Maximum Medical Improvement (MMI) in Workers’ Compensation Cases

Posted on Thursday, September 19th, 2019 at 11:06 am    

Workers who are injured on the job can take months or even years before their injuries are properly healed. Many employees with severe injuries such as spinal cord damage, lost vision, or traumatic brain damage never fully heal.

In workplace injury cases, the initial medical goals are to treat any emergency conditions, make a proper diagnosis of the worker’s injuries, and develop a treatment plan. The physicians should also explain to the patient the long-term prognosis for their medical condition. The employer’s insurance carrier (unless the employer is self-insured) is required to pay for all necessary medical care to help the worker improve physically and emotionally – as much as possible.

A major medical and legal determination and milestone in an injured worker’s case is when he or she finds out if the worker can return to his or her job. Another important determination connected with this is whether the worker has reached maxim medical improvement (MMI). 

MMI is the point where additional medical care is not reasonably likely to improve the health of the worker. Additional surgeries aren’t likely to help and additional therapies aren’t likely to help. MMI does not automatically mean the end of medical care because some injured workers still need physical and other types of therapy such as pain management so their condition doesn’t worsen or they can achieve ongoing pain relief. 

Options when the worker achieves maximum medical improvement

MMI does not mean the worker is as healthy as he/she was before the accident. It just means that additional medical care won’t make a major difference. When a worker has reached MMI, then he/she should work with an experienced North Carolina workers’ compensation lawyer to review the following issues:

  • Can the worker return to his/her job without or with restrictions?
  • Can the worker return to work with restrictions such as not have to lift more than 20 pounds? 
  • Has the employer initiated vocational rehabilitation?
  • Is it necessary to look for work within the now permanent work restrictions that been assigned to the injured worker? 
  • Has there been a permanency rating assigned by the doctor to the injured body parts? 
  • Additional options discussed below

MMI usually means you may consider an overall settlement of your claim

Workers who have reached maximum medical improvement could also consider settling their overall claim. Workers generally can’t settle their claim if there’s the reasonable probability that continued medical care of a substantial nature would improve their condition. This does not mean medical care such as pain management or the ongoing taking of medication. MMI is typically not declared by the treating physician if additional, major procedures such as surgery are upcoming. 

On the other hand, if the worker has been declared to have reached MMI, then what usually happens is the treating physician will refer the worker for a Functional Capacity Exam (FCE) to determine their permanent physical restrictions. 

After receiving the results of the FCE results, that is usually a good point to think about seeking a lump-sum settlement based on the worker’s average weekly pay, the standard 2/3rds adjustment of the pay, the number of weeks they can still receive pay, (which is usually the remainder of 500 weeks if they are under an Award or under an Accepted Claim) their likely future medical bills, and other factors. 

In North Carolina, a settlement agreement in a workers’ compensation case is called a Clincher Agreement. In Virginia, it’s simply called a Full and Final Settlement. Once you accept the lump sum payment as a settlement, upon entry of the Settlement Order by the Workers Comp or Industrial Commission, your rights to income payments due to a temporary total or temporary partial disability generally stop, as do your medical benefits. 

There are a lot of pros and cons to settling your case once you’ve achieved MMI:

  • If you settle your claim, you get the funds now. You then control how the funds are invested and what you can do with the money.  
  • If you were to die, if you have an Open Workers Comp case, the funds would simply stop and your family or heirs would receive no benefit. If you settle, the money is yours to leave to whomever you want. 
  • A danger in settling the case is that you can’t come back later and ask to reopen the case. If there is a likelihood that you will need future medical care because your condition will likely worsen or because you need the care to keep your health at the same level – then:
    • If you settle your case, you also settle how much will be paid for these future medical bills
    • If you keep your case open, then if the medical expenses become more than you expected, you can demand payment for these new medical bills as they occur.

MMI means you can seek a Permanent Impairment rating

Additionally, as noted above, the worker can seek an impairment rating which can result in income payments based on the type of injury the worker has the severity of the injury. The severity of the injury is based on an impairment rating typically expressed as a percentage, and that rating is then translated into a number of weeks of payments, all set forth in the statute books.  Typically, the treating doctor will assign an impairment rating based on the workers condition and standard medical guidelines such as those of the American Medical Association or the North Carolina Industrial Commission. 

A common misconception is that the permanency ratings are very important in valuing a worker’s comp settlement. If one is unable to return to his or her occupation due to the work injury, then that is certainly not true. Impairment ratings are really only relevant in terms of settlement discussions in cases where the injured worker has RETURNED TO WORK at the same or higher wage as the pre-injury job.  

If the injured worker is unable to return to his or her occupation, in most cases, the impairment rating is not relevant to settlement discussions. This is because one cannot get more than 500 weeks of benefits except in rare cases. The ratings cannot ADD to the 500 weeks and one cannot get ratings money at the same time one is getting weekly checks for workers comp. So, what becomes relevant is how many weeks remain of the maximum allowable weeks of 500 weeks. Usually, the impairment ratings, unless there are extremely severe injuries to multiple body parts, are not going to come anywhere close to the remainder of the 500 weeks. So that number—the number of remaining weeks of the 500 weeks times the weekly workers comp check—becomes the most relevant number. 

Reaching your MMI does not mean your disability benefits end. They continue as long as the law allows, meaning unless you settle your claim or return to a job paying the same or higher wages as you had before you were hurt. 

The impairment rating is essentially based on whether your type of injury is covered by the North Carolina statutes – at NC Workers Compensation Act 97-31.  

Covered injuries are assigned a number of weeks. For example, the loss of an arm is assigned 240 weeks. If you can still use your arm but not as much as before the accident, the treating doctor will assign an impairment rating to reflect the degree of loss. If the impairment rating is 20% that would equate to 240 x .20, or 48 weeks. Then if your average weekly income was $1,000 a week – then your comp payments are $666.67 per week. So you would be entitled to 666.67 x 48 weeks, or $32,000.16.

Workers in North Carolina have the right to challenge the impairment rating of the treating doctors by getting a second opinion which is paid for by the employer’s insurance carrier. If the ratings differ, then the North Carolina Industrial Commission may be required to decided which rating to use. No such right exists in Virginia. 

 

Virginia and North Workers’ Compensation Attorney Joe Miller Esq. has been helping injured workers for more than 25 years. He’ll review and explain your options once you’ve reached maximum medical improvement. He’ll work with your doctors and you so that you make the right choices for your physical and economic needs. To review your case now, call lawyer Joe Miller at 888-667-8295. or use my contact form to make an appointment.

Workers’ Compensation and Repetitive Stress Injuries

Posted on Friday, September 6th, 2019 at 3:11 pm    

Repetitive stress injuries, according to Medical News Today, can affect most every movable part of your body. They are generally associated with repeating the same task over and over again, vibrations, and forceful exertions. Some of the other names for repetitive stress injury (RSI) are repetitive motion disorder, cumulative motion disorder, repetitive motion injury, occupational overuse syndrome, and regional musculoskeletal disorder. 

Generally, in both North Carolina and Virginia, repetitive stress injuries do not constitute valid claims. If one claims, for instance, that due to years of heavy lifting one’s back has started to hurt, that claim will be denied by the insurance company as well as by both the Virginia Workers Comp Commission or the North Carolina Industrial Commission. 

There are, however, a couple of sets of exceptions carved out in the law.  

The first is if the repetitive stress injury is suddenly aggravated by a traumatic event. In Virginia, as long as the doctor can say that the traumatic event caused a “sudden mechanical change” in the injured body part, then this would be a valid injury. Similarly, in North Carolina, a slip, trip or fall that aggravates a repetitive injury would be compensable. 

