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.

Vocational Option 2

There have been some changes to the choices you have when you have been found eligible for Vocational Retraining. You will still work with your vocational counselor to develop a retraining plan, which will include a specific job goal approved by your medical provider as appropriate for your injury. The plan will be submitted to L&I for review. Once the plan is approved you have a choice to make.

You can participate in the retraining as proposed. Or you can choice Option 2. Taking Option 2 means you will receive some additional payments (similar to your time loss), you will not participate in the retraining program, and your claim will be closed with whatever permanent impairment has been rated for your particular injury. Then, anytime in the next 5 years, you can use the training funds to pursue re-training on your own. You simple contact the department, enroll in an approved or accredited school or course, and the department will pay the costs.

Here’s where the changes are. Instead of 6 months of Option 2 additional payments, you will get 9 months. That’s an extra 3 months of biweekly payments to help provide a soft landing as your claim closes. You can also delay making the Option 2 choice. Instead of having to make the choice shortly after the retraining plan is approved, you have some time. You can actually start the retraining plan, and see how you do. Time-loss will continue while you are participating in retraining. Anytime within the first quarter of training, or within 3 months, you can decide to stop participating in the program and elect Option 2. At that point the 9 months of payments will be reduced by the amount of time loss paid starting with the first day of the retraining program, and you will be entitled to the remainder of the Option 2 payments

This change allows you to try out a retraining program, see how you do, decide whether the program is a good fit, and then make a more informed decision about whether to continue the retraining. For most injured workers, school days are a distant memory. The routine of going to class, studying, completing assignments, and taking tests can be an overwhelming idea.  Now you can try it on for size without losing the benefit of the Option 2 payments.

Whether to take Option 2 or participate in retraining is an important decision. There are a lot of factors you should consider. (That’s another post!) This change allows you to take a bit more time and, hopefully, make the decision which is best for you. If you do not already have an attorney, this may be a good time to make an appointment and ask some questions.

 

OPT-OUT

What is Opt-out? Why should you care? I’ve attached a link to a new ProPublica article which is well worth reading.

Two States, Texas and Oklahoma, already allow employers to opt-out of mandatory workers compensation coverage. That’s right – the employer gets to decide whether to provide the workers compensation safety net for its employees. If the employer opts-out of mandatory coverage, they then design their own bucket of benefits for injured workers, being sure to protect themselves in the process. More often than not, these employer designed benefits provide less protection than that required by State law. Employers do give up protections from law suits for work injuries if they opt-out of mandatory coverage. But to pursue such a claim the injured worker has to prove the employer’s negligence caused the injury; and there is always the risk the employer will file bankruptcy if there are catastrophic injuries and loss of life. This trend to opt-out of workers compensation coverage inevitably results in shifting the cost of work injuries away from the responsible employer and into state and federal  programs, like Social Security, Medicare, unemployment and other public assistance programs. When the cost of injuries is not born by the employer, do they have an incentive to provide a safe workplace?

Why should you care?  Read the article. This opt-out strategy could be coming to your State. If you are in a position to talk to your State Legislator about issues which concern you – put this on the the list.

https://www.propublica.org/article/inside-corporate-americas-plan-to-ditch-workers-comp?utm_content=buffer926c7&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer

Light Duty – one more quick thought

One more quick thought on light duty. If you have a Washington L&I claim, your attending medical provider must review and approve a specific light duty job description before the employer can make a bona fide offer of a light duty job. It has to be in writing, and must be for a specific position or specific job duties. It is not enough for your employer to call you and say, ‘come on into work, and we’ll figure out something light duty for you to do’.
Your employer is not required to offer you temporary or transitional light duty work. It may be in their best interest to do so, but not all employers see it that way. When an employer does make an offer of transitional light duty work, we need to make sure the attending physician has approved a specific written job description.  This reduces the possibility of confusion or miscommunication about what restrictions are in place and what job tasks can safely be performed.

Request a copy of your IME

I try not to call these claims manager ordered medical exams ‘IMEs’. While this is an acronym for Independent Medical Examination there really isn’t anything independent about them. But, that’s not today’s topic.
You have a right to a copy of the report from your IME. It doesn’t matter whether you have a Washington L&I claim or a Federal Longshore or DBA claim. This is a medical examination of you and you are entitled to a copy.
You have to request a copy from the right place. The examining physicians or their office will not send it to you. If there is an assigned vocational counselor, they will not send it to you. Your employer will not send it to you. It is the claims manager who is responsible for sending you a copy of the report. This may be the State agency L&I, or a third party administrator if your employer is self-insured, or an insurance company. Make your request in writing. It is too easy for a phone message to get dropped or forgotten. Just a short note is all it takes, ‘Please send me a copy of the report from my exam on May 6’. The claims manger will generally have the report a couple of weeks after the exam, that’s a good time frame for making your request.
So, why request a copy? The most obvious answer is, so you can note any discrepancies or inaccuracies. Take a copy to your medical provider and ask them to do an exam and compare findings to those in the report. Have your physician point out any important medical history or recent diagnostic studies missing from the report’s summary. A thorough report from your treating medical provider providing a rebuttal to the examiners conclusions can be very helpful.
The less obvious reason to request a copy of the report – occasionally they are favorable and helpful. While it may seem unlikely, it does happen. I just read a report from 8 months ago that the injured worker never received. The examining physicians recommended treatment including injections targeting an area which had not previously been treated, and a possible joint replacement. Neither the injured worker or his physician were provided a copy of the report and the recommendations. The worker has not received the treatment, and has endured an unnecessary 8 months of uncertainty and pain. The physician did not request authorization for treatment, not knowing it would likely be granted in light of the IME findings. Everyone was in the dark, and no one needed to be.
I will say, if you are represented, your attorney will absolutely get a timely copy of all reports, and will make sure they get to the right people for review, comment and follow-up. But if you are still navigating your claim on your own, you are entitled to a copy of these reports. You just have to ask for it.

