Category Archives: Policy Issues

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.


May 11, 2016

Best & worst states for people with disabilities who want to work

Have you heard of RespectAbility?  When I went to their website, I found a COOL CHART showing some HOT NUMBERS:  the best and worst states for people with disabilities who want to work.

Before you look at the chart (I’ve pasted it below):
•    Guess which state has the highest employment rate for people with disabilities – 50.1%?   Do you think it’s a blue or a red state?
•    Guess which state has the lowest rate – 25.6%?   Is it blue or red?
•    Answer:  Almost all of the best AND the worst states for people with disabilities with regard to employment are in the red zone of the USA.

So, what else might be the reason for the differences between states?   Hmmmmmmmm. Is it the underlying health of the state’s economy?  I went to Mr. Google to find a ranked list of state economies.  This list on Business Insider was the first one I found.  Yay, here’s the answer, I thought (for a moment).   The WORST state for people with disabilities is the LAST state in the ranking – the state with the weakest economy over all (West Virginia).

BUT then I noticed that two other states among the bottom 10 of Business Insider’s list of state economies are in RespectAbility’s the TOP FIVE for employment of people with disabilities:  North Dakota and Wyoming.    And at the other end, of the 10 states that Business Insider ranked most economically healthy, only 1 was also in RespectAbility’s top group for people with disabilities (South Dakota).

I started to wonder whether Business Insider’s list was the “right” one, and found three other lists, here, here, and here — all of which purported to describe the health of state economies.  Each one has a VERY DIFFERENT RANKING of the states!!   The difference seems to be the method they used:   the underlying data sources and the formula used to calculate the results.

So I said uncle.  As an economic babe-in-the-woods who is unable to sort through this stuff, I have given up my extremely short amateur quest to understand WHY some states are better places to be if you have a disability and want to work!   For now, it is what it is, to use the jargon of today.

CLICK ON the table from RespectAbility pasted below and check out the numbers.  Then go to the full article on the RespectAbility website to read their analysis of why the numbers look the way they do – and what it all means.  And while you’re there, RespectAbility has also asked the current candidates for President of the USA to answer questions about their position on people with disabilities.  Their answers were NOT all the same!

Table-Best and worst states for disabled employment


March 7, 2016

Manifesto – Preventing Needless Work Disability (DRAFT)

I’ve tried to squeeze all the main ideas of the work disability prevention (WDP) model into one page (see below). The model has matured over the last several years as key dynamics have become more apparent.  I’m curious to hear your reaction to this new version.

After promoting the WDP model in the private sector for a long time, I started introducing it to the Federal / State disability sector in 2011.  Now seems like the right time to get a compelling and very succinct document circulating so it gets in front of many more eyes  – for example, lots of eyes on Capitol Hill and in regulation-creating / law-making (sausage making) circles.

The members of the Work Fitness & Disability Roundtable are also helping me craft a 3 or 4 bullet “sound bite.”  However, in my view it will take more than that to get influencers and decision-makers to decide to explore these issues further. They need a quick summary of WHAT the problem is, WHY things look the way they do, and WHAT might be possible instead — but just a bit.  Thus, this one-pager.

I’m not yet clear what to do with this draft – other than to post it here and solicit your comments.   Am also hoping to get your ideas for the best organization to issue and disseminate a manifesto like this — so it has the maximum impact.  What are the chances of it going viral?  Please leave a comment below or email me your ideas and suggested revisions.

Work Disability Prevention Manifesto (DRAFT)

  • Preserving people’s ability to function and participate fully in everyday human affairs, including work, is a valuable health care outcome, second only to avoiding loss of life, limb, and essential bodily functions.
  • Loss of livelihood due to medical problems is a poor health outcome because worklessness is harmful to people’s health as well as their personal, family, social, and economic well-being.
  • A new medical problem that threatens the ability to continue earning a living is a big challenge – a life crisis that must be addressed. Most people are unprepared, never having faced this double-headed predicament before. It can overwhelm their coping abilities.
  • When medical conditions occur or worsen, especially common health problems, most people are able to stay at or return to work without difficulty because the right things tend to happen during the first few days or weeks.
  • However, many of the prolonged work disability cases in both private and public sector sickness programs, disability benefits, and workers’ compensation programs began as very common health problems (for example musculo-skeletal pain, depression, and anxiety) but had unusually poor outcomes.
  • Unusually poor outcomes are frequently due to the interplay of sub-optimal health care and non-medical factors. Without a team focused on helping them get their lives back on track, people can get lost in the healthcare and benefits systems. Remediable issues in the situation are overlooked and not addressed. Incentive alignment among the involved parties is poor.
  • Medical conditions by themselves rarely require prolonged work absence, but it can look that way. And with every passing day away from work, the odds are worsening that people will ever return to work. After a while, they start to see themselves as too disabled to work.
  • Unlucky people lose their job and do not find a new one. They leave the workforce and eke by on disability benefits, in poverty, and vulnerable to its detrimental effects.
  • Today, most professionals typically involved in these situations (healthcare professionals, employers, and benefits handlers) do not feel responsible for avoiding job loss.
  • Good scientific evidence exists about how unusually poor outcomes are created, how to avoid them, and the health care and other services that can optimize function and protect jobs.
  • When work disruption begins, it is both effective and cost-beneficial to have a coordinator assist the individual, their treating physician, and their employer with communications, as well as focus everyone’s attention on restoring function, accommodating irrevocable losses, and making plans for how to keep working, return to work, or quickly find a more appropriate job.
  • Urgent priority should be given to establishing accountability for work disability and job loss as well as building nationwide capacity to consistently deliver services that help people stay at work or return to work – just in time, when needed.
  • Helping more people with medical problems to keep their jobs or find new ones in a timely manner will benefit them and their families, and will benefit our society as a whole.