The second set of exceptions relate to some specific injuries that are very common and generally accepted as either occupational diseases or ordinary diseases of life caused by repetitive work trauma.  

Carpal tunnel syndrome is perhaps the best- known form of RSI. It is treated as an ordinary disease of life that is an occupational disease. It is a condition, according to Orthoinfo, that occurs when a major nerve to the hand (the median nerve) “is squeezed or compressed as it travels through the wrist.” It can be quite painful and generally gets worse over time unless it is treated. For some patients, surgery may be required to take pressure off the median nerve.

CTS is very common in machinist occupations and electrical occupations where repetitive use of the hands is required. 

Some of the symptoms of repetitive stress disorder

Symptoms include:

  • A throbbing sensation or a pulsing sensation in the part of the body affected
  • Loss of sensation
  • Pain or tenderness in affected joints and muscles
  • Loss of strength
  • A tingling sensation
  • Reduced range of motion
  • Reduced flexibility

Symptoms often vary depending on the part of the body that is affected.

Many workers don’t’ realize they have an RSI until the damage to their body is significant. By the time they do feel the pain, they need to stop working and get medical help.

Causes of repetitive stress injury

Some of the general causes of repetitive stress injuries include:

  • Using the same muscle or group of muscles again and again
  • Working in temperatures that are cold
  • Equipment that vibrates
  • Not working in a sound ergonomic work environment
  • Poor posture or keeping the same posture for a long time
  • Tiredness
  • Carry of lifting heavy objects
  • Direct pressure on a certain part of the body

Psychological stress can worsen RSI.

Some of the causes of RSI that cause workers to lose time off from work and file a workers’ compensation claim include:

  • Computer work. This is one of the more common causes of RSI, more specifically carpal tunnel syndrome. Workers who type and type all day long are using the same muscles over and over again. Clicking a mouse, typing on a keyboard, using a smartphone while typing – all can lead to repetitive stress injuries that can make work difficult. Workers should routinely take breaks from typing, make sure their monitor is the right distance away from the keyboard, use keyboards and computer setups that are ergonomic, and try to mix up their work with other tasks.
  • Construction work also often requires that workers perform the same tasks. These repeat tasks including using a jackhammer, hammering nails, digging in the ground, operating a forklift or a crane, cutting tree branches, or other tasks. The repeat work can develop into an RSI over time. Employers and workers should consider rotating tasks so the same muscles aren’t used all the time. Positioning and work techniques can also help reduce the risk of an RSI.
  • Retail work. Most retail workers are on the feet all day long which leads to fatigue. While they’re working, they are doing repeat tasks such as putting clothes on hangers or removing clothes, organizing the inventory, or operating a cash register.
  • Waitressing. Most waitress do the same physical tasks every day. They take order, carry food on trays, take the food off the trays, and unless they have someone to help – clean the dishes and the tables.
  • Standing or sitting in one position all day. These tasks can be bad for the heart and bad for your joints, muscles, ligaments, and tendons. People who sit in a on office all day long should make an effort to get up, stretch, and walk around. People who stand all day are putting pressure on their whole body. It helps for standing workers to take regular breaks where they can sit for a while.
  • Nursing. Nurses are constantly giving patients medications, moving and turning patients, checking blood pressure and doing other tasks on a repeat basis.
  • Machinist work. Constant working with hand tools can often cause carpal tunnel syndrome. 
  • Electrical work. Using screwdrivers and other tools in tight spaces can often cause carpal tunnel syndrome. 

Other jobs that are known to cause RSIs include delivery work, plumbing, agricultural work, firefighting, stocking shelves, janitors, maid services, and food processors. Professional athletes and professional musicians also do a lot or work that involves repetitive motions.

Treatment for an RSI

The earlier workers begin treatment for an RSI, the better. Doctors will conduct a range of tests depending on the body part that hurts and other factors. These tests include:

  • Nerve conduction studies
  • Electromyogram (EMG) which measures the electrical activity in muscles.
  • X-Rays and MRIs may be used

Treatments for an RSI include:

  • Surgery on the affected body part
  • Medications to reduce the inflammation and the pain
  • Braces and splints may help
  • Steroid injections
  • Certain types of exercises

The recovery process for surgical and non-surgical treatments can take months or even up to a year.

Can you claim workers’ compensation benefits for a repetitive stress injuries?

Unfortunately, other than Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS), or aggravation of pre-existing RTS injuries by a single traumatic event, Virginia does not recognize any other repetitive stress injuries as valid, compensable injuries or an occupational disease

In North Carolina, the legislature has carved out a few specific, repetitive stress injuries that are recognized as specific, valid, occupational diseases. 

In addition, in North Carolina, (not in Virginia) repetitive stress injuries can sometimes be classified as occupational diseases and be compensable IF they are proven to be caused by things that are characteristic and peculiar to the employment of the injured person and excluding ordinary diseases of life to which the public is equally exposed. An example is a cameraman who develops a rotator cuff injury over time. His job requires him to carry the heavy camera on his shoulder every day, and if the doctor supports it, this would be an example of a compensable RTS injury in North Carolina. 

One should proceed with caution, however. These types of North Carolina “ordinary disease of life” cases are notoriously difficult to prove. The doctor must not only say that the work caused the issue, but that it was NOT caused by exposure to repetitive stress outside of work. For some jobs, such as daily work with a jackhammer, the proof may be clear. For other jobs, such as computer work, an insurance company may argue that your off-duty typing or exposure to other, off duty activities caused the RSI. 

There are, however, some RTS diseases in North Carolina that are specifically listed by the legislature as an occupational disease. 

The RTS diseases that are specifically listed in North Carolina General Statute Sec. 97-53 as compensable occupational diseases are: 

  • Blisters due to use of tools or appliances in the employment
  • Bursitis due to intermittent pressure in the employment
  • Bone felon [a type of finger infection-ed.] due to constant or intermittent pressure in employment
  • Synovitis, caused by trauma in employment; 
  • Tenosynovitis, caused by trauma in employment 

Examples of repetitive stress injuries that might be compensable in North Carolina, (but not in Virginia) depending on the proof of facts, are:

  • Tendonitis
  • Shoulder and rotator cuff injuries 
  • Tennis elbow, more formally called epicondylitis
  • Muscle strains
  • Trigger finger
  • Many other types of RSIs

If you have a workers’ compensation claim because of a repetitive stress injury, Virginia and North Workers’ Compensation Attorney Joe Miller Esq., will explain your legal rights. In most cases, unless you fall into one of the exceptions listed above, there is a good chance you may not have a case. But if you have a valid work injury claim, he’ll work with your doctors to determine your full health condition.  In some cases, he may recommend that you see other doctors who are approved by the state workers’ compensation organizations. To learn if you have a claim, call attorney Joe Miller at 888-667-8295. or fill out my contact form to schedule an appointment. Joe Miller has been fighting for injured workers for more than 31 years.

Workers’ Compensation and Back Injuries

Posted on Wednesday, September 4th, 2019 at 3:11 pm    

According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), there are numerous reasons why back injuries are a major cause of lost work days. Back disorders generally occur in one of two ways:

  • A single traumatic event
  • Repetitive actions over time
  • A combination of both

A single traumatic event or a combination of a single traumatic event that aggravates an accumulated problem both generally constitute compensable, valid injuries under workers compensation law in both Virginia and North Carolina; however, cumulative injuries by themselves are generally not compensable and do not constitute a valid workers compensation claim. 

