It’s complicated

If you have a Longshore claim with an unscheduled injury, your permanent disability is based on your loss of wage earning capacity. If you have a scheduled injury, your permanent disability is based on a number of weeks of compensation for that particular type of injury.

What the heck does that mean?

Well, I can provide a fairly simple explanation but in reality, it’s complicated.

First, what is the difference between a scheduled an unscheduled injury? For the most part, any injury that is not to an extremity is considered an unscheduled disability. Anything related to the spine, like a back or neck injury is unscheduled. Shoulder injuries are unscheduled. Hip injuries have been argued both ways, but I generally consider them unscheduled. Head injuries and mental health conditions like PTSD are considered unscheduled. Arms, hands, legs, feet, hearing, and vision are all scheduled injuries.

When it comes to compensation for permanent disability, or PPD, what does it mean that the injury is “unscheduled” versus “scheduled”? Scheduled injuries have a schedule of benefits outlined in the Longshore statute which are paid for permanent impairment. For example, loss of an arm is paid at 312 weeks of compensation, loss of the big toe is compensated at 38 weeks of compensation. If the injury results in the partial loss of use, then permanent impairment is compensated as a percentage. That’s why you hear things like a torn meniscus in the knee is a 2% impairment, compensation for permanent disability is paid for 2% of 288 weeks, or 5.76 weeks of compensation. So long as you can perform some type of work, any kind at all, a scheduled impairment is paid based on the schedule, without consideration of your individual circumstances. The concert pianist who losses a finger is compensated the same as the truck driver who loses a finger. That may sound unfair, but the idea is to reduce the uncertainty and litigation surrounding permanent impairments. In reality, we still have litigation and uncertainty, it is just focused on the impairment rating itself, not the established value for the loss of the scheduled member.  Having strong and credible medical support is crucial to receiving fair and just compensation for your injury.

Establishing permanent impairment for an unscheduled injury is like the wild west. Compensation for your permanent impairment when you have something like a back injury or PTSD, is based on the effect of the injury on your earning capacity. For example, you could make $40 an hour prior to the injury, but because you are now limited to lighter work, you can only make $10 per hour. Your permanent impairment is 66 2/3% of the difference between those numbers.

Comparing average weekly wage at the time of injury to post-injury earning capacity is easy as pie if you have actually returned to some type of employment after recovering from your injury. More often than not, the injured worker has not returned to work when this assessment is being made, so we are all guessing about current earning abilities. There may be competing Functional Capacity Evaluations with vastly different estimates of abilities and limitations. Transferable skills will be outlined and debated and debunked. There will be Job Analyses approved by some physicians and disapproved by others. There will be Labor Market Surveys, some accurate some bogus.

Like I said, it’s complicated. The value of your permanent impairment, and in turn the value of your claim, will most definitely rise and fall with the strength of your position on all of these factors. Your employer and its insurance carrier are going to be aggressive in developing their positions, and they will have the help of really experienced defense counsel. That doesn’t mean your sunk. It does mean you need to get your ducks lined up. As your medical condition stabilizes and you start thinking about what’s next, get some help. Talk to an attorney so you understand what’s coming, and can put your best claim forward.

 

L&I and Structured Settlements

Is a structured settlement of your L&I claim right for you? I know the department sends out form letters to injured workers who are at least 50 years old and have allowed claims informing them that they may be eligible for a structured settlement of their claim. What is a structured settlement, and is it in your best interest to “settle” your claim.

The Legislature called them structured settlements because you do not get the total agreed to amount in a lump sum. It is parceled out to you based on what can only be described as a weird formula. (payments of at least 25% but not more than 150% of the State’s average monthly wage – who makes this stuff up!?) The idea is the funds will provide a soft landing back into the world without L&I. In exchange for the settlement, your claim is closed with only the possibility of payment for future medical treatment if the claim is reopened. That means no future time-loss, vocational benefits, PPD or Pension awards. Is that a good idea for you?

Maybe – maybe not. There are a lot of things to consider.