March 7, 2016


October 30, 2015

Turning private tragedies into a public concern: job loss after injury or illness

Do you realize that NO professional feels responsible when a working person loses his or her job because of a health problem — neither the doctor, nor the employer, nor the person handling the claim for healthcare, disability, or workers’ compensation benefits?  At most, the professionals may say “that’s a shame” assuming they are even aware it’s happened.  Job loss is often invisible; the person just drops off the radar.  The government insists that employers track workplace injuries and illnesses, hospitalizations and fatalities — but no-one is tracking job loss.  Among the public purposes of the Americans with Disabilities Act is promoting employment of people with disabilities.  The millions of workers now silently disappearing from the workforce due to newly-acquired disabilities deserve more visibility — and more help.

An estimated 2.5 million people leave the workforce each year for health reasons, most frequently due to things like low back pain and other common musculoskeletal conditions, as well as the most common mood disorders of depression and anxiety.  And none of the professionals who are called on to respond when those individuals start having difficulty are being held accountable for making an active effort to help them keep their jobs. Obviously, some people really can’t continue to work (for example those who have a terminal illness or have suffered an incapacitating injury).  But some of those lost jobs COULD have been averted if any of those three professionals had devoted more of their skill and discretionary effort to finding a better solution.

In my opinion, this hole in our social fabric through which people with newly-acquired disabilities are falling has been invisible until now — and is unacceptable.

To put this in perspective, as Western societies have evolved over the centuries, other kinds of private tragedies have become public concerns.   Do you realize that until roughly the 19th century, no one felt responsible when a pregnant woman died in childbirth, or her newborn infant did — which was very common?  “That’s a shame,” people said.  It was each family’s private tragedy.   Today,  several professions, many hospitals, and whole departments within public health agencies in every single state focus on keeping pregnant women healthy, providing prenatal care, assuring a safe childbirth, and proper care of newborns.  Maternal and infant mortality rates are now considered basic indicators of the health of a country’s entire population  — and the adequacy of its public health / health care systems.  In the developed countries, maternal and infant deaths are 50 to a 100 times lower than the rates in still-developing countries.  Here is data from the CIA’s World Factbook.

Pic of Mat Infant Mortality rates 2015-10-30

Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a comparable table showing job loss rates for the countries?  What do you think it would show?   I bet the developing countries are doing less well by comparison — because their social safety nets tend to be weaker.  And I doubt workers that in the US are a 100-fold better off.   I’ve heard that European countries make it much harder to “throw away” unwanted workers.  It is not only important for workers and their families to stay employed.  Every time a worker loses his or her footing in the world of work, our society takes a DOUBLE hit:  we lose an economic contributor AND at the same time we gain another person dependent on taxpayer funded benefits.

I’ve been part of a two-year effort to start thinking seriously about ways to reduce job loss due to illness and injury among U.S. workers while serving as a member of the US Department of Labor’s Stay-at-Work/Return-to-Work (SAW/RTW) Policy Collaborative. This year three of us (economists (David StapletonKevin Hollenbeck, and I) were asked to develop policy papers, each on a specific aspect of the issue.

My task was to think about how to establish accountability for job loss among the professionals who have the best opportunity to influence the outcome.  I felt so LUCKY to be PAID to take the time to explore this topic in depth — it was really fun to put my “thinkatorium” into high gear.  Stimulating conversations with more than 30 experts in various fields and sectors of society helped shape my thinking (thank you all — their names are listed in the report).  The final product is three main recommendations and a set of specific suggestions for action — how to accomplish the recommendations.  I hope you will read my paper to see where this line of inquiry leads you.  I bet you will be surprised — because I was.