Also, while usually in North Carolina, a “slip, trip, or fall” is required to prove an injury by accident, an exception is carved out in the law with respect to back injuries. Evidence of a single, traumatic event is usually sufficient to prove a back injury in North Carolina. 

Virginia also only requires a single, traumatic event, but there must also be a “risk of employment” associated with the accident. This means that if one is simply injured suddenly in the course of performing one’s duties in Virginia, unless there is something that is a “risk” posed by the employment, i.e. a very heavy weight being lifted, a defective piece of equipment, or a weight suddenly shifting, simply feeling sudden back pain will not rise to the level of a valid injury in Virginia. In North Carolina, with respect only to back injuries, it would, so long as the injured worker can point to a specific moment when the pain started during the performance of work duties.

Often, workers and employers fail to treat back problems which accumulate over time – until the symptoms become very so severe, so acute – that the cause a disabling injury. Some of the causes of back injuries include improper lifting techniques or lifting loads that are just too heavy for the  worker’s body.

Often, the single traumatic event is really due to “years of weakening of the musculoskeletal support mechanism by repetitive micro-trauma. Injuries can arise in muscle, ligament, vertebrae, and discs, either singly or in combination.”

Once again, unfortunately, these types of back injuries, if not precipitated or aggravated by a single traumatic event that the injured worker can point to, will not give rise to a valid workers compensation claim. 

OSHA states that back injuries from working aren’t known to cause fatalities. They do, however, cause a lot of pain and suffering and lost productivity. Back injuries affect nearly 600,000 employees on a yearly basis at a cot of nearly $50 billion annually. As the average age of employees increases, the cost to treat and pay disabled workers is likely to rise.

Some of the many reasons back disorders occur

Some of the workplace activities that cause deterioration of muscles, discs, joints, and ligaments – which in turn cause back injuries – include:

    • Poor posture. It’s important to sit and stand properly with good support. This means quality shoes and chairs. 
    • Staying in one position for too long. This means standing up occasionally if you have a desk job and sitting down occasionally if your job requires you to be on your feet all day long.
    • Reaching for objects at the same time you’re lifting. 
    • Using improper body techniques – when you lift, pull, push, or carry objects. There are standard ways, for example, that you should lift objects so the weight isn’t fully on your back.
    • Not being in good shape. Poor physical conditioning can affect your ability to use your back without experiencing pain.
    • Poor ergonomic equipment. Workstations should be designed to enhance your posture, to avoid the need to reach, and to help take pressure off your back. Your employer should consider having you wear a brace if you do a lot of heavy lifting.
    • Using your body instead of equipment. Employers should provide dollies, forklifts, and other equipment to help you mechanically lift and move anything that might be too heavy.

 

  • Twisting or bending while lifting.

 

  • Working while tired. It’s critical that workers be allowed to take periodic breaks. They shouldn’t work too many hours in any one day. Fatigue makes the muscles tired which can make movements harder. Additionally, tired workers are more likely to trip and fall which can result in acute back pain.
  • Not having proper footing. Workers shouldn’t lift, carry, push, or pull on uneven ground, on wet ground, or anywhere where their footing isn’t secured.
  • Working with machines that vibrate a lot. Truck drivers and delivery drivers are especially prone to back injuries if the cargo moves around or the truck can’t handle the load.

Some of the ways to help reduce back injuries

Some loads are much harder to lift or move than other loads. Generally, any load that is more than 50 pounds should be moved or lifted by using some of the following equipment or strategies:

  • Use hand trucks, pallet jacks, and forklifts
  • Try to break the load into smaller sizes and weights
  • Use ramps to load and move objects
  • Suction devices may help if they can carry the weight
  • Be aware that rolling items may help – but rolling may be dangerous if the motion can’t be stopped
  • Request that extra workers be used to lift, carry or move the load

OSHA states the employers and employees can help each other in the following ways:

  • Employers should ask employees what they think about how difficult task are and what their personal experience is with pain
  • Employers should observe first-hand the posture of their workers as they lift. They should also use video to analyze the motions
  • Employers should have a way to weigh objects and materials before lifting
  • Employers need to review how often and how long a worker is lifting
  • Workers should be rotated to different jobs so they’re not using the same muscles repetitively

“Principal variables in evaluating manual lifting tasks to determine how heavy a load can be lifted are: 

  • The horizontal distance from the load to the employee’s spine
  • The vertical distance through which the load is handled
  • The amount of trunk twisting the employee utilized during the lifting
  • The ability of the hand to grasp the load
  • The frequency with which the load is handled”

Other manual lifting variables include examining space constraints, the size of the load, and the stability of the load. 

Once all these variables are known, The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) of the US CDC – has a formula for determining whether a lift is safe or not.

Recommended OSHA safety tips

OSHA further recommends the following safety tips for manually handling objects to help avoid the risk of bank injuries:

  • Minimize the frequency of the activity, the range of motion, and the weight of the objects or materials.
  • Reduce the distance between the worker and the object being handled.
  • “Platforms and conveyors should be built at about waist height to minimize awkward postures. Conveyors or carts should be used for horizontal motion whenever possible.”
  • Pushing is generally better than pulling. 
  • It helps if the items being moved have handles that are easy to grasp.
  • Workstations should be configured properly so the worker doesn’t have to bend over. They should be designed to help the worker remain in a relaxed upright stance or fully supported, seated posture.
  • The worker shouldn’t have to bend his/her upper body and spine. Bins should tilted, elevated, or have collapsible sides– to improve access and avoid the need to bend.
  • Sustained twisting motions or leaning to one side should be avoided. 
  • Heavy objects should be stored at waist level
  • Employers should provide lift tables and lift-assist devices.

Virginia and North Workers’ Compensation Attorney Joe Miller Esq. understands back pain injuries. He workers with your doctors and independent doctors, when necessary, to diagnose your pain and prepare a full prognosis for your recovery. He’s helped thousands of injured workers get just recoveries. For help with your work injury claim, due to a back injury or for any reasons, call lawyer Joe Miller at 888-667-8295. or fill out my contact form to make an appointment.

More FAQs about North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Claims

Posted on Monday, July 29th, 2019 at 3:22 pm    

In our continuing series of answers to frequently asked questions about work injury claims in North Carolina, here are more questions and answers. As with all workers’ compensation cases, the best course of action is to contact an experienced work injury attorney. Each state has different rules. All answers have some exceptions which depend on the facts of your case.

How does the mediation process work in a North Carolina Workers Compensation case?

Mediation-also known as “alternative dispute resolution,” is an informal process where the parties to a case attempt to resolve the case, usually via negotiation of a full and final settlement. In North Carolina, the reaching of such an agreement has traditionally been known as a “clincher” agreement. 

In North Carolina, about 70% of cases are resolved at a mediation conference which helps to save time and can save costs. If the case can’t be resolved, then the case is heard before a Deputy Commissioner of the Industrial Commission.  Normally, your lawyer and the employer’s insurance carrier will choose a mediator from a list approved by the North Carolina Industrial Commission. If the two sides can’t agree on a mediator, then the North Carolina Industrial Commission will appoint one. Each side shares the cost of the mediator. As the NCIC says on its website, the employer’s insurance company will usually have a lawyer, so it’s in your best interest to have a lawyer fighting for you.

The mediation is held at a mutually agreeable location, which may be at either attorney’s office, the mediator’s office, or a third party’s office if all of those are inconvenient. Mediation is a relatively informal process. The mediator, usually an attorney familiar with workers comp, will begin by explaining the process, and what his or her role is. 

