Occupational Disease for First Responders

Posted on Wednesday, January 8th, 2020 at 9:52 am    

OCCUPATIONAL DISEASE: PRESUMPTIONS FOR FIREFIGHTERS, POLICE, AND OTHER FIRST RESPONDERS

Normally, injuries and accidents that occur under Virginia Workers Compensation must consist of a specific traumatic event that caused a sudden anatomical change in the body to the injured worker; however, there are a whole class of cases that do not follow that approach and these are cases which involve an occupational disease.  Sometimes these can be hard to prove, but the Virginia legislature has made it easier for police, firefighters, sheriffs, and other first responders and public law enforcement officers to prove occupational disease claims. 

Without getting into all the specifics of proving an occupational disease, which is covered in other articles, suffice it to say that an occupational disease means a disease arising out of, and in the course of employment, but not including an ordinary disease of life to which the public is equally exposed. 

What this definition means is the oftentimes, even though someone may be suffering from a disease that was directly caused by exposure for instance, to hazardous chemicals on their job, if it is the kind of disease not specifically recognized as arising directly out of the employment, and therefore an ordinary disease that the public may also get, such as a form of cancer, then the disease is not going to be recognized as an occupational disease.  It will be considered an ordinary disease of life and the standards of proof for that are much higher than for a regular occupational disease. 

The good news is that the Virginia legislature carved out an exception to this rule for police, firefighters, sheriffs, and other first responders and public law enforcement officers. 

What this law says is that if you are a firefighter, police officer, or other first responder, then for certain diseases, such as respiratory diseases, hypertension or heart diseases, and certain types of cancers, it is to be presumed that the disease in question is in fact an occupational disease suffered in the line of duty.   

Now this presumption can be overcome by the defense if, for instance, they can prove that the disease came about for exposure to something completely unrelated to work, and that the first responder was not in a position to be exposed to anything that might give rise to the disease in question. 

Unfortunately, insofar as firefighters are concerned, the law as it stands contains some barriers and defects that make it hard to prove some occupational diseases. 

The statute lists a number of presumptions for cancers that firefighters and other first responders are entitled to and they are for the cancers of leukemia, pancreatic, prostate, rectal, throat, ovarian, or breast cancer.  The problem is that the law as it stands now also requires that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) recite in their listings that whatever the injured worker was exposed or came into contact with to during their job actually causes, or may cause the type of cancer the injured worker is suffering from.   They also require that the first responder with one of these types of cancer have completed 12 years of continuous service. 

The good news is that according to the case law, the injured worker need only prove one instance of exposure to the toxic chemical during his or her career that may cause cancer as identified by IARC. 

The bad news is that at least one form of cancer on the list specifically has no known cause and that is pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is one of the few cancers where medical science currently simply has no idea as to the cause.  Apparently, the only thing that might contribute to it is cigarette smoke. 

Because of this, many agree that the law as currently written, in this regard, for lack of a better word, is ridiculous. The current law in Virginia actually says that pancreatic cancer is one of the presumptive types of cancer that is considered to be contracted in the line of duty, but at the same time, the law also says you have to prove there was exposure to something that might cause it, and as we just said, nothing is known to do that except possibly cigarette smoke. So basically, the Legislature has drafted a law that—at least with respect to pancreatic cancer—is completely useless. 

Moreover, a State Review Board has also noted that the law is lacking as it currently stands. The Joint Legislative Review Commission (JLARC) Audit Report of the Virginia Workers Compensation Commission that was released on Monday, December 17, 2019 says on page 3, in the headline: “Requirements to establish cancer presumptions are unreasonably burdensome and not supported by science.” 

The JLARC specifically talks about firefighter benefits and how many claims are denied because the firefighter failed to prove proper exposure to the carcinogen that caused his or her type of cancer.  The JLARC then suggests that all an injured firefighter should have to prove is that he or she fought fires and was exposed to smoke. They say that should be sufficient, given the toxic soup of chemicals that any scientist and industrial hygienist knows is released by any house or industrial fire. I certainly could not agree more. 

We rely on our first responders to protect us. They put their lives on the line for us every day. Can we not make it as easy as possible for them to make a claim in the event they suffer because of the years of dedicated service to this cause? 

Hopefully, plans are afoot in Richmond to change these laws so this never happens to any firefighters or other first responders who in the future develop cancer or any of the other diseases given a presumption in the law. 