On October 22, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) and Mathematica’s Center for Studying Disability Policy (CSDP) hosted a policy forum to introduce the three policy papers and all of their recommendations. You can view the 90 minute video of the event here.  It includes some very good questions from the audience and subsequent dialogue. All three policy papers are available on Mathematica’s website.

Please consider joining me in transforming these 2.4 million hidden and all-too-private tragedies per year into a public challenge for change.

And before you go — did you notice that the data I cited on maternal and child death rates came from the US Central Intelligence Agency’s INFORMATION WEBSITE???  Who knew?  I just stumbled on it.

Photo announcing policy rec - video of event 2015-10-29


October 22, 2015

Star rankings for doctors who deliver better outcomes in workers’ comp

I was in the audience for a presentation on “outcomes based networks” in workers’ compensation while at the SIIA conference this week (Self-Insurance Institute of America) in Washington DC.   The two presenters were from Sedgwick (which I believe is now by far the largest workers’ comp claims administrator [claims payer] in the country — servicing mostly self-insured employers) and from Multi-Plan (a huge PPO).

The bottom line is that Sedgwick is now putting INDIVIDUAL treating physicians into ranks, from 5 stars (most preferred) all the way down to 1 star (least preferred) .  HOWEVER, many physicians cannot be ranked because the “n” (number of cases for which the payers have data) is too small to analyze with any statistical confidence at all.  The star ratings are NOT generally shared with the physicians — but I bet doctors who know the rankings exist can ask pointed questions about where they stand.

The two speakers have been deeply involved in developing the data sets and metrics to assess physician performance.  They have also been responsible for packaging that information so people who need to know where to send patients can quickly find the best available nearby doctors.  (I am an informed listener on this topic, having developed a physician “report card” myself with less sophisticated data tools in the late 1990’s.)

The presentations were fascinating, both because of what the speakers DID say, as well as what they DIDN’T say.  The four most important things they DID say (if I heard correctly) were that:
•    Sedgwick’s clients, claims adjusters, and case managers who are making referrals / recommending physicians to care for work-related injuries now have access to a user-friendly website that automatically lists doctors within certain geographies IN ORDER OF STAR RANKING (though the ranking itself is not displayed).  Reality check:  Some locations simply don’t HAVE any super-top-ranked providers.
•    Employers who are able to get most or all of their employees to 4 or 5 star doctors have DRAMATICALLY BETTER RESULTS in terms of medical/functional outcomes, disability duration and cost, including higher patient satisfaction/lower litigation rates.   These employers are seeing roughly 15-20% improvement in the parameters of interest.  I heard later that these are mostly California results.
•    The highly ranked doctors are happy to get the referrals and have NOT been asking to be compensated better when it has been confirmed that they are the best.  The highly ranked doctors also tend to be the ones who do a lot of work comp — so they are attuned to the critical issues that need to be managed.  Personally, I think those who DO deliver the best results SHOULD thrive and prosper as a result — not just get more patient volume.  MANY doctors already feel maxed out!
•    A nice endorsement for occupational medicine specialists in general.  The speakers consider “occ docs” as “primary treating” providers (along with urgent care, internists and family practitioners) rather than as specialists (e.g. orthopedists, pain management).  In general, occ docs rank high.  The speakers said it was because of our specialty’s philosophy of care that puts high priority on employing evidence-based techniques for medical treatment and preventing needless work disability in order to optimize patient outcomes and control total episode costs. They said it’s not a sure shot — there are SOME duds in our specialty — but both speakers agreed that as a rule, occ med physicians are among the best.  (They only mentioned occ med because I specifically asked the question –and that was because I suspected what the answer would be –and wanted the audience to hear it!)

The three most important things I DIDN’T hear the speakers say were:
•    How OFTEN the employers/adjusters/case managers are ACTUALLY choosing docs based on rankings.
•    What FRACTION of all doctors in any given geography they actually are ABLE to rank.  (In other words, how many cases have Sedgwick’s employer clients actually been SENDING to each doctor.).  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it’s less than 25% of the doctors.  I suspect the unranked doctors’ names are NOT presented first.
•    How many cases the doctor has to have treated before ranking them makes sense or is fair. Very few payers are going to have the volume of information available that Sedgwick and Multi-Plan do.  Buyer beware:  TPAs and networks that want to keep up with the Joneses may CLAIM to have ranked providers — but it takes a large number of cases AND considerable statistical sophistication to do this ranking stuff accurately and fairly.   One catastrophic injury could make even a great physician look bad without appropriate adjustment.   The speakers both acknowledged that getting accurate data and analyzing it in a fair manner has been a big challenge, and that their capabilities for doing so have improved rapidly over the last 5 years.

This IS the wave of the future.  Physicians who discover they are low ranked should find out why — and do their level best not to be defensive, but rather learn and improve from the experience.  Buyers of /payers for services absolutely do have the right — if not the duty — to select suppliers based on the best information at hand about who will meet their legitimate needs.   And physicians are suppliers in their eyes.

Sedgwick got started building their Outcomes Based Networks after participating in a Cornerstone Conversation co-hosted by the American College of Occupational & Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) and the International Association of Industrial Accident Boards & Commissions (IAIABC).  This was a four-way conversation among a small group of key stakeholders:  ACOEM leaders, large payers, large employers, and state regulators on what needs to happen in order to improve access to high quality healthcare and improve outcomes for injured workers, and to reduce unnecessary costs for employers and payers.  A joint project undertaken by ACOEM and IAIABC as a result of that meeting was the production of a Guide to High Value Physician Services in Workers’ Compensation.  You may find the observations and suggestions made in this succinct document helpful — whether you are a chooser, a recommender, a payer or a physician-supplier of medical care services.


October 10, 2015

Some specifics: Our proposal for a Health & Work Service

In our August 2015 proposal to the SSDI Solutions Initiative sponsored by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget on Capitol Hill, we recommended that a community-focused Health & Work Service (HWS) be established.  The services to be provided by the HWS are generally not available in our country today, particularly to lower-wage workers and those who work for small firms.This service would be dedicated to responding rapidly to new episodes of health-related work absence among working people in order to help them:

— Minimize life disruption and get things back to normal as quickly as it is medically safe to do so
— Focus attention on treatments and services to restore ability to function at home and at work
— Understand and navigate through the healthcare and benefits programs and systems
— Avoid being abandoned; learn how to be a squeaky wheel and get their needs met
— Communicate with all parties to expedite both medical care and the return to work process, including resolving non-medical obstacles to recovery and return to work, making temporary adjustments or arranging reasonable accommodation when appropriate.
— Keep their jobs or promptly find new ones if that is necessary.

(The material below summarizes our written proposal.  If you’re interested in the scientific research that underlies these ideas, the 30+ pages and 3 appendices of our “real deal” formal report support all key assertions with literature citations and an extensive bibliography.  Along with the 12 other proposals commissioned by the SSDI Solutions Initiative group, it is scheduled to be published electronically in late October, and in print in January 2016.)

The first few days and weeks after onset are an especially critical period during which the likelihood of a good long-term outcome is being influenced, either favorably or unfavorably, by some simple things that either do or do not happen during that interval. It is the optimal window of opportunity to improve outcomes by simultaneously attending to the worker’s basic needs and concerns as well as coordinating the medical, functional restoration, and occupational aspects of the situation in a coordinated fashion.

The best opportunity for basic intervention appears to last about 12 weeks or three months, although some data shows it ending by 6 months.  Many studies have show that a modest set of simple services—that embody an immediate, systematic, pro-active, integrated, and multidimensional approach—can mitigate the potentially destructive impact of common injuries, illnesses, and chronic conditions on quality of life among the working population.

In the USA today, a large and growing fraction of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) awards are being made to people deemed totally unable to work due to conditions that are among the most common health problems in America and the world, but which only rarely cause permanent withdrawal from the workforce. Low back pain and other chronic musculoskeletal conditions (MSK), and common mood disorders (CMD) —particularly depression and anxiety—are the most prominent conditions in this category.

Near-immediate assistance from a community-focused Health & Work Service will allow people with these kinds of common conditions to avoid the kind of adverse secondary consequences they too often experience today. Those consequences are usually not obvious until months or years later, after unfortunate things have happened. The unlucky ones have received sub-optimal health care, been left with under-treated or iatrogenic impairment,  become dependent on opioids, found themselves socially isolated, lost their jobs, withdrawn from the workforce, lost economic independence, and ended up on long-term disability benefits programs or SSDI in order to survive. Anticipatory programs that ensure the right things happen from the start and include early identification of those needing extra support are the simplest and most effective way to prevent later adverse secondary consequences of these conditions.

As we envision it, the HWS will build strong collaborative relationships with referral sources in local communities: treating physicians, employers, and benefits payers. Service delivery in individual cases can be largely telephonic and internet-based because these technologies are proving to be as or more effective than face-to-face care delivery. The quadruple goal is to maximize service quality, optimize outcomes, minimize logistical challenges, and control costs. The HWS service will:

(a) — get its referrals from affected individuals, local treating physicians, employers, benefits payers and others when work absence has lasted or is expected to last more than four weeks;

(b) — champion the stay-at-work and return-to-work (SAW/RTW) process from the time of referral through the end of the immediate response period (usually 12 weeks post onset);

(c) —  quickly evaluate the individual’s situation, screen for known risks for poor outcomes, help them make a SAW/RTW plan and support them in carrying it out;

(d) —  facilitate communications among all involved parties as needed to get everyone on the same page and driving towards the best possible outcome.;

(e) — expedite and coordinate external medical, rehabilitative and other kinds of helping services, including referrals for specialized services as needed to address remediable obstacles in a variety of life domains;

(f) — take a problem-solving approach in collaboration with affected individuals, their treating physicians, employers, and payers.