Each side then gives a presentation, outlining what evidence they will present if the matter proceeds to hearing.  The plaintiff does not have to testify and there are usually no witnesses. 

Once those presentations are made, the parties usually then separate into two separate rooms and the process of negotiation begins. Depending on the size of the case and the willingness of the parties to resolve the claim, the mediation process can last from a half hour to an entire day. Your attorney may occasionally pull out pieces of evidence or medical records for the other side to review that might “loosen the purse strings” at various stages of the discussion, but other than that, the process is a bit like buying a car. A lot of back and forth on the numbers.   

At the end of the negotiation, one of two things will occur. Either the mediator will prepare a mediation agreement, or he or she will declare an impasse.  If an impasse is declared, that means the parties were unable to reach an agreement, and the matter will proceed to hearing at an upcoming date. 

The Mediation Agreement. 

The Mediation agreement is a short summary of what the parties agreed on at the mediation. It is drawn up by the mediator and signed by all parties before anyone leaves the location of the mediation. It is not the final agreement; however, what is advantageous about a mediation agreement is that in North Carolina, it is recognized as a legal document. In other words, should something happen to you, the agreement obligates the defendant to pay your estate as set forth in the agreement. If also puts into place an obligation of the defendants to send a completed clincher agreement for your attorneys’ review within 30 days. This is one of the reasons we like mediation in North Carolina. If the parties can resolve the claim, you leave the proceeding with a tangible, enforceable, legal document, not just a “promise.” 

How does a clincher agreement work?

A clincher agreement is an overall settlement of a worker’s claims – past, present, and future. Once a clincher agreement is completed and signed, there’s no do-over. It is the document that the defense lawyer will send to your attorney if the mediation or other negotiation reached a successful conclusion. 

The fundamental basics of a clincher agreement are:

  • The worker receives a lump-sum one-time payment (some portions of the agreement, such as the medical portion, may be paid out in increments over time, but that is for another discussion) 
  • The worker releases the employer from any further liability-both as to the medical portion and indemnity portion. 
  • All clincher agreements must be approved by the North Carolina Industrial Commission

The NICI will review the agreement to make sure it complies with Rule 502 which provides that approval requires that:

    • Where the employer admits it has a duty to pay worker’s compensation benefits – “the employer or carrier/ administrator undertakes to pay all medical expenses to the date of the agreement.”
    • Where the employer denies liability, “the employer or carrier/ administrator undertakes to pay all unpaid medical expenses to the date of the agreement. However, this requirement may be waived in the discretion of the Industrial Commission. When submitting an agreement for approval, the employee or employee’s attorney, if any, shall advise the Commission in writing of the amount of the unpaid medical expenses.”
    • The employee knowingly and intentionally waives the right to further benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act for the injury which is the subject of this agreement.

 

  • That the employer or carrier/administrator will pay all costs incurred
  • That no rights other than those arising under the provisions of the Workers’ Compensation Act are compromised or released.

 

  • Work status issues be addressed. The clincher agreement should indicate whether the employee “has, or has not, returned to a job or position at the same or a greater average weekly wage as was being earned prior to the injury or occupational disease.”

 

If the employee hasn’t returned to a job at the same or greater wage (as prior to the workplace accident or occupational illness), the clincher agreement should state whether the employee “has, or has not, returned to some other job or position, and, if so, the description of the particular job or position, the name of the employer and the average weekly wage earned.” 

 

The clincher agreement should then also “summarize the employee’s age, educational level, past vocational training, past work experience, and any impairment, emotional, mental or physical, which predates the current injury or occupational disease. The parties will be relieved of this duty only upon a showing that providing such information creates an unreasonable burden upon them.”

 

“This subsection (the part about returning a job or new position) of the Rule shall not apply where the employee is represented by counsel or, even if the employee is not represented by counsel, where the employee certifies that partial wage loss due to an injury or occupational disease is not being claimed.”
 

  • Report submissions. “All medical, vocational, and rehabilitation reports known to exist, including but not limited to those pertinent to the employee’s future earning capacity, must be submitted with the agreement to the Industrial Commission by the employer, the carrier/administrator, or the attorney for the employer.”
  • Signatures. The employee, employer and lawyers of record must all sign the agreement.
  • Timing requirements. Rule 502 provides for timing requirements your North Carolina work injury lawyer can explain.

The proposed clincher agreement is typically drafted by the defense attorney in North Carolina, and emailed to your lawyer. 

A skilled North Carolina work injury lawyer will explain all of the items set forth in the clincher agreement and also make sure that certain language is included to protect you—for instance, if you wish to file for Social Security Disability, certain language must be in the clincher agreement or you could be prevented from obtaining your SSDI benefits for a very long time. 

Once your attorney says it’s ok, he will review the agreement with you and have you sign it. After that, the signed agreement is returned to the defense attorney for filing with the NCIC, along with your attorney fee agreement with your lawyer. 

If the clincher/settlement agreement is approved by the NCIC, they will issue and typically fax to both parties a settlement Order, setting forth the amount agreed upon and the attorneys’ fees. 

After that, the worker’s comp carrier has up to 47 days to mail out your settlement check to you. A separate check is made out for your portion and the portion representing attorneys’ fees. 

Attorney Joe Miller understands that you may be anxious to settle all your claims at once. He’ll guide through the settlement/clincher process if you have reached your maximum medical improvement. He’ll review your past and future medical expenses and your past and future wage loss issues. For help filing and resolving your workers’ compensation case, call attorney Joe Miller at 1-(888) 667-8295 or use my contact form to schedule an appointment. 

 

Frequently Asked Workers’ Compensation Questions

Posted on Monday, July 1st, 2019 at 10:29 am    

Workers have the right to ask questions about their workers’ compensation claim. Experienced work injury lawyers are happy to answer all your North Carolina and Virginia workers’ compensation questions.

Anyone who is injured while working on their job has questions about their rights. Anyone who suffers an illness due to workplace conditions needs to understand their rights. The best advice for any employee who becomes injured or ill working is to make an appointment with an experienced North Carolina or Virginia workers’ compensation lawyer. He can answer your questions, guide your through the workers’ compensation process, and advocate on your behalf.

Some of the more common questions, employees have about workers’ compensation include:

Who can benefit from workers’ compensation?

Generally, only employees of a company can file for work injury benefits. Independent contractors are typically not eligible. The good news is that the employer does not get to decide who is an employee or an independent contractor. The work relationship is determined by a variety of factors. The main factor is whether the employer controls the work performance of the worker or if the worker controls how he/she does their job. Some of the additional factors that determine whether a worker is an employee or not are who provides the tools to do the job, who controls the hours of performance, and how the worker is paid.

Employers with only one or two employees may not be required to carry workers’ compensation insurance. Larger workers normally must have workers’ compensation insurance for each of their employees. As with most laws, there are some exceptions.

Must I show the employer was negligent?

No.  Workers’ compensation in both North Carolina and Virginia is a compromise. The employee only must show that an accident happened at work or that an illness is due to unique workplace conditions. The employee does not even need to show the employer failed to follow normal business safety standards. The trade-off is that the employee cannot make a claim for “pain and suffering” damages. Also, workers generally only get 2/3rds of their average weekly wages during the time they can’t work – and not the full 100%. There are also caps on how much an injured or ill worker can receive, typically up to 500 weeks.

There are a few exceptions. In Virginia, employers may challenge the right of a worker to demand work injury benefits if the worker intentionally caused his or injures – such as through getting into a fight with a coworker or getting into an accident while intoxicated. In North Carolina, any such showing will reduce the recovery by 10%. 