What is the status  of your medical treatment? While a structured settlement leaves open the possibility of reopening your claim for medical treatment, moving forward with a settlement if you are still actively treating for your work injury is probably not a good idea. Reopening a claim for medical treatment can be an expensive proposition if there are any disputes about whether your condition has objectively worsened.

Are there disputes in your claim? There probably are, if you are being offered or are considering a Structured Settlement. Is there a sum of money for which it makes sense to walk away from those disputes? Perhaps. It depends on what the dispute is about, what you have to gain, and how much it may cost you out of pocket to litigate the issue. Do you have more to gain than lose? These are questions an attorney can help answer.

Can you support yourself without payments from L&I? Do you have a real plan to return to work, are you on Social Security Disability or Retirement? If L&I is out of the picture, can you make ends meet? You have to be honest with yourself about your financial situation. Whatever the amount of your Structured Settlement, it will be paid in full at some point, and there will be no further payments from L&I, no matter what your situation.

These are only a few of the things you should consider. Deciding to accept or negotiate a structured settlement is a big step. It may be right for some injured workers in some situations, but it is certainly not a one size fits all answer. Make sure you understand what is being offered and what you will be giving up. Ask questions. Get legal advice. Give yourself the best possible chance to make the right choice for your particular circumstances.

Legal Help

I get quite a few questions on this blog and on the phone which start with, “I already have an attorney . . ” Which begs the question – Why don’t people feel comfortable asking their attorneys questions? Are they scared? Intimidated? Is the attorney impatient or in a hurry?

Injured workers have to be good consumers. If you are paying for a service, you should expect the person providing that service to take the time to answer your questions.  Write your questions down. Make an appointment to meet with your attorney. Ask your questions, and listen to the answers.  It might not be the answer you want or were hoping for, but you are entitled to an answer.

Keep in mind, there are no dumb questions. If you have a workers compensation claim, you are in a strange new world of procedures, forms, acronyms, rules and guidelines.  Attorneys are here to help you figure out your next steps, and to insure you are getting the benefits and help this safety net is supposed to provide to you after a work injury.  We’re here because sometimes the system doesn’t work like it is intended to work, and we’ve seen it before and can help you through it.

You are ultimately in control of any decisions to take action on your claim.  To file an appeal or not; to litigate or not; to accept the return to work offer or not. You are in control, because the claim belongs to you and because the consequences are yours. You can only make good choices about what’s next if your questions are answered and you have the information you need to make informed decisions.

Ask the questions – and insist on answers.

 

Future Medical Care- Longshore

If you have a Longshore* claim, and have not settled future medical care with an 8(i) agreement – then you have lifetime medical coverage for conditions related to your injury. That sounds great – but I like to tell my clients this does not mean treatment is  automatically authorized, it  means you have the right to fight about it.

The responsible carrier is always going to look for an argument that treatment is related to some new injury or workplace exposure. Such a new injury or worsening related to work activities can serve to shift liability to a more recent employer. That is not necessarily a bad thing – If your condition has worsened or been aggravated by a new injury or work conditions, it may well support a new claim. This may actually benefit the worker if wages have increased over time.

Whether to seek medical care under an existing or older Longshore claim versus filing a new claim will depend in large part on individual circumstances and the opinions of your treating medical provider. Either way, sorting out your best arguments based on your specific circumstance is something a qualified longshore attorney can help you with.

  • This includes non-appropriated fund and DBA claims, which are covered through extensions to the Longshore and Harbor Workers C0mpensation Act.

This post is a reminder that it is OK to pick up the phone and call me.  I know that sounds a bit odd. But, I can tell from the stats on this blog that traffic is up since the first of the year. I get it, you have questions. You’re an injured worker; it’s the first of the year; you want to get moving- take charge of your claim. Nope – take charge of your life again. So, you’re noodling around on ‘the line’ to see if you can get your questions answered.

You can. Just Call.

