to come up with a draft System Design and Performance Specifications document which could then be circulated for comment and revision in community meetings and industry groups all around the country.

The people invited to create the spec sheet should be well suited for this kind of socially responsible foundation-laying project:  thoughtful, expert in the matters at hand, with real world and front line experience, each respected in their own sector, able to see things from a broad perspective — and preferably NOT elected officers or designated representatives of organizations.  The participants must feel completely free to advocate for what they think is best for the two parties most vulnerable to system dysfunction (the affected individuals and society as a whole).  The people sitting at the table must not allow themselves to be swayed by the vested interests of their own livelihood, profession, enterprise, trade association, or industry — but should be worldly wise enough to acknowledge the power that those interests have to distort and defeat naive solutions.

As an example of the KIND of document that might result, see this preliminary draft for a set of design principles for the nation’s healthcare system.  This list was developed in the late 2000’s — before Obamacare was passed and signed into law.   It expands and refines an initial set of ideas that bubbled up from a small group of people in different walks of life in my “social set.”

As citizens and taxpayers, we were uncomfortable at the country’s lack of a core document articulating widely-accepted values, principles or expected outcomes against which to judge the merit of various details in the legislative proposals.  We also felt that a document with core principles like these could later be used to determine whether a law is creating the desired changes, and to guide later amendments and regulatory changes.   After creating this document, I envisioned groups around the country holding community meetings, to either consider and modify it or come up with their own versions.

Widespread engagement in dialogue at the community level — a “from the ground up” development of the US population’s vision of what a well-functioning health system would look like — would have given the USA a coherent values-based and outcomes-based population health policy at long last.  The results being produced by the ACA today could be compared with that vision/policy in order to judge whether Obamacare has moved us towards or away from that vision, and to identify places where changes need to be made.  (And you do realize that the US still doesn’t have a population heatlh policy, right?)

Similarly, while there is wide acknowledgement that modernization of our nation’s workers’ compensation system is needed, why don’t we take this tack and start building a vision of how a good system SHOULD operate, and the results it SHOULD produce?


May 18, 2016

It’s time to establish accountability for job loss

My report on Establishing Accountability to Reduce Job Loss After Injury or Illness (commissioned by the US Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy) was originally conceived as a simple effort to lay out the rationale for adding work and participation in life to the list of positive health outcomes.  (I suspect that I was asked to write it because they thought a physician like me would focus on medical practitioners and the healthcare delivery system.)

Almost immediately, it became obvious to me that in order to make a solid contribution to the on-going public dialogue about health outcomes, the paper would have to explore the meaty issues of explicit expectations, accountability, metrics, credible data, rewards for best practices, and incentives for both participation and performance.

Soon after that, the absurdity of discussing expectations and accountability for the healthcare system alone became obvious —because organizations in other sectors of society play a role in the SAW/RTW process, each of which has enough discretionary power to support or thwart it.

Thus, over time, the purpose of the paper shifted to answering this question:  What has to happen in order to engage the professionals at the front-line  — the ones who work directly with affected individuals and make discretionary decisions about how much effort to make and for what purpose — so they start making a real effort to help people stay employed?

Who are those front-line professionals?

(1) Healthcare professionals.  Most of us view our purpose as making accurate diagnoses and providing appropriate treatment.   We are generally not trained to assess work capacity and prevent work disability.  Yet our opinions about work have considerable weight under law, regulations, insurance policies and traditional business practices.  We generally don’t spend much time and energy thinking about issues outside the exam room.

(2) Workplace supervisors or HR professionals.  Their focus is the business of the organization, producing its goods or delivering its services,as well as abiding by company policies and applicable laws. They can decide how much effort to make to help the employee stay at work and keep their job.  With rare exceptions, they are neither aware of the preventable nature of most work disability, nor are they trained how to negotiate and arrange stay at work or return to work plans, identify alternative temporary tasks or reasonable accommodations.  And they are not incentivized to do so.

(3) Claims/benefits administrators.  Their focus is administering the benefit programs correctly, establishing eligibility, compensability, meeting deadlines, making payments, and other requirements. In between these duties, they decide how much effort to make to help the beneficiary/claimant. Like the workplace professionals, with only rare exceptions, they are neither aware of the preventable nature of most work disability, nor are they trained how to negotiate and arrange stay at work or return to work plans, identify alternative temporary tasks or reasonable accommodations.  And they are not incentivized to do so.

Job loss is the third worst outcome of an injury or illness

As I thought about these players and those who influence their behavior, the biggest realization dawned more slowly:  job loss is a potentially devastating secondary consequence of a health-related employment disruption or a failed SAW/RTW process — because it often leads to permanent withdrawal from the workforce.  In fact it is the third worst outcome of a health condition, the other two being death and loss of limb or core functions like sight and hearing.

Yet we have not seen it that way.  Unlike death and serious injury, job loss is generally not noticed.  It’s actually a hidden outcome.  The frequency with which it occurs can only be estimated indirectly — because it is untracked and thus invisible.  When someone loses their job due to long-lasting illness or injury, they often end up leaving leave the workforce permanently, becoming dependent on public benefits programs like SSDI.

Some years ago, a senior Social Security Administration official commented to me that SSDI is the largest insurance fund IN THE WORLD and yet it has no risk management program, no loss prevention program.  Private sector insurance companies view these as core functions of their organizations.  They know they must identify and take steps to reduce risks and mitigate losses in order to meet their responsibilities and stay solvent.

In my view, government should be likewise obligated to take steps to protect SSDI (and the taxpayers who fund it) from the economic consequences of the dysfunctions, inadequacies and gaps in the upstream social structures and programs — because their failures end up on public benefit programs.

Government will make a major contribution to reducing demand on SSDI by:
(1) establishing policy that job loss/withdrawal from the workforce is a very unfortunate outcome of a health problem and should be avoided whenever possible,
(2) enabling all parties to see more clearly when it happens by requiring reporting of these events; and
(3) establishing consequences of some sort when involved organizations are non-responsive (negative incentives such as financial penalties, loss of privileges, or public exposure) or do take appropriate action (positive incentives such as credits, privileges, or favorable publicity).

This combination of outcomes visibility and accountability should then start to shift how parties in the private marketplace choose vendors and suppliers.

How will things look different when there IS real accountability for job loss?  

Implementing the broad range of actions recommended in the Establishing Accountability report will require a significant long-term effort because of their comprehensive, complex, and varied nature.  Taken as a whole, these actions have the potential to create truly transformational change.

Success will mean that more workers living with adult-onset chronic conditions and impairments (acquired disabilities) will be able to stay fully and productively engaged in their own personal, family, and community life; protect their household’s standard of living; remain economically self-sufficient contributors to their local area economy; and avoid dependency on government programs—which will in turn protect their future health and well-being and improve their children’s future prospects.  At the national level, success has the potential to stem the tide of declining labor force participation, lighten taxpayer burdens, and bolster the nation’s social fabric and the vitality of the economy.  All in all, the initiatives proposed make good use of limited government resources.

The ultimate success of the initiative will hinge on the ability of Federal policy leaders and supporters to create and sustain real multi-stakeholder buy-in and enthusiasm for achieving the future vision described in the paper.   A good next step is for the federal and state governments to decide whether and where to start.  It will take time and effort to achieve consensus among key stakeholders that this kind of initiative is necessary, timely, and deserves priority for person-power and funding.  Once that preliminary groundwork is laid, more detailed planning work can get underway.

Whoever you are, I hope you read the Establishing Accountability paper and agree that change and action is needed.  If my suggested recommendations spur you on to creative thinking, you do NOT need to wait for the government to act.  You can start factoring these issues into your decisions about who to collaborate with now.