Of course, developing the HWS will first require a commitment to funding, either by the government or by a foundation that is committed to system change. Once that has been obtained, the initiative will unfold in a series of steps including design, prototyping, development, and field-testing in different geographies, followed by a large randomized controlled trial.  After that, the HWS can gradually roll out across large geographic areas.

What does this mean for you?   First, if you like the idea of working people getting the kind of support they need and deserve — and when it is most likely to make a difference,  please support this idea in whatever way you can.  Why not call or email your Congressman?  Second, if you are a professional with the expertise and passion required to help people get “right back on the horse” — and are now stymied and frustrated by the current system’s inadequacies / dysfunctions, you have probably realized that the HWS service might create a lot of fulfilling and satisfying jobs for specialists like you.  If so…. that’s another reason to call or email your Congressman!


October 9, 2015

A Health & Work Service could prevent or reduce impairment/disability

 

There is definitely an opportunity to make a positive difference BIG ENOUGH to make the expense and effort of developing, launching and delivering a nationwide community-focused Health & Work Service (HWS) worth it — in my opinion.   (Our proposal for establishing the HWS was among 12 ideas selected for development as part of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget‘s SSDI Solutions Initiative on Capitol Hill.)  There are two main reasons why this opportunity exists.

First reason:  Years of research have shown that some of the unfortunate secondary consequences of illness and injury — certain kinds of impairment and work disability — CAN sometimes be prevented or reduced.  This is particularly true in people with the most common chronic musculoskeletal conditions (MSK) especially low back pain, and the most common mental disorders (CMD) like depression and anxiety.  And research has also shown that intervening early in the unfolding of an injury or illness episode can have a very favorable impact on the long-term outcome.

Second reason:  Millions of workers in America fall through the cracks in our society because they have no access to services or expertise that might protect them against job loss after injury or illness, or they experience service failures.  Many of them work for employers that do not offer health or disability insurance, or that are excluded from the requirement to buy workers’ compensation insurance.  Many work for small companies that are exempted from the Family Medical Leave Act which protects jobs for 12 weeks when employees have health problems, or the Americans with Disabilities Act which requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities.  In addition, there are many people who are the victims of neglect or poor decision-making by those with authority over some aspect of their situation.  Sub-par employees headed for termination exist among the administrative staff, professionals, supervisors, and managers in every organization, including every medical care facility, workplace, and benefits claims administration organization.  Before leaving, each of these sub-par employees has probably had an impact on hundreds of vulnerable workers.

Therefore, it is not correct to assume that all of the people who are now on SSDI due to these common health problems had the worst (most severe) form of their particular MSK or CMD from a biological/pathological perspective, and that nothing could have prevented their entry into SSDI.  While undoubtedly true in many cases, it is also likely that a sizable number of them lost their footing in the world of work and ended up on SSDI because of events that occurred in response to their health condition—not the condition itself. Their lives fell apart due to a cascade of adverse secondary consequences of the initial medical problem, and after a time SSDI became the best option for survival.

Remediable or Avoidable Reasons for Poor Outcomes

At the moment when the common health problems of this subgroup of SSDI recipients first started, these people would often have looked very similar to other patients with the same diagnosis and objective clinical findings—but who then experienced good recoveries.  This is because the factors that predict poor outcomes (serious impairment and prolonged work disability) as a consequence of MSK, especially low back pain, are not tightly related to either the specific diagnosis or the extent of the pathology. Although less research has been done on factors that predict poor outcomes in CMD, and diagnosis does play a more significant role, there are other important non-medical factors.

Some of the factors that predict poor outcomes are immutable (such as age, past medical history, work history, and geographic location). But other factors are potentially remediable such as elapsed time out of work, uncertainty and distrust due to lack of communication or information, uncoordinated or inappropriate medical care and advice, low expectations of recovery, excessive vigilance, catastrophic thinking, false beliefs, fear of movement, self-limitation, perceived injustice, and lack of employer support. Today, those who handle these situations do not typically look for any of these remediable problems and address them.  And none of the professionals involved has been trained to feel responsible for driving the situation forwards towards a good outcome .