I had a couple in here a few days ago. Spent an hour or so answering their questions. She didn’t need an attorney, but she felt more at peace from having talked to one. They stopped at our front counter on their way out to pay their bill. Nope. That’s not how it works. Consultations are no charge. If you need an attorney, then we can talk about how fees are paid (hint: it’s a percentage of benefits obtained on your claim) But I am always happy to answer questions, walk you through where you are in the process and explain what to expect.

Workers Compensation claims are weird animals in a weird legal/administrative world. Spend some time talking to someone who understands the lingo and the terrain.

Longshore Notice of Calendar Call

When a Longshore, DBA, or non-appropriated fund claim is set for Hearing the Judge sends out a Notice of Calendar Call. This notice not only provides the date of the Calendar Call, it includes a long list of actions and due dates the parties must attend to. All these actions and deadlines get added to my calendar, with tickle dates. It can look like a lot to do, and, well, it is!
I can also look at this notice and see what other claims are set for Hearing the same week, and which attorneys represent the various parties – mildly interesting stuff.
What is somewhat terrifying is to see a Claimant’s name listed, with no attorney representation noted. I never know whether this unrepresented Claimant has a legitimate case to make, or whether it’s a bad case, for whatever reason, and no attorney is willing to take it on. It troubles me to think some Claimant may have a decent argument to make, but may be going it alone, pro se, representing themselves.
I know there are all lot of smart people out there who aren’t attorneys. Or, people who don’t trust attorneys, or who had a bad experience with an attorney. But this system is fraught with deadlines and pitfalls and rules. While an Administrative Law Judge will be nice, and will absolutely let a pro se Claimant put on a case, the Judge cannot help you. You have the burden of putting on a prima facia case, the burden of presenting expert medical and/or vocational testimony, not to mention the organization and presentation of documentary evidence. This is your one shot to make a record, present evidence, and argue the relevant law. There is not another opportunity to make your case. You cannot take a run at doing it yourself, and then ask for a do over if it goes poorly.
If a Hearing has been requested, by either party, you are going to wait several months before you receive a Notice of Calendar Call. Take this time to consult with an attorney. The earlier an attorney gets involved, the better a case can be documented and presented. Maybe there is no good arguments to make – if that’s the case a good attorney will tell you the cons outweigh the pros. But you are not going to know if you don’t ask. Don’t end up on a Notice of Calendar Call unrepresented – there is just too much at stake.

IME’s

I seem to be getting a lot of questions about IME’s lately – so here’s a bit more on the topic.

If you have specific complaints about the way in which a medical exam ordered by the Department was conducted, put them in writing.  An IME Comments Form (F245‑053‑000) is available online, or you may call 1‑888‑784‑8059 to request a comment form. You can specify your preferred language. The Department has made efforts to improve the quality of physicians who are approved to perform IME’s, and does take comments and complaints seriously.

That said, these exams are a thorn in everyone’s side. However, they are with us to stay. There are a couple of things you can do.

Make sure you provide an accurate and complete history at your first medical visit following your injury. Often IME’s are ordered because the claims manager does not have a clear picture of how or where the accident occurred and is not sure whether to allow or reject the claim. I can’t tell you how many times I talk to a worker who saw a physician for their injury, but didn’t ‘mention’ it was work related. They didn’t think they were hurt that bad, wanted to keep their job, didn’t want to report it to L&I . . . whatever the reason, we’re working on cleaning up the discrepancy – and the CM orders an IME to try and get a clear picture of what happened.

Encourage your treating medical provider to provide detailed chart notes and comprehensive treatment plans to the claims manager. Often IME’s are ordered because the claims manager is not getting information from the Doctor. Make sure the AP is responding to all requests for information as timely as possible and is keeping the CM informed.

You must be proactive in your treatment. Often IME’s are ordered because treatment seems to be stalled with no discernible improvement over multiple follow up visits. If all the CM sees is the same chart note with a different date, no change in findings or treatment recommendations and instructions to follow up in 6 weeks, an IME is going to be ordered. This is especially true if you are not working. Your condition should be improving, treatment or diagnostic studies should be ordered and obtained smoothly. There should be progress.

