California had a long-standing reputation as a workers compensation nightmare: not because injured employees received generous benefits - they did not - but because doctors and lawyers exploited the system to generate enormous fees. Governor Schwarzenegger, AKA the Terminator, put an end to that with his extensive 2003-04 reforms. In the effort to contain costs, the reforms for the first time brought managed care tools into the comp system. The bottom line for employers has improved dramatically.
Among the many provisions of the reform was a limit on physical and occupational therapy treatments for an injury. Injured workers are now limited to 24 visits. Jose Facundo-Guerrero, a worker at a nursery in Half Moon Bay, challenged the limits on constitutinal grounds, alleging that he was entitled to the "full provision for such medical, surgical, hospital and other remedial treatment" promised in the CA Constitution. Jose had visited his chiropractor 76 times and he wanted the carrier to pay.
The First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco has upheld the limits in the comp reform package. They found that the Constitution does not require "unlimited" treatments and leaves the details up to the legislature.
There is no question that the 24 visit limit is arbitrary. This one size does not fit all. On the other hand, chiropractic treatment can be addicting. It feels good. Jose went 76 times and might well have continued on indefinitely, had the treatments been compensable.
One aspect of the reform language caught my eye: the 24 visit limit can be exceeded if the employer agrees. This raises an intriguing possibility. If valued employees require extensive physical therapy that goes beyond the arbitrary limit, enlightened employers might well authorize the carrier to cover a specific number of additional visits. This makes sense as long as it keeps the employee happy and productive.
As with so many workers comp issues, law makers struggle to find the middle ground between no limits and severely curtailed treatments. What's missing is reliable and effective lines of communication among employers, their employees, medical providers and insurance carriers. The rigid limits on treatment in California are apparently legal, but that does not mean they are fair. There is no question that the reforms of 2003-04 have reduced costs. Ironically, injured workers were not the primary beneficiaries of the state's pre-reform, out-of-control comp system. And it now appears likely that these same workers will pay the price for reforms as well.