In 1986, US workers' compensation medical costs were 44% of total incurred loss dollars. Ten years later, the percentage had grown to 48%. By 2006, medical costs amounted to 58% of total loss costs. And today, nearly a third of the way through 2008, they hover around 60%. The annual workers' comp medical cost rate of growth is nearly double the painfully steep rate of growth in the Group Health arena, and it has been so since 1996 (Source: NCCI and Insurance Information Institute).
And why not? Workers' compensation health care is the best health care plan in America, maybe even the world. Injured employees pay no premiums, co-pays, or deductibles. Prescription drugs are free, and tax-free indemnity payments cover most lost wages. No wonder acute and traumatic injuries cost nearly 50% more than similar injuries in the group health world, according to an NCCI Research Brief (Workers Compensation vs. Group Health: A Comparison of Utilization.)
No wonder chronic, soft tissue, musculoskeletal injuries cost more than double similar injuries in the group health world. And the disparity is probably even more than that, because NCCI could only examine and compare cost data for the first three months following injuries. Why? Because workers' compensation tracks injuries by claim numbers, but group health does not. Therefore, in group health, the further one gets from the date of injury, the harder it is to tie rendered medical services to a particular injury.
It's no secret that over-utilization is the biggest reason that workers' comp medical costs are so much higher than costs in group health. True, on the whole and with some notable exceptions, workers' comp medical fee schedules have caused prices for individual medical services to be only slightly higher than individual services in group health, but in nearly every part of the country workers' comp utilization dwarfs that of group health. Makes you wonder what the workers' comp case management and utilization review companies are actually doing, doesn't it?
The difference here is stark. The group health plans put systemic fences around utilization. Workers' comp does not. If you twist your knee mowing the lawn out in the back forty on a Saturday morning and require arthroscopic knee surgery, your health plan will approve a certain number of visits to a rehab facility after surgery, normally six or seven. After that, you'll need approval for any more. Of course, you can always choose to self-pay. But in the world of workers' compensation, that's one decision you don't have to make.
Because health care utilization and costs have become such large issues in workers' compensation, as well as group health, and because in this frenzied Presidential election season that seems to never end health care has become quite the political football, over the coming days I'm going to examine specific parts of it further. Next up - a bit of analysis of the current mantra all current presidential candidates seem to agree on (some might call it a "lie," but I couldn't possibly go that far), namely, that here in America "we have the best health care in the world."
If only that were true.