In the meantime, if you have been advised that you are suffering from an occupational disease, please do not wait to contact a worker’s compensation lawyer to assist you. You only have two years from the date that the diagnosis was first communicated to you by a physician to file a claim form with the Virginia Workers Compensation Commission. 

If you have been exposed to toxic chemicals in your line of work, and your doctor supports that your disease came from that exposure, and you’re a member of a Union, know that your Union should be able to steer you in the direction of an expert such as an industrial hygienist, or other such expert, who can assist in proving your exposure to the relevant chemicals in your claim. You may very well need his or her testimony in order to win. 

Joe Miller has been representing victims of on-the-job injuries and occupational disease for over 30 years. If you or a loved one has been injured on the job or suffered an occupational disease, please do not hesitate to call us toll free at 888-667-8295. or complete our online contact form 

 

Cold Weather Injuries and Workers’ Compensation

Posted on Thursday, January 2nd, 2020 at 3:41 pm    

As North Carolina and Virginia get ready for lower temperatures, it helps to consider some of the causes of cold weather injuries. While many conditions are more severe in northern states; southern climates do experience snow, ice, frost, and winter chills. The effects of cold weather are most prominent among anyone who works outdoors – such as construction workers and agricultural workers. Other workers who are in danger of cold weather injuries include:

  • Workers who build and maintain roads
  • Airport personnel
  • Dock workers
  • Workers who work in food storage, processing, and packing
  • Window cleaners
  • Public safety workers such as police, firefighters, and emergency technicians
  • Postal workers
  • Trash collectors and sanitation workers

The good news for anyone who works in cold weather or is affected by cold weather is that that as long as the accident occurred during work, the employee should be able to file a work injury claim – without the need to prove an employer was at fault for not salting the ice, providing warning signs, or taking other precautions.

Causes of cold weather injuries

Some of the many different types of winter workplace injuries that occur during cold weather are:

  • Slips and falls because snow and ice was not cleared from sidewalks, parking lots, and other outdoor sites
  • Slips and falls because workers and visitors track melting snow water and dirt into the entranceways of the workplace building
  • Vehicle accidents due to cold weather. Ice, especially black ice which isn’t readily visible, can easily cause a driver to lose control of his/her vehicle. Truck drivers who are injured while delivering goods, construction workers who use vehicles at construction sites, and salespeople who are on the road – all can claim workers’ compensation benefits if they are hurt in a car or truck accident while on company time.

Employers should take extra precautions to:

  • Ensure their workers are properly dressed for the cold
  • Ensure that vehicles are inspected so they don’t break down on the roads
  • If necessary, make sure vehicles are equipped with appropriate snow tires
  • Ensure that machines and equipment are in working order if they are to be used outdoors or in cold conditions
  • Make sure they review weather forecasts and plan accordingly

Hypothermia, Trench foot, and Frostbite

Hypothermia is a major risk for workers who work outside or who work inside where there isn’t a proper amount of insulation or heat. Often, it’s the inside workers who are at most risk for hypothermia because outside workers take steps to prepare for working in the cold starting with making sure they are properly dressed. 

Hypothermia is the falling of the body’s temperature below 95 degrees, 3.6 degrees below the body’s normal temperature of 98.6 degrees. Hypothermia, if not treated promptly, can be threaten a worker’s life. The disorder can cause cardiac failure and breathing difficulties. Survivors may suffer gangrene and frostbite – especially in their fingers and toes.

Some of the symptoms of hypothermia include:

  • Shivering
  • A pulse that is weak
  • Speech that is slurred
  • A lack of coordination
  • A poor pulse rate
  • A lack of energy
  • Tiredness and fatigue

Some of the key risk factors for hypothermia in workers include:

  • Being in the cold for long stretches of time
  • Getting wet
  • Inadequate clothing
  • Poor heating systems

Wind is an extreme risk factor for hypothermia because it lowers the effective temperature and can remove the warm air at the skin level. Areas that aren’t properly protected are especially vulnerable to losing heat. Contact with ice and other cold surfaces can also increase the risk of hypothermia.

Other risk factors for hypothermia include drinking alcohol, the use of drugs, some medications, the age of the worker, and how tired the worker is. Workers who are exposed to cold should dress in layers, keep dry, and pay special attention to keeping their head, hands, and face warm. Employers should allow for extra break times in cold weather. Employers should also rotate their work force more often so no worker is in the cold for too long.

Trench foot. This condition occurs when the foot is wