Calif. Workers’ Comp Reform Dominates Conference

By | September 19, 2012

Senate Bill 863, or the more popular usage “SB 863,” was the phrase at the beginning, end or middle of many-a-conversation during the California Workers’ Compensation & Risk Conference on Wednesday.

The four-day conference drew several hundred people who deal with the workers’ comp topic, and SB 863 may have been the topic foremost on everyone’s minds after Gov. Jerry Brown signed a reform bill on Tuesday, a new law that promises to give nearly $750 million in increased benefits for injured workers and reduce system wide costs.

While it received bipartisan support thanks to a big push by Brown, the bill was and still is controversial. Vehemently against the law is the California Applicants’ Attorneys Association, which is seeking more benefits for injured workers. Rallying around the bill following a personal plea from Brown was legislators from both sides of the aisle, labor and the business community. Several insurance associations also offered support for the bill.

Speakers at the conference in Dana Point, Calif. often diverged from planned topics to talk about the possible impacts of the bill, or they weaved the new reforms into their discussions.

“This isn’t a year of landmark cases this is a year of landmark legislation,” said Barry M. Lesch, with Laughlin, Falbo, Levy & Moresi LLP, one of the panelists on a forum titled “Case Law Update, Top 10 cases of 2012.”

Lesch said the California Supreme Court may even take a closer look at how it delivers workers’ comp decisions following the passage of SB 863, “because of the cases that can become moot because of this current law.”

A major provision in SB 863 deals with the state’s massive logjam of medical liens, which have “absolutely choked the system, particularly in Southern California,” said fellow panelist James Pettibone, managing partner of Laughlin, Falbo, Levy & Moresi.

Pettibone, who noted that workers’ comp reform in California seems to come and go on a seven- to 10-year cycle – with the last reforms being ushered in under the Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger administration in 2003 and 2004 – said the new law has created a slew of new questions for all parties involved with workers’ comp.

“There’s a whole lot of new questions,” he said.

The subject of SB 863 also reared up during a panel for “CEOs and Stakeholders.”

Panelists discussed opioid use and efforts to curb the growth in the usage, and misuse, of painkillers among injured workers.

“Medical has become the big driver in workers’ compensation,” said Mark Wilhelm, CEO of Safety National, who attributed a large amount of that growth to prescription opioids. He added that if the new law, or new regulations that are paired with the law, are able to get a handle on that, “that’s a game changer.”

One problem, said Mark Webb, vice president of governmental relations for Pacific Compensation Insurance Co., is tracking the use of opioids by injured workers outside the system.

“What you can’t track is an injured workers going to a pain managing specialist … and getting a pain medication script, or getting multiple scripts,” Webb said.

He and other panelists expressed hope that the oversight of opioid use moves above and beyond the current focus on doctors and physicians who are dispensing pain medications and utilization review.

“We need to focus on the licensing entities,” he said.

Todd DeStefano, president of risk management for York Risk Services Group Inc., referred to studies that indicate the possibility of a large number of injured workers who are receiving but not taking their prescribed drugs.

“So the question becomes,” DeStefano asked, “‘What are they doing with them?'”

Michael Sullivan, principal of Michael Sullivan & Associates, which provides defense in workers’ comp claims, said his clients have been clamoring for more information about SB 863.

He’s been conducting a series of webinars to instruct people on the new law. His last webinar had over 1,700 attendees and was rebroadcast to a wider audience via YouTube, he said.

“I’m doing five more in the next two months,” he added.

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