Also, in North Carolina, there was once an exception if the employer could be found to be guilty of intentional misconduct that caused the accident. The misconduct has been interpreted as meaning that the employer must have been substantially certain that the conduct that the employee was ordered to engage in would result in injury or death.  In those circumstances, there was once some possibility that the employer in North Carolina could be sued directly. This was known as a Woodson claim, named after the poor gentlemen who was ordered to his death by his employer, straight into a ditch the employer knew was about to collapse. 

Unfortunately, in more recent times, it has been widely recognized that the North Carolina Court of Appeals has essentially eliminated any possibility that one of these Woodson claims will ever see the light of day. 

What are the standard work injury benefits?

Injured workers typically receive two types of benefits:

  • Medical compensation. The goal of workers’ compensation is to help the worker return to his or her job. Workers who are injured often start their medical care by going to the local emergency room. If there is a severe problem, they may be admitted to a hospital for tests and for surgeries. Patients then can treat with their family doctor and any specialists who might reasonably help them heal. Specialists include pain management physicians, orthopedist, neurologists, cardiac care doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and other doctors. 

 

Patients who are injured at work also usually treat with chiropractors, physical therapists, vocational therapists, and other health care providers.

 

These medical care providers should submit their bills to the employer’s workers compensation insurance carrier. The insurance carrier has a duty to pay these medical bills if they are reasonable, medically necessary, and related to the injury.

 

Other types of care that the insurance company should cover include the cost of medications and medical devices.

 

  • Wage loss compensation. Workers typically in both North Carolina and Virginia are entitled to receive 2/3rds of their average weekly wages during the time they can’t work. This is generally referred to as temporary total disability (TTD). There are caps on the amounts so that workers who earned too much money will only receive the cap limit. There are also limits on how long benefits can be paid –up to 500 weeks in Virginia and North Carolina. 

 

Workers who have a partial temporary disability and who can return to work receive at a lower-paying job receive 2/3rds of the wages they lose by accepting the lower paying job. This is called temporary partial disability (TPD). 

 

Workers who are no longer receiving TTD and have a permanent disability in a specific body part may be entitled to pay based on the type of disability they have in that body part. This is referred to as permanent partial impairment (PPI). Payments are made according to a percentage disability rating and a scale of weeks set forth via statute, depending on the type of disability (such as hearing loss or the loss of use of a hands, feet, arms or legs) and the degree of impairment.

Injured and ill workers may also be entitled to vocational rehabilitation; however, although this is technically a benefit it is usually not helpful to an injured workers case. It is typically utilized by the workers compensation insurance company to “trip up” the injured worker or apply pressure to settle the claim, or reduce the liability of the workers comp insurance company by finding a job-ANY job—for the injured worker. Voc Rehab is typically employed with workers who aren’t expected to return to the same type of job they did before the injury. 

Which doctors must I see? 

Normally, in Virginia, the employer will have a panel of three doctors for each type of injury or illness – starting with a list of family care doctors. Employees must choose one of the physicians on the list of doctors – for their type of injury or illness. If a referral is needed to a specialist such as an Orthopedic or Neurosurgeon, then additional panels must be provided by the workers compensation insurance company. 

In North Carolina, unfortunately, there are no panels, rather, the insurance company usually chooses a treating physician. 

If there is a good reason, then employees can seek permission from the Commission to see a doctor of their own choosing. A good reason may be that it is clear the doctor isn’t helping the injured worker get better he or she is still in pain – and still can’t work. Experienced North Carolina and Virginia work injury lawyers often have working relationships with a variety of physicians. The lawyer may be able to seek approval to switch to one of these doctors – or to an independent new doctor. 

In Virginia, this process is not easy. It really depends whether the authorized treating doctor has indicated that he or she no longer wants to see the injured worker. If the authorized treating doctor has not released the injured worker from care, for instance by saying “prn” in their office notes which means “patient may return as needed,” then it may be more difficult to seek a switch. 

Although there is no means to obtain a “second opinion” of a doctor formally through the Workers Compensation Commission by injured workers in Virginia, workers are free at any time to seek alternative care at their own cost. 

In North Carolina, there does exist a process to obtain an Independent Medical Examination—at the expense of the employer. 

Lawyer Joe Miller has helped thousands of injured and ill employees get their full workers’ compensation benefits. He represents workers in North Carolina and Virginia. He’ll answer your questions and explain the workers’ compensation process. He’ll work aggressively to help you get all the benefits you deserve. To review your case now, call  attorney Joe Miller at 1-(888) 667-8295 or use my contact form to schedule an appointment.

Vocational Rehabilitation Rights for North Carolina Workers

Posted on Thursday, June 27th, 2019 at 10:21 am    

Workers who can’t return to their old job may be entitled to vocational rehabilitation benefits. Vocational rehab benefits can include the cost of being retrained or to obtain additional education.

In most North Carolina workers compensation cases, injured and ill workers are compensated in two ways:

  • They are compensated for their medical bills. These are the hospital, doctor, and therapy bills the worker’s care medical providers are due – for helping the worker return to work to maximize their health. Medical bill payments also include the cost of drugs and medical devices.
  • They are paid for a portion of their lost wages. Generally, workers are paid 2/3rds of their average weekly wages up to 500 weeks. There are adjustments in the pay depending on whether the worker has a total or partial disability – i.e., whether the worker can return to a lower paying job with work restrictions, or remains totally disabled from work. 

Some workers, however, are not able to return to their pre-injury job because of their injuries or work-related illness. Sometimes, the worker’s doctor will authorize work with restrictions, otherwise referred to as “light duty,” – but the employer won’t be able to accommodate the restrictions. Since the goal of workers’ compensation is to help the worker earn an income, North Carolina offers another option called vocational rehabilitation.

For example, often workers who work in construction or industry depend on being physically fit to do hard physical labor. If a worker severely injures his or her back, loses function in a hand, or loses an arm; the worker can no longer do these jobs. With proper education, though, the worker could be re-trained to work in a clerical or administrative job. The worker might be able to learn technical skills that could be useful to many companies in the same job sectors or different job sectors altogether. 

Of course, the success of much of this depends on the age and current educational level of the injured worker. A 29-year-old worker is far more likely to be capable of re-training than a 59-year old laborer without a high school education. Usually, the injuries are more severe and pronounced in the older worker, and as they say, it is harder to teach an old dog new tricks. 

How vocational rehabilitation is defined

Worker’s compensation includes services that are designed to help a worker obtain suitable employment. These services typically include:

  • An assessment of the workers job skills, education, and abilities.
  • Determining what type of new job the worker could do if he/she was properly trained.
  • Reviewing the skills, degrees, and certifications that could help the worker obtain work in a new field.
  • Identifying the problems that restrict a specific worker from doing certain physical or mental tasks in a job.
  • Understanding what community college or other classes might help the worker learn new skills.
  • Understanding what college programs could help the work.
  • Providing counseling for workers looking for a new job – such as how to interview, where to apply, and how to prepare a resume.

Generally, the way it works is in accepted claims, when the worker reaches maximum medical improvement and is provided with permanent work restrictions by his or her doctor, if the employer is unable or unwilling to accommodate the injured workers’ restrictions, a vocational rehabilitation assessment will be ordered by the workers comp insurance company. 

Although these services one would think are a benefit, usually, the carrier will avoid paying for items that might truly assist in improving the worker’s skills and their ability to get a new job, such as education from a Community College or a degree from one of North Carolina’s many great universities. When Vocational Rehabilitation was classed as medical treatment back in 2011, many thought this would indicate a change in the way Voc Rehab could be used in North Carolina. 

