Sunday, December 9, 2012

SB 863: A Political Tsunami in California

When Governor Brown declined to accept legislation that would have been a partial fix for workers' compensation at the end of 2011, he said he wanted an overall solution, not a piecemeal adjustment.

Among the politically savvy persons who heeded this admonition was Angie Wei, indefatigable chief lobbyist and legislative director for the California Labor Federation. Wei deftly developed her version of a comprehensive fix. What labor wanted most was an increase in permanent disability. Wei got that, or so it seemed, in the form of $740 million added to permanent disability. Speaking early on about SB 863, Wei said "there is no other path to getting $740 million back in benefits to injured workers. The legislature must pass SB 863." Wei, not exactly a friend of specialty medical  doctors, also protested against them when she complained that previous legislation caused medical treatment to be delayed because of "opposition from vendors who profit from the status quo."

SB 863 doesn't appear so far to be as good as its promise. Wei quickly understood that Governor Brown wanted a bipartisan bill, not one crafted only by the labor federation, and not one crafted entirely by insurance companies. Score one for Brown: he forced the two extremes to work together.

Grimmway Farms, Sean McNally, Vice President for corporate and Government Affairs,  soon became the chief player for business. No way Big Biz was going to let $740 million slip into Permanent Disability (PD) funding without getting something in return. Pouncing on some of the more abused parts of PD funding, Grimmway et al focussed on out-patient surgery centers, sleep impairments (dyssomnia), and sexual dysfunction (impaired sexual ability even when secondary to spinal injury). The open sesame to the assault on sex-and-sleep was the frequent inclusion of these complaints by applicants' attorneys into their legal pleadings. Deductions emerged:

*  Sleep impairment remains open for treatment but not for inclusion in permanent disability claims: this exclusion alone takes $40 million away from the PD pot.

*  Sexual impairment remains open for treatment but not for inclusion in permanent disability claims: this exclusion takes $10 million from the PD pot.

*  The big slam is the removal of $110 million for out-patient surgery centers.

*  All in all, current estimates are that of the $740 million Wei originally sought, about $200 million has already been lost thanks to the maneuvering of Grimmway which in this matter out-maneuvered Wei and Cal Fed.

* Two pro-injured workers bills bit the dust as SB 863 paddled furiously to victory: AB 369 (Huffman) and AB 1867 (Fong).  The fun-filled irony in the case of these two bills was that their authors voted in favor of SB 863 the passage of which was then used to tell authors Huffman and Fong that their bills were no longer needed.  Huffman's bill was designed to put a stop to step-therapy and was supported by Big Pharmacy, Pfizer, among others. Fong's bill would have required 12-point bold type on the first page of treatment authorization denial letters "so as to be prominently visible to the employee."
So step-therapy which prevents doctors from prescribing medications of choice is still the rule and so is keeping injured workers in the dark. The insurance companies wanted both bills defeated: they got their wish because Brown obliged and used SB 863 as the cudgel to do it. Score another for Brown, in fact, a double-score since he nailed both bills. The workers, ostensibly the constituents that Wei and Cal Fed wanted to serve, lost.

A big time score goes to Governor Brown because one day before passage of SB 863 when it looked as though the bill was going down to defeat Brown went to work in high gear and took up his own lobbying cudgel.  Effective lobbying from the California Society of Industrial Medicine and Surgery (CSIMS), directed by Carl Brakensiek and Steve Cattolica of AdvoCal, assisted by the California Society of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (CSPMR), the California Neurology Society (CNS), The California Chapter of the International Association of Rehabilitation Professionals, VQ OrthoCare, and the Californa Workers Compensation Services Association, almost defeated the bill despite abandonment of the California Medical Association (CMA) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) both of whom voted for passage of SB 863. CMA and AFSCME knuckled under to Brown.

The CMA is credited with getting the Medicare RBRVS modified and once that was done agreed to support the bill.  Consultations in workers' comp will be allowed although they're no longer allowed in standard Medicare. AFSCME which represents a few thousand doctors in California wanted to befriend Brown more than it wanted to support its dues-paying doctors and assumed that its doctor members wouldn't  protest with too much vigor.   AFSCME's political judgment so far has turned out to be correct.

When Brown saw that SB 863 was in trouble, he went to work. He lobbied and asserted the bill would "reduce litigation, claims administration costs, and other frictional costs." He personally lobbied for the bill,  actually, furiously in the last two days. His hard work paid off. Score a personal hard-earned political triumph for Governor Brown and chalk up a loss for a medical community that knows how to provide services but not how to persuade anybody that what we do is as worthwhile as we say.

Our opposing position was, and still is, that the bill strips injured workers of their ability to appeal wrongful decisions while also cutting the $740 million for PD by at least $200 million. What Brown calls "frictional costs" are actually the lifeblood costs that injured workers incur in appeals. Appeals for wrongful decisions to the WCAB are eliminated by SB 863 which creates an Independent Medical Review (IMR) process that'll rely on anonymous doctors whose decisions are nearly appeal-proof.

In fact, what Brown was really after all along was Proposition 30 to allow increased taxes. To get it he needed to take down the heat from Big Business. Brown  worked to get SB 863 passed to reduce the level of interest against Proposition 30. The strategy worked. The trouble now is the fiscal cliff which, if the country falls off it, will result in widespread financial hardship and will nullify much of what Proposition 30 just won.

Our focus now is on the Independent Medical Review system that has been designed to replace the current Utilization Review system. The IMR system retains the worst aspects of UR, i.e., no need to be licensed to practice medicine in California and no need to interview or examine the patients from  whom treatment opportunities may be withdrawn. The IMR method gets an additional advantage, namely, the promise of anonymity so that appeals against even the stupidest of judgments resulting in harmful denial of care will be turned away and will not be eligible for appeal to the WCAB.

Statewide implications

The move is on to  restrict access to medical care and shift the blame to doctors, particularly the conveniently convened IMR doctors. The name of the game is cost-reduction while touting improved quality of care. In California, access to the WCAB is being restricted; however, similar wrongful uses of denial-of-care are used by HMOs and in Knox-Keene plans. This accelerating trend deserves to be derailed.

Federal implications

The current IPAB derived from the ACA (Obamacare) also promotes cost conservation at the risk of harming patients. These techniques are being adopted by the ACOs even faster than they were by the HMOs. This trend also begs to be derailed.

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