When your medical condition stabilizes and its time to get a permanent impairment rating and close the claim, ask your AP to do the exam and the rating. The Department encourages treating physicians to provide PPD ratings for their patients. If your AP provides a rating, you are less likely to see an IME ordered. If your physician can’t or won’t provide an impairment rating, ask them to refer you to someone else to get the rating. They can refer you to a colleague or someone on the Department’s Approved list – in either case you may avoid having to attend an IME.

These steps may help avoid an IME in the first place. When an exam is scheduled, be prepared, be honest, do not exaggerate. (This topic should be an entire post!)

What to bring to that first appointment

I try to speak with a potential new client on the phone before that first appointment is scheduled. Sometimes I’m able to answer a quick question, and the worker does not really need an attorney, yet.  But when an appointment is necessary, I am often asked, “What should I bring with me?”.

Injured workers come with a variety of organizational styles, and I’ve seen them all.  Some workers have carefully saved every letter and medical report, and logged every phone call. Some workers have stacks of envelopes with the papers still in them (sometimes unopened!) Some workers keep nothing. Some workers have spouses who keep track of and organize everything related to their claims.

So here’s the truth. The first thing I am going to do after filing my Notice of Appearance is get a complete copy of the claim file. If I’m working on a State L&I claim, I’ll request a copy of the document imaged microfiche, but I usually have access to the complete
file through the Claim and Account Center within a few days. If the claim is Longshore or DBA I will request  a complete file from the insurance carrier and I also routinely get a copy of the Department of Labor file.

Once I receive the file, I’m going to review it – start to finish. This file is going to have all the medical records, correspondence, payment records, IME reports and vocational records. I’m going to have a really thorough understanding of what has happened to date, and what present problem needs resolving. I’ll know what information I am missing, and I can easily request it.

Which is all by the way of saying, you do not have to track down all your medical records to bring to me. You do  not have to scour your home for every scrap of paper related to your claim. It is all in the file, and I’m going to get it and read it. I tell potential clients to bring with them whatever prompted their call to my office.  It might be a letter from the claims manager,  a notice of controversion or Department Order. It might be a vocational report, or  medical report. You received something which caused concern or which you did not understand. Bring at least that with you to your first appointment.

That is enough to let me know what type of claim you have, who I need to contact to file a notice of appearance and request the file, and what immediate problem or dispute is at issue. I’ll be able to ask enough questions when we meet to get the ball rolling. Hiring an attorney is supposed to provide some relief from the stress. So, let’s start by making that first appointment as easy as possible!

Medical Provider Network

You may hear about a new Medical Provider Network, or MPN, being created by the Department of Labor & Industries. Legislation was recently signed by the Governor giving the Department the authority to create a network of medical providers to provide treatment to injured workers. This was a Legislative proposal which Business and Labor groups worked on together and ultimately both supported.

There are a lot of details to be ironed out, and the new Network will be rolled out slowly to limit unanticipated problems and preserve access to care. The most important thing for injured workers to know is they still have the choice to determine who will provide treatment for their industrial injury.

Workers’ choice of treating medical provider has been a cornerstone of our system, and nothing in the creation of a new MPN will alter that free choice. Currently, the worker may receive treatment from any provider who has an L&I provider number for billing purposes. In the new MPN the worker may choose to treat with any provider in the network.

The Network itself will be very broad, and will include virtually every medical provider who currently has a Provider number for billing purposes. The Network allows the Department to review the credentials of medical providers. Providers will be accepted into the Network if they are already credentialed by another health care system, for instance Blue Cross, Uniform Medical, or Group Health. There will be incentives for Providers who meet some additional standards in Occupational Medicine best practices,  encouraging quality care for injured workers.

One of the basic tenets of our workers compensation system is better medical care improves return to work and overall outcomes for injured workers. The Network will provide the Department with additional tools to meet this goal, while preserving access to care, choice of provider and improving medical treatment.