Alas, this change has not come to be. This is because the true purpose behind most vocational rehabilitation situations is to stop benefits to the injured worker based on the injured worker’s failure to comply with the plan, or otherwise to apply pressure on the injured worker to settle his or her case as soon as possible. Often, the vocational counselor can be extremely annoying, sending seemingly endless streams of emails and calls and constantly hounding the injured worker to engage in job searches. This is by design. 

Who provides the Vocational Rehab Services

Normally, an approved vocational rehab specialist must be approved to work on behalf of the injured worker. Vocational rehab specialists are generally paid for their services in the same way doctors paid. The specialist helps identify the workers’ abilities, skills, the type of new skills needed, and course selection. This is typically done in an initial assessment, which is usually attended by the injured workers’ attorney as well. There may be written testing to determine the skill level of the employee with regard to the worker’s math and/or language skills. 

Subsequently, the vocational rehab specialist also assists monitors the worker’s success in applying for jobs and attending interviews. In some cases, this may include providing job leads to be followed up on by the injured worker, as well as scheduling actual job interviews. 

Technically, vocational rehab specialists do not work for the employer – though the progress the worker is making will be reported to the employer and the injured worker. But they do work for the workers compensation insurance company and this needs to be understood.  

If the vocational rehabilitation specialist is not helping the worker obtain suitable skills or suitable employment by, for instance, continually requiring the injured worker apply for jobs that are no longer available or which are clearly beyond the physical capability of the worker–the employee can seek to have a new vocational rehab specialist appointed. 

Generally, the rehab specialist will begin by preparing a return-to-work plan. The return to work plan should review all possible job options including:

  • Keeping the current job with the current employer
  • Getting a new job with a current employer
  • Job training with a current employer
  • Suitable employment with a new employer
  • Job training with a new employer
  • Vocational rehabilitation to get ready for a new job
  • Other possibilities including self-employment

Workers who refuse to comply with a vocational rehab plan ordered by the North Carolina Industrial Commission  may lose their compensation benefits until they do comply with the plan.

Most workers comply with new training requirements. They may object to unreasonable demands by the specialist – such as applying to jobs they have no chance of getting.

Experienced North Carolina workers’ compensation lawyers understand when it is likely that a vocational rehabilitation expert will be hired and how to prepare the injured worker in dealing with the often rigorous demands of vocational rehabilitation.  

As with most laws, some exceptions may apply – some severely injured workers may not be required to learn a new trade or skill – because there’s no reason to expect they will be hired. In other words, if it would be futile for the injured worker to be required to engage in vocational rehabilitation, due to their level of impairment, lack of education, and age, then a motion may be made by the attorney to excuse the injured worker from having to participate in vocational rehabilitation. 

The employee does not have to reach maximum medical improvement in order to be required to engage in vocational rehabilitation. Generally, employers or employees can ask for vocational rehabilitation if the worker hasn’t returned to work or if he or she is earning less than 75% of his/her average weekly wages and are receiving other approved benefits.

The vocational rehabilitation plan should be in writing and tailored to the individual worker’s needs.

Attorney Joe Miller fights for all injured workers. He has decades of experience working with vocational rehabilitation specialists. He understands when employers and insurance companies are truly interested in helping an employee get a new job and when the employer (or insurance company) is just trying to terminate a worker’s benefits or apply pressure to settle.  To learn if you are likely to end up in vocational rehabilitation, call attorney Joe Miller at 1-(888) 667-8295 or use my contact form to make an appointment.

Why You Should Call a Workers Compensation Attorney

Posted on Tuesday, June 25th, 2019 at 2:05 pm    

Attorney Joe Miller explains why you need an attorney if you are injured or hurt at work:

Read the full video transcription here.

Regenerative Medicine, PRP Therapy and Workers’ Compensation Claims

Posted on Tuesday, June 25th, 2019 at 10:21 am    

Many new regenerative medical treatments are being used to treat pain by using the body’s own repair mechanisms. Regenerative medicine is helping injured workers return to better health – when standard health remedies just don’t see to work.  Many athletes in a wide variety of sports are already using regenerative medicine so they can get back to the basketball court, tennis court, or playing field earlier than they usually could. 

Regenerative medicine has been used in the past. It’s been used for organ transplants and bone marrow transplants. Newer sciences and technologies are helping regenerative medicine expand the possible solutions to helping individuals, including workers, with serious health problems.

Regenerative medicine is a methodology that helps the human body regenerate, replace, and even engineer human cells, tissues, and organs. The key behind regenerative medicine is that the body uses its own repair methods to heal parts of the body that were previously thought to be incapable of healing. Regenerative medicine now includes helping tissues and organs grow in a laboratory so they can be later implanted inside humans. In this way, regenerative medicine can reduce the dependence on relying on foreign donors and the complications with the body accepting a foreign tissue or organ.

Regenerative incorporates many sciences including computer science, genetics, chemistry, biology, and robotics.

Different types of regeneration

There are different types of regenerative medicine:

  • Rejuvenation. The aim with this type of medicine is to help the patient’s body heal itself. A common example is when you suffer a cut and the skin heals around the cut. Scientists are now using a person’s own cells to help nerves and even organs self-heal
  • Replacement. This type of regenerative medicine uses cells, tissues, and healthy organs from a donor (living or recently deceased) to replace the damages cells, tissues, or organs. Some transplants, such as liver and heart transplants, are fairly common. Regenerative is more than just the transplant. It is the goal to help the transplants work better by minimizing complication such as rejection or infection.
  • New regeneration. Here, cell-therapy is the mechanism for delivering cells to diseases parts of the anatomy. The cells then help restore the damaged areas of the body. Stem cells are used for this type of regenerative medicine. Stem cells can be developed/used to regenerate brain cells, lung cells, skin cells, and other cells.

The most common types of stem cells are adult stem cells (the worker/patient uses his/her own cells) and embryonic stem cells. Stem cell sources can be used from blood, bone marrow, fat, skeletal muscle, and other sources. Some stem cells are more versatile than other stem cells. New methods and techniques are constantly being developed and refined.

Another type of regenerative is platelet-rich plasma (PRP) therapy

Another type of regenerative medicine is the use of PRP therapy. PRP is usually combined with diet and physical therapy.

The idea behind PRP therapy is that you blood includes plasma (the red liquid part), white and red cells, and platelets. The platelets help blood clot. They also have proteins which are a key ingredient in helping injuries health. The PRP technique aims to enrich the plasma with the beneficial platelets. The enrichment method uses your own blood – which works much better than using somebody else’s blood.

The main steps used to enrich the plasma with the platelets are:

  • Blood is taken from you (in the same way it is taken when you have a blood test).
  • The blood is then prepared. The platelets are separated so their concentration level can rise. A process called centrifugation is used to separate and improve the concentration level of the platelets.
  • The PRP combination is then used to treat the part of the body that needs repair or help. Doctors generally use a fluoroscope to guide the PRP injection into the correct spot
  • The doctor usually injects the PRP with a local anesthetic to reduce the initial discomfort.
  • It can take a few weeks before the patient begins to experience improvement.

PRP is also sometimes used after a patient has a surgery to improve the ability of the patient to heal.

PRP therapy has been shown to help patients with muscle, tendon, and ligament injuries. It is helping patients with chronic pain. The ability of PRP to help with other injuries such as fractures is still being researched.

Many patients need multiple injections – two to six. Workers who undergo PRP therapy usually experience little pain with the process. The PRP process is minimally invasive. Often, it can be done in an ambulatory surgery center instead of a hospital. Often, if a worker does experience pain, an anti-inflammatory medication can help.