The standard medical care process is simply inadequate to help people in these situations avoid poor life outcomes. What is needed is coordinated activity during a fleeting opportunity to address and resolve a set of pivotal issues (both medical and non-medical) around the time the condition starts interfering with work—issues that will set the situation off onto the right or wrong path.

The first few days and weeks after onset are an especially critical period during which the likelihood of a good long-term outcome is being influenced, either favorably or unfavorably, by some simple things that either do or do not happen during that interval. It is the optimal window of opportunity to improve outcomes by simultaneously attending to the worker’s basic needs and concerns as well as coordinating the medical, functional restoration, and occupational aspects of the situation in a coordinated fashion.

The best opportunity for basic intervention appears to last about 12 weeks or three months, although some data shows it ending by 6 months.  Many studies have show that a modest set of simple services—that embody an immediate, systematic, pro-active, integrated, and multidimensional approach—can mitigate the potentially destructive impact of common injuries, illnesses, and chronic conditions on quality of life among the working population.

In summary, the way a health-related episode that disrupts work unfolds over time in all dimensions—biological, psychological, social, and economic—can have a big impact on the outcome. Events that occur can either mitigate or aggravate existing risk factors in the situation, leading to better or worse outcomes. There are usually many opportunities to actively influence the course of events immediately after onset of a health problem (and many fewer opportunities later on), but today there are few resources devoted to finding and exercising these opportunities. Most of the current attempts to steer situations to a better outcome are made long after the best opportunities have passed by.

If you’d like the references for the research mentioned above, get a copy of our full report when it is published by the CFRB later this month (electronically) or in January (in print).

Bottom line:   If you agree that the USA needs a community-focused Health & Work Service, contact your Congressional representative, tell them you like our proposal and recommend that it be included in the 2016 SSDI reform legislation package.  Or even better yet, take a grass-roots approach.  Team up with other like-minded people to see if a local charity or foundation will fund your efforts start a HWS in your own community!

 

 

 


September 7, 2015

FMLA may be a Godsend – but not for me or Kristina

I’m in Indiana this week for my second stint at tending to my 92 year old father in law.   In late August, I flew here on an urgent basis because he had been admitted to the hospital in heart failure and was not doing well either mentally or physically.  He went downhill in the hospital.  Imagine four nurses and an orderly trying to restrain a 92 year old man who thinks he’s being kidnapped, and you’ve got the picture.   When things calmed down, he was transferred to a specialty heart center in Indianapolis and had a remarkable non-invasive and HIGH TECH procedure called a TAVR (transcatheter aortic valve replacement – watch the amazing video).  Since then he has made a good physical recovery but continues to have some heart failure as well as confusion and forgetfulness, and we are unsure how much of this cognitive problem is new vs. pre-existing, and whether it might be temporary (due to lingering effects of anesthesia).

After that first week, my husband flew out to relieve me and I flew home.   He presided over Dad’s discharge to a rehab facility, and helped Dad get used to that new environment.   After a few days, we traded places again because David has some work that MUST be done at home, and I can take my work just about anywhere.  (We arranged our flights so we could have a 2 hour “date” at the airport.)    So here I am back in Indiana.   The issue on the table now is:  can this 92 year old guy continue to live alone, cook and clean for himself, and drive himself 20 minutes each way to the doctor’s office and the grocery store in his car?   My father in law insists the answer is yes.   We (his two sons and their wives – a physician and a nurse) are trying to figure out how to make it work.  What is the RIGHT level of supportive services and is there a way to provide them in his teeny tiny hamlet community   – so small there is not a single store of any kind.

Reality has intruded:  I’ve gotten almost no work done this week, nor the week when he was in the hospital.    Dealing with his medically-, administratively-, and emotionally-complex situation is VERY time-consuming and energy draining.    I am keeping him company, reassuring him, entertaining him,  making him comfortable, and ensuring that services are delivered when needed.  Then in hallways with the doctors and nurses, and in off hours with the family, I am acting as his medical advocate while anticipating and planning for the future.   For example, I have so far spent about 5  hours figuring out whether we can get him a cell phone that will work better with his hearing aids and his severe hand tremors, and then arranging for it  – so he can more reliably RECEIVE and MAKE calls with his “support network”  when he’s back at home.

In the meanwhile, it has become obvious that I am simply incapable of radically switching gears and lives in the same day.  I have to FORCE myself to slow down and get into the glacial rhythm of life in a nursing home with a tremulous deaf 92 year old and his compatriots who deserve respect and compassion.   I am not mentally / emotionally flexible enough to INSTANTLY reconstitute myself as an impatient, driven professional and resume my usual pressured work pace in the few hours I have in between events. (This predicament feels familiar – a reminder why my masters’ thesis remained incomplete for such a long time while my kids were little and underfoot.   I just COULDN’T snap into and back forth between the “way of being” for Attentive-Mommy-Household-Manager vs. Graduate-Student-Writer during nap times.  My hat is off to those who can!)

