The State of Medical Care in California’s Workers’ Compensation System

Utilization ReviewWhen you’re injured at work, you expect that your employer’s insurance carrier will dutifully provide you with proper medical treatment for your injury. After all, future medical care is one of the “benefits” injured workers are entitled to in California. Denial of medical treatment is the number one frustration we hear from our clients on a daily basis.

What injured workers quickly discover is that their medical treatment is strictly controlled by the insurance carrier and their medical fate is in the hands of a doctor who has never treated them and may not even have their complete medical records.  This process is called Utilization Review (UR). Under UR an outside physician gets to decide whether or not the insurance company should authorize the medical treatment prescribed by your primary treating physician. This doctor doesn’t even have to be licensed in California.

If the medical treatment prescribed by your physician is denied, your only recourse is to appeal the decision to an Independent Medical Reviewed (IMR). In California, MAXIMUS is the company contracted to conduct IMR reviews. Like UR doctors, the IMR doctor deciding your fate, has never met you or treated you and does not need to be licensed in California. In fact, their identity is protected. If your medical treatment is denied by UR, your chances of IMR overturning the decision are not good. California Workers’ Compensation Institute, an insurance research group, found that 91% of IMR decisions uphold the UR denial. If the treatment is denied by IMR, absent a change in circumstances, the denial will be in effect for one year.

While an injured worker has the right to appeal an IMR determination to the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, the only legal bases on which to appeal are fraud, conflict of interest, or mistake of fact. However, even if your appeal is successful the WCAB still cannot overturn the IMR doctor’s decision. If an appeal is granted, the remedy is referral to a different IMR for another review. Yes, you read that right, your award is to go through the IMR process again!

Many injured workers end up seeking treatment for their work related injuries through private insurance, Medicare or Medi-Cal. A study by J. Paul Leigh, a health economist at the University of California, Davis, estimated that only 1/3 of necessary medical treatment and lost wages is being paid for by workers’ compensation insurers.

The lack of adequate medical care for injured workers today is the result of Senate Bill 863, which was passed on August 1, 2012 and signed into law by Governor Brown on September 18, 2012. This law was the result of lobbying by big businesses and insurance companies, who have influence over the State Legislature and the Governor of California. We remind our clients that you also have a political voice. We recommend you go to Voters Injured at Work (www.viaw.org) for information on how to become involved with fixing this broken system.

To read more about the dismal state of medical treatment for injured workers all over America I encourage you to read Insult to Injury by Michael Grabell at https://www.propublica.org/article/the-demolition-of-workers-compensation.