The good news is that when PRP works, the relief is long-term. Patients who have PRP therapy should generally avoid exercise until the healing process is finished (additional time isn’t making the patient feel any better). A key advantage to PRP therapy is that by using your own blood, patients shouldn’t experience allergic reactions.  There is a possibility of infection, bleeding, and nerve damage. PRP is not an initial remedy. It is usually recommended only after more standard treatments fail to work.

At the North Carolina and Virginia Law Office of Joe Miller, Esq. we work with your doctors to understand your medical problems, and to understand what treatments you need. Often, employers will try to force you back to work before you’re ready. We work with your physicians to show that you do more time to explore all the options available to improve your health for the long-term. For help with all parts of you workers’ compensation claim, call attorney Joe Miller at 1-(888) 667-8295 or complete my contact form to schedule a free consult.

Back Pain and Workers’ Compensation

Posted on Tuesday, June 25th, 2019 at 9:20 am    

Experienced work injury lawyers fight for workers with acute and chronic pain. Back injuries are a very common type of workplace injury. Back pain affects most every type of worker including nurses, construction workers, retail clerks, firefighters, police officers, anyone who stands for long hours, and anyone who moves any type of heavy object. Motor vehicle accidents can also cause back pain. 

Often, back pain is due to a specific accident such as a fall or lifting too heavy an object. Back pain can also be due to an event that makes an existing back problem worse. A few of the events that can cause back pain include:

  • Moving and shifting patients from a bed to another bed or a wheelchair
  • A slip and fall due to wet floors, a tool or object on the floor, poor lighting, or many other reasons
  • Lifting, pulling, carrying, or pushing heavy objects
  • Repetitive injuries

It should be pointed out that Workers Compensation generally does not pay for repetitive stress injuries and this rule applies to back injuries as well. Unless the injured worker can point to a specific, identifiable event that caused the back pain, or in Virginia, at least a discreet set of work that caused the pain during a very narrowly defined time frame, the back injury will not be deemed compensable. 

Chronic pain is generally pain that lasts for more than a few months. 

Back pain can be due to many different types of conditions including:

  • Sciatica
  • A narrowing of the disc space
  • A herniated disc
  • Bulging discs
  • Facet syndrome
  • Spondylolisthesis
  • Scoliosis
  • Sacroiliac joint dysfunction
  • Spinal cord damage

Back pain is often accompanied by muscle pain, nerve damage, and damaged tendons.

When a back pain injury causes you to stop working, be sure to inform your supervisor and arrange to speak with an experienced workers’ compensation lawyer. 

The most important thing is to think very hard about the precise moment that the back pain started. What were you doing? What were you lifting? Was it heavy? Unless you can narrow the cause of the pain down to a specific, identifiable event at a specific time, you will likely not be able to recover. 

Also, in Virginia, you need to know that normal movements that anyone would do such as bending down, twisting, or kneeling, will not lead to a good, or compensable claim. This is because they do not involve a risk of employment. In other words, the accident could have happened anywhere. The cause must be something that is a specific risk related to work, such as lifting a very heavy object, or person. 

Treatment for back pain

Some back pain improves with non-surgical remedies. Other types of back pain ultimately do require surgery. Workers with pain often work a variety of doctors and healthcare professionals including:

  • Pain management doctors
  • Neurosurgeons
  • Physical therapists
  • Chiropractors
  • Acupuncturists
  • Orthopedic doctors
  • General physicians
  • Gerontologists

Treatment can take weeks, months, or years. Some workers never recover from their back pain.

A few at-home and short-term remedies, according to Spine-Health, include:

  • Resting. Short-term rest can help. If your back doesn’t improve after a few days, you should seek medical attention. Too much rest can aggravate a bad back.
  • Modifying your activity. You should check with your doctor before starting any activity. Your physician may recommend gentle stretches and some walking.
  • Heat and ice therapy. Often heat from an electric heating pad, a hot water bottle, or a warm bath can help improve the flow of blood or relax muscles that are tense. Increasing blood flow helps bring oxygen and nutrients to damaged muscles. Cold packs or ice packs are usually used to reduce inflammation and reduce swelling. When applying heat or ice, it’s best to wrap the device or encase it some way say the heat or ice doesn’t come in direct contact with the skin. Your doctor can explain when its best to use heat and when you should use ice. Generally, heat is used before any exercise regimen or activity. Ice is used after the exercise or activity.
  • Over-the-counter medications. Anti-inflammatory medications can help reduce low back pain which is due to swollen muscles or nerves. Some common anti-inflammatory medications include ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen. Bayer is one type of aspirin. Advil is a brand of ibuprofen. Aleve is a type of naproxen. Another type of medication doctors use for back pain management is Acetaminophen, otherwise known as Tylenol.  
  • Muscle relaxants. These medications don’t directly reduce chronic back pain. They can help relieve muscle pain.
  • Narcotics. Doctors may prescribe narcotics if standard medications aren’t helping. This area of medical treatment has become more complicated because the dangers of such drugs as opioids are often much worse than the short-term benefits. Opioids can be addictive and cause abuse and overdoses.
  • Back braces. For some workers, a back brace, worn on a daily basis, when used with physical exercise can help reduce pain and increase the healing process. 
  • Epidural steroid injections. This is an outpatient type of injection often performed in an ambulatory surgery center. The procedure is done with the use of medical device called a fluoroscope. The fluoroscope guides the needle to the right spot where it delivers medicine and a steroid to the damaged nerves. The injection helps to reduce inflammation near the compressed nerve root. Often patients with back receive several epidural steroid injections spaced out over time. Usually, they are done in a series of three, and then another set is not done for at least another six months. 
  • Physical therapy. Trained therapists can help develop an exercise routine that can help strengthen parts of the body around the back so the back doesn’t need as much support.
  • Psychological and psychiatric care. Some patients with acute or chronic pain suffer from anxiety, irritability, and depression because they worry about how their pain is affect others and whether they will ever get healthy. Treatment sessions with psychologists can help workers cope with a reduced lifestyle and less ability to function.

Surgeries for back pain

Some workers require back pain surgery to relieve their pain. There are different types of surgeries depending on the location and severity of the pain. According to Spine-Health

“A decompression surgery removes whatever is pressing on a nerve root from the spinal column, which might include a herniated portion of a disc or a bone spur. There are two primary types of decompression for low back pain. 

  • Microdiscectomy is a minimally invasive procedure for patients with a lumbar herniated disc causing radicular leg pain (sciatica). 
  • A Laminectomy removes part of the layer of the bone or soft tissue that is compressing a nerve or multiple nerve roots.”

Other possible surgical options for back pain include:

  • Fusion surgery which “removes the soft tissues between two or more adjacent vertebral bones and replaces them with bone or metal. This procedure enables the bones to grow together over time—typically 6 to 12 months—and fuse into one long bone to stabilize and eliminate motion at those spinal segments.”
  • Replacing a disk with an artificial disc.
  • Spinal stimulator implants which allow the patient to use electrical impulses to monitor their pain.

    Compensation for Back Injuries: North Carolina vs. Virginia 

Insofar as back injuries, North Carolina and Virginia basically agree on what constitutes an “injury by accident” only in the area of back injuries. 

Normally, in North Carolina, an injured worker must first show what the Industrial Commission and Courts in North Carolina define as an “accident” that preceded the injury. An “accident” in North Carolina normally must occur through a “slip, trip or fall” in order for an injured worker to recover for any work injury. 