This experience is also a reminder of how important the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is.   It protects the jobs of working people while allowing them to take leave to care for illness in close family members. However, this experience is also a reminder that FMLA is not the WHOLE answer.   For example, it doesn’t protect ME in this situation.  First, I am the daughter-in-law, not the daughter – and the FMLA explicitly excludes in-laws.  Also, I work for myself so I can’t be fired.  But  I can lose my livelihood by not being able to do my work – since as a consultant I generally get paid by the hour or by the deliverable, assuming it is produced on time!   No work, no pay. Luckily, my financial situation is such that I CAN forego the income for now so I CAN be here and support him in an hour of need.   If forced to choose, I will put my time and expertise to use in helping my husband fulfill his duty to this vulnerable and incredibly kind old man who deserves to be treated kindly after a lifetime spent in humble service to his family, friends, neighbors, and parishioners as a Methodist pastor.   There are limits, of course, and I know I can’t sustain this pace forever.

The limits of the FMLA also became apparent last week when I talked to Kristina Phillips, a young woman in New York City whose life was turned upside down by a work-related injury about 18 months ago.  Kristina had recently moved to the city.  She’s a sales person and was assaulted on a subway while riding between accounts.   Her longest-lasting injuries were to her neck and shoulder, and still interfere with her ability to lift and carry.  The treatments the doctor recommended for the first 6 months were inadequate, did not reveal the correct diagnoses, and did not get her better.  The insurance company initially denied more extensive care.  She sought help from a lawyer who wanted to expand her claim and have her see more doctors to talk about her PTSD – but what Kristina wanted was to focus on the future, get the right treatment, and get well.   All the state ombudsman did when she called to ask for assistance was tell her to request a hearing.   Hearings take MONTHS.

Her employer was very solicitous and helpful, but after Kristina couldn’t perform the essential duties of her job for more than 6 months, she did lose her job.  (FMLA only protects jobs for 12 weeks.)  Kristina couldn’t afford COBRA payments on her workers’ comp checks, so she lost her health insurance, too.   Her family couldn’t come to her aid.   She is an only child of parents with very constrained financial circumstances living in a very remote area of the Pacific Northwest.  Kristina started worrying about becoming homeless.   A new friend saw her distress and brought her some food.  He had taken Landmark Education courses and made it possible for Kristina to take the 3 day Landmark Forum workshop in which she realized she had to figure out how to get better and back to work by herself, while she continues in therapy.  She applied for and got some jobs that turned out to be beyond her capabilities. Kristina has now invented a new consulting business for herself which is starting to take off.

And in her spare time, she wants to DO SOMETHING so that others will not have to struggle the way she did.  Kristina wants to create resources to guide people who have been injured on how to get back on their feet – because “the system” doesn’t do that.   Needless to say, we are now talking about how I can support her in that endeavor!


August 7, 2015

Who should be accountable for NEEDLESS job loss due to medical conditions?

Who do you think should be held accountable when workers needlessly lose their jobs because a newly-acquired or changed health condition or disability?

Right now, none of the professional participants who play front-line roles in the stay-at-work/return-to-work process feels a responsibility to prevent unnecessary job loss.  Doctors, employers, insurance companies, lawyers and so on simply think it’s a shame when it happens — if they are even aware of it.  Unnecessary job loss is being viewed as a private tragedy rather than a sentinel indicator of service and system failure.  A lot more sunshine is needed to illuminate this dark corner.

Gap

Even though OSHA ensures that employers record the number of work-related injuries, lost work-days and deaths, there is no requirement that they record job loss.  Why isn’t it being tracked?   It will almost always be a much worse consequence than the injury itself.   Job loss, especially in someone who was previously healthy but now has some degree of impairment, can be DEVASTATING.   Few people are prepared to deal with this double- barreled challenge.   For the unlucky ones, this means losing their footing in the world of work forever.

We do not even KNOW how many people lose their jobs as the result of work-related injuries much less personal health conditions — and how many fail to find new jobs. I personally don’t think it matters what the cause of the health condition is.

These days, more than a HALF of the people entering the Social Security Disability Insurance program are doing so because of adverse secondary consequences of common health conditions like back pain, joint pain, anxiety, and depression.  But notice this:  there are literally MILLIONS of people who keep working DESPITE back pain, joint pain, anxiety and depression.  These conditions should NOT be forcing people into a bleak future of on-going worklessness, especially because unemployment and poverty will WORSEN their health and well-being — and that of their families.

Needless job loss can occur because of decisions that doctors and employers make as well as decisions made by workers, their lawyers, and insurance companies. Anyone who COULD have actively supported a worker in staying at work but DIDN’T plays a part in unnecessary job loss.  Doctors may thoughtlessly select treatments that worsen instead of improve function, or impose work restrictions that “over-limit” someone who COULD actually perform their job.  Employers may refuse to make temporary adjustments that WOULD permit recovery “on the job” — and as a result workers sit home and begin to believe they really are “too disabled to work”.   Employers can refuse to engage in a real problem-solving discussion with workers that WOULD have let them come back to work with a very minor modification.  Employers can neglect to ask for help from a return-to-work expert who COULD have told them about a $200 piece of equipment or work process alteration that WOULD have made it possible for the worker to keep doing her regular job.  Insurers COULD routinely (instead of occasionally) make career counseling and job finding services available to workers who appear headed for job loss or have already been terminated.  Etc. Etc.

So, who DO you think should be held accountable for job loss in those situations?  You and I as taxpayers are going to pay benefits for the rest of these people’s lives if they end up on SSDI because the right things didn’t happen.  Less than 1% of SSDI beneficiaries ever come back off the rolls.

Here’s a place to see and comment on my DRAFT recommendations for what the government can do to create a lot more visibility for unnecessary job loss due to acquired health conditions and disabilities.  You can also contribute your own ideas on this matter at:  http://workashealthoutcome.epolicyworks.org/


July 31, 2015

Tell us: Who should be helping workers with health problems keep their jobs?

The US Department of Labor (DOL) wants to engage YOU in dialogue (you employers, insurers, physicians/healthcare providers, managed care companies — and working age individuals whose jobs have been affected by new or changed health conditions.) The dialogue concerns some draft recommendations for Establishing Work and Full Participation in Life as ACCOUNTABLE Health Outcomes.

The recommendations are part of a larger report I have drafted.  It is focused on these questions:
1– How can we reduce the number of working adults who lose their jobs or leave the workforce after their ability to work has been disrupted by a health condition—and conversely, how can we increase the number who get the help they need to stay employed?
2– What will create widely-shared social agreement that preserving/restoring the ability to work and participate fully in life should be seen as KEY OUTCOMES of healthcare for the working age population?
3– Who should be helping working people KEEP THEIR JOBS after acquiring a new or changed disability?    Who should be held accountable when they needlessly LOSE THEIR JOBS?
4– How can that accountability be established—for real?

The DOL’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) commissioned this paper.  Many ideas for how to accomplish those things emerged after interviewing about 20 experts in various fields and discussing these issues with a Policy Work Group within ODEP’s SAW/RTW Policy Collaborative.  Because the stay-at-work and return-to-work process is by nature a “team sport”, the reality is that SEVERAL parties will need to be held accountable.

The draft report actually makes more than 20 detailed recommendations, but for now, ODEP would like to get feedback from YOU on the 6 main ones.  This is a reality check, to see if we’re on the right track in your opinion.   I ENCOURAGE you to disagree, make corrections, or suggest things that are missing or would strengthen the proposal.   The purpose of this exercise is to IMPROVE the report – and increase the chances that it actually has a positive impact.  The ultimate goal is to help more people stay in the workforce, remain productive contributors, and enjoy the many benefits of economic self-sufficiency and full social participation.

You can look at the recommendations on ODEP’s “crowdsourcing” website even before you decide whether to vote/comment.  I hope you will.   See the invitation from ODEP below to get started.   Again, FEEL FREE to disagree, to point out mistakes, make additional suggestions, etc. etc.


From: Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor – Office of Disability Employment Policy
Sent: Wednesday, July 29, 2015 3:40 PM
Subject: ODEP’s Latest Online Dialogue Discusses Work as a Health Outcome

 ODEP epolicyworks masthead 2015-07-31

Second Stay-at-Work/Return-to-Work Online Dialogue:
Establishing Work and Full Participation as Accountable Health Outcomes

Do you have ideas on how to reduce the number of working adults who lose their jobs or leave the workforce after their ability to work has been disrupted by a health condition—and conversely, how to increase the number who get the help they need to stay employed? If so, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) needs to hear from you!

ODEP is hosting the second in a three-part series of important online dialogues, Establishing Work and Full Participation as Accountable Health Outcomes, to gather input on policy recommendations aimed at establishing work and full participation in life as accountable health outcomes. Through the use of an online crowdsourcing tool, interested stakeholders can provide feedback on these six draft policy recommendations.

Participation is easy. Just review the policy recommendations, register, then share your feedback.

Visit http://WorkAsHealthOutcome.ePolicyWorks.org/ before the dialogue closes on Friday, August 14th. If you have any questions, please contact ePolicyWorks@dol.gov.

Looking forward to your participation,
Jennifer Sheehy
Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy