For those who seek risk conundrums, workers comp is fertile ground. From a micro perspective, the unfortunate Ronald Westerman, a paramedic for a California ambulance company, embodies many of the elements that result in sleepless nights for claims adjusters and actuaries: Westerman had an inordinately long commute (2.5 hours each way!), a sitting job with periodic lifting (inert patients and medical equipment), along with the comorbidities of hypertension, obesity and diabetes. In two years of ambulance work, Westerman gained 70 pounds, thereby compounding the co-morbidity issues.
In March 2009 Westerman returned home from a 36 hour shift and suffered a stroke. His doctor determined that the stroke was work related and that Westerman was permanently and totally disabled. He was 50 years old. While there was some dispute over the cause of the stroke, an independent medical evaluator surmised that it was caused by a blood clot moving through a hole in Westerman's heart to his brain, otherwise known as in-situ thrombosis in his lower extremities - a direct result of too much sitting. (We blogged a compensable fatality from too much sitting here.)
At the appeals level, compensability centered on the performance of a shunt study - an invasive test - that would have determined whether the blood clot caused the stroke. Westerman was willing to undergo the test, but his wife refused to authorize it, due to his fragile health. If there was no hole near the heart, the entire theory of compensability would be disproven; the stroke would not have been work related.
Had the defense attempted to force the test issue, it would have given rise to yet another conundrum: was refusing an invasive test the equivalent of "unreasonable refusal to submit to medical treatment"? Indeed, does a diagnostic test, by itself, meet the definition of "treatment"? Fortunately for Westerman, the defense requested - but did not attempt to require - the shunt test.
Our esteemed colleague Joe Paduda, who blogs over at Managed Care Matters, provides the macro perspective, one which is unlikely to aid in the sleep patterns for actuaries. He reports on the impact of comorbidities on cost from the recent NCCI conference:
The work done by NCCI was enlightening. 4% of all claims (MO and LT) between 2000 - 09 had treatments, paid for by workers comp, for comorbidities, with hypertension the most common. These claims cost twice as much as those without comorbidities [emphasis added].
It is beyond doubt that comorbidities make work-related injuries more expensive. But what, if anything, can claims managers do about this? In the Westerman case, there is not much to be done, as the stroke resulted in a permanent total disability. But in other cases where there is a path to recovery and even return to work, adjusters should flag these claims for early, intensive intervention, including psychological counseling and support for weight loss and other life style adjustments. To be sure, this would increase the upfront costs, but these steps just might go a long way toward mitigating the ultimate cost of the claims.
As is so often the case in workers comp, it's "pay me now" and "pay me later." To which I can only say to my claims adjuster and actuary friends, "sweet dreams!"