Virginia, on the other hand, is more liberal in this one area and only requires that the injured worker show an identifiable accident that occurred at a reasonably definite time and that a “sudden mechanical change” in the body occurred. There need not be any “slip, trip, or fall.” Virginia focuses more on the notion of whether the injury arose from a “risk of employment.” 

Yet with respect to back injuries, North Carolina has carved out an exception. For back injuries in North Carolina, the law is much like Virginia, and the injured worker need only show a “specific traumatic incident” that led to the back injury. 

Also, as is well known, when it comes to permanent partial impairment ratings, Virginia provides no ratings for the back, or any spinal injury. Yet for reasons that remain a mystery, in North Carolina, the “back” as it is referred to—which is interpreted as including the entire spine—actually has the highest potential impairment rating of any body part, up to 300 weeks. Why? You will have to ask the legislators that came up with those laws. 

 

Attorney Joe Miller has helped thousands of injured workers in Virginia and North Carolina get the compensation they deserve. Compensation includes obtaining the right amount of wage loss compensation and payment for all necessary medical bills. Compensation also means fighting for workers who have long-term health problems and problems that just don’t seem to have a cure. To review your claim now, call attorney Joe Miller at 1-(888) 667-8295 or use my contact form to schedule an appointment.

Impairment Ratings and North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Claims

Posted on Tuesday, May 14th, 2019 at 11:11 am    

Even if an injured worker has returned to work, he or she may qualify for additional weeks of workers’ compensation pay if they lose function of a key body part. The benefits will be adjusted according to the injury impairment rating. The rating is given as a percentage rating by the injured worker’s authorized treating doctor.

There are different classifications of work injury disability in North Carolina. The main four are:

  • Temporary total disability. (TTD) Many workers are able to return to work after treatment with the doctors, therapists, and other health providers, but for now, are either held out of work completely by their doctors, or can prove that they are unable to find work within their physical restrictions;  
  • Total and permanent disability. Some workers are never able to return work at all on a permanent basis due to their injuries and are entitled to ongoing compensation for life.
  • Temporary partial disability. (TPD) In the middle, are the workers who can return to work with restrictions at a lower-paying job. They get 2/3rds of the difference between the lower-paying and pre-injury job
  • Extended compensation. A new category passed in 2011, once an injured worker reaches 425 weeks of compensation, if he or she can prove that the employee has sustained a total loss of wage-earning capacity, the employee may receive compensation beyond the 500-week limit; however, this Award can be challenged if the worker if the defendants can prove the worker is no longer disabled.

North Carolina generally pays these workers 2/3rds of their average weekly wage during the time they aren’t working. When workers return to their job with restrictions, they are paid a portion of their average weekly wages which is apportioned based on how much money they are earning at the lower- paying job.

There is one more type of condition that can result in additional wage loss payments (generally 2/3rds of the average weekly wage), even if the injured worker has returned to work. This condition is called a permanent partial impairment. Also called PPI or PPD payments.

The North Carolina Industrial Commission defines this category as follows: “Permanent disability is not a purely medical condition. A patient is ‘permanently disabled’ if ‘under a permanent disability’ when his actual or presumed ability to engage in gainful activity is reduced or absent because of ‘impairment’ and no fundamental or marked change in the future can be expected.”

Essentially, a doctor reviews the various parts of the worker’s body to see if there are any parts (such as the motion of an ankle) that the worker can’t use. The doctor then determines what percentage of that bodily function has been damaged and assigns a percentage (called an impairment rating) to the damage part of the body.

For example, if worker’s foot motion is limited due to the workplace injury, the doctor will assign the following percentages:

Limitation of motion of ankle

  • Motion between 90 degrees and 120 degrees = 10%
  • Motion between 100 degrees and 115 degrees = 25%
  • Motion between 105 degrees and 110 degrees = 50%

The impairment rating evaluation by the doctor is not made until the employee has reached what is called – Maximum Medical Improvement (MMI). Workers do have the right to treat with all physicians and therapists to try to get healthy enough to return to work. There comes a time, though, when additional medical treatment won’t improve the worker’s condition. While the worker may still be entitled to medical benefits if the treatments prevent his/her condition from worsening, the worker’s right to additional wage loss benefits is re-evaluated. The re-evaluation requires a physical examination by a physician who typically refers the injured worker for an extensive workup with a physical therapist facility.

As mentioned, the physician reviews which body part or medically related part is not functioning. The physician than assigns a rating. Generally, today, physicians no longer perform the impairment rating. Rather, specialized physical therapists perform detailed testing on the injured body parts during an extensive test called a Functional Capacity Exam, or FCE.  These physical therapists do the impairment rating use guidelines established by the American Medical Association.  After the testing is performed, the results will be sent to the doctor and the doctor will decide if he or she is willing to sign off on the testing results. Most of the time, they do.

That being said, FCE’s and the AMA guidelines are just that – guidelines. The doctor can assign the impairment rating on his/her own – based on “the examining doctor’s independent opinion based on his own knowledge, experience and clinical examination.”

Usually, the employer’s insurance company will choose the FCE facility that does the initial impairment rating/FCE Testing. The employee, in North Carolina, does have the right to get a second opinion on the rating at an doctor of his or her choosing– paid for by the employer, not the employee.

The amount of pay due a worker with an impairment is based on the following three factors:

  • The number of weeks the state has preset as a maximum for that specific type of injury. These numbers are set forth in Section 97-31 of the North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act.
  • That number is multiplied by the impairment rating percentage
  • The resulting number is then multiplied by the workers average weekly wage figure (adjusted by 2/3rds)

In the reduced range of motion of the ankle example:

  • Workers who lose the entire use of their ankle/foot are entitled to work loss benefits for up to 144 weeks.
  • If a worker’s impairment rating is 25%, then the number of weeks is cut to 25% of 144 weeks = 36 weeks.
  • The worker then receives 2/3rds of his/her average weekly wage for 36 weeks. So– if the average weekly wage were $1000.00, then 2/3rds of that figure would be $666.67. That is the compensation rate of $666.67 x 36 weeks, which gives us a payment to the injured worker of $24,000.00 for his or her permanent partial impairment to that body part.

Note that these payments ARE NOT in addition to the maximum of 500 weeks of benefits and one cannot receive these payments for. Unless the worker has been determined to be totally disabled per the rules or entitled to extended compensation, 500 weeks is the limit.

The permanent partial impairment benefit therefore really only becomes important where the injured worker has returned to work at the same pay as pre-injury. Then, with the help of an experienced North Carolina workers’ compensation lawyer, the worker may be entitled to a lump sum payment instead of having to wait the 24 weeks to get his/her physical impairment benefit.

Section 97-31 covers the loss of hearing or the loss of vision (one eye or both) in addition to the loss of use or the amputation of any limbs, hands, feet, finger or toes. Additional payments can also be made for disfigurement or scarring. The loss of use of important bodily organs is also covered.

Workers need to be careful. They should review their disability payment rights and overall workers’ compensation rights with an experienced lawyer.   Once the worker accepts a permanent partial disability, they can continue to receive medical benefits – provided the medical benefits are helping the worker. This could further form the basis of a potential settlement with the insurance company—even if the injured worker has returned to work.

Joe Miller Esq., understands when workers should claim the impairment disability benefits. We work to verify the injury and the impairment rating. We recommend settlement when it is in the worker’s best interest. We’ve been fighting for injured workers for over 31 years. For help with all phases of your workers’ compensation claim, call attorney Joe Miller at 1-(888) 667-8295 or complete my contact form to schedule an appointment.

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