Proposed Changes to Structured Settlements

There is a lot going on in the Legislature this year in Washington state, some of it of interest to those involved in our workers comp system. The Senate passed 3 proposals dealing with workers compensation that are not beneficial to injured workers. Those proposals now go to the House, where, thankfully, there are more voices supporting the injured workers in our state.

Two of the proposals deal with our relatively new structured settlements in the workers compensation arena. For the last year injured workers over the age of 55 with allowed claims have been permitted to seek a resolution of their claims through a structured settlement. There is strict review process for these agreements by the Board of Industrial Appeals to insure these agreements are in the best interest of the worker. Well, ‘insure’ is a strong word. The review tries to establish the worker knows what they are giving up, and asks that worker to articulate why they believe taking less than their claim is potentially worth is in their best interest. Over the last year slightly more than 2 dozen of these structured settlements were approved.

Needless to say, this is not the flood of settlements the business community had hoped for, nor has it resulted in the significant savings projected. Wait,  think about that. Structured settlements are supposed to save money for business.  How is that? Of course, if you pay an injured worker less than they would otherwise be entitled to receive, you save money. Do that enough times, you save a lot of money. So, the business community convinced our state Senate to relax the age restriction and review process in the hopes there will be more workers rushing to settle their claims. In support, they point to the number of States where there are few, if any, controls on settlements of workers compensation claims. Businesses in our state, they say, are at a competitive disadvantage because they cannot short change their injured employees. It is disturbing logic.

Fortunately, there are a couple of barriers to the Senate proposals. First, our State House of Representatives has long been a strong champion for workers in this state. Contact your Representative now, it just takes a short e-mail, to let them know you oppose any attempt to dilute the strong protections for injured workers in our current structured settlement process. You can find your Legislators here:

http://app.leg.wa.gov/DistrictFinder/

The other barrier? The workers in this state, themselves. There hasn’t been a flood of workers clamoring to enter into structured settlements because, for the most part, they aren’t in your best interest. Yes, there are specific  particular circumstances where it may be best for an injured worker to negotiate a structured settlement. Personally, I think they are, and should be, few and far between. Definitely, talk to a good workers comp attorney if you think you may be in that camp. But for most workers, a structured settlement is just a bad idea. Our workers compensation process is a safety net system, not an injury recovery system. It is not designed to reimburse you for what you’ve lost, like an auto accident claim. It is supposed to provided needed wage replacement, medical services and vocational assistance when you need them –  not some projected lump sum value of what you might need, if you guess right. Most injured workers will not be better off giving up that safety net in exchange for a structured settlement, any more than an unemployed worker would be better off accepting 6 months of unemployment benefits in a lump sum instead of preserving entitlement to 12 months of benefits should they need them. Sure, Employment Security would save money, businesses would save money, they might even be more competitive as a result. But would anyone think that’s  a good idea?

Settlement Agreements

I am at a bit of a loss to explain the new provision in our workers compensation law which allows for lump sum settlements. (HB 2123)    It is a poorly written provision, passed with no public hearings, for purely political reasons. There are so many unanswered questions and issues and processes which will need to be developed, that I cannot begin to explain to you how these new settlements will be negotiated, approved, or paid. So, definitely topics for another day as we know more answers.

For now, what we do know is the effective date for this legislation is January 2012. So, no settlement agreements before that date. The new statute requires the worker be 55 years old before a settlement can be considered. (this age requirement drops to 50 over time) The settlement amount must be paid with a periodic payment schedule, rather than a single lump sum. (details of what this may require or allow are unclear) Settlement agreements will have to be approved by the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals. (details are also unclear, other than the Judges may not give legal advice) Once approved, the settlement agreement will resolve all aspects of the claim, except future medical care. (although, whether this is anything more than a hollow promise of future treatment remains to be see)

I can also tell you to be cautious. I will not suggest that under no circumstance should an injured worker consider such a settlement agreement. Now that these agreements are allowed, we will see more benefits being denied and disputed. Given the absence of the sure and speedy safety net which injured workers were promised, there may be situations where such a settlement arrangement may be the best course of action. That said, the Department and Employers have more experience with workers compensation and are under no financial hardship or duress. You won’t necessarily know what you are entitled to, what to ask for, or what’s fair under the circumstances. An unrepresented worker will be at a disadvantage – you will not be bargaining from equal positions. If you are not already represented by an experienced workers comp attorney, consider hiring one. Feel free to take that with a grain of salt if you think it’s self-serving. But, I didn’t write the law, in fact I opposed it. I can protect my clients. Who will protect those who don’t have an attorney? These settlements are risky for unrepresented workers and any cost savings to the system comes from workers getting less than they would otherwise be entitled to receive. So, be cautious. Be informed. Get good advice.