Despite assertions that the California workers’ compensation medical review and dispute resolution process results in wholesale denial of care for injured workers, a new California Workers’ Compensation Institute (CWCI) analysis shows that about 96% of treatment services are approved and delivered to injured workers, and that the multiple levels of medical review have produced a system with a high degree of consistency for approving care while maintaining the state’s evidence-based medicine standard.
Following California workers’ compensation reforms enacted in 2002-2004 and 2012, the process of approving medical care for injured workers went through significant change with the adoption of an evidence-based medicine Medical Treatment Utilization Schedule (MTUS), mandatory utilization review (UR), and the addition of independent medical review (IMR) to resolve medical necessity disputes. The review process includes a series of checks and balances to reconcile a request for authorization (RFA) from an injured worker’s physician for specific medical services with the state-adopted MTUS regulations, which define the workers’ compensation standards of care. Components of medical review and dispute resolution may involve claims adjusters, nurses, UR physicians, and if requested by the injured worker, IMR physicians.
While a means of resolving medical necessity disputes is common to almost all other healthcare delivery systems, including group health and federal programs, workers’ compensation is not like other systems. Co-payments, deductibles and enrollee contractual language, common shared-risk strategies used in group health to manage utilization and cost are precluded by law and antithetical to the original no-fault bargain between employers and employees. From the moment California introduced IMR into the system following the 2012 reforms, debate over the scope, authority and reasonableness of the workers’ compensation medical dispute resolution process intensified. Recent studies have analyzed the various components, and CWCI’s new report expands on those analyses using data from a sample of 5.6 million California workers’ compensation medical services from 2014 and from the nearly 82,000 IMR decision letters issued in first half of 2015. Key findings include:
- Almost 85% of the 5.6 million medical services in the study sample were paid without being requested in RFAs and undergoing UR for medical necessity. These services were paid based on prior authorization, retrospective authorization or when no RFA was received but the service fell within the claims administrator’s parameters for approval.
- 15% of the medical services were requested in RFAs and underwent UR. Of these, 60% were accepted by non-physician reviewers who determined that they were medically necessary under the treatment guidelines, and 40% were sent for review by a UR physician. This means that about 6% of the 5.6 million medical services (15% x 40%) were reviewed by a UR physician.
- The modification/denial rate for the 6% of all treatment services submitted for physician UR was 70%, or 4.3% of all services in the study sample (1.1% were modified and 3.2% were denied).
- In the first half of 2015, IMR physicians upheld 89.1% of the UR denials and modifications and overturned 10.9%. This is consistent with the 91% uphold rate from CWCI’s study of 2014 IMR outcomes and indicates that the majority of modifications or denials made by UR physicians are in-line with evidence-based medicine.
- Almost half of the IMR decisions rendered between January and June of 2015 involved disputes over prescription drugs. One-third involved requests for opioids, while 11% involved compounded drugs.
- The top 10% of physicians involved in IMR disputes (961 treaters) were identified in more than 80% of all IMR determination letters; while the top 1% (97 physicians) were named in 40% of the letters.
- After taking into account medical services approved without an RFA and without UR, those approved by non-physicians during UR, those approved by UR physicians, and those approved following IMR, the estimated approval rate for all California workers’ comp medical services ranges between 95.7% and 96.1%
The Institute notes that the high level of agreement at the different stages of medical review fulfills the legislative intent of the workers’ compensation reforms to provide injured workers with the most effective medical care through a process that is more objective, transparent and consistent. CWCI has published its study in a Research Update report, “Medical Review and Dispute Resolution in California Workers’ Compensation,” which is posted in the Research section of its website, http://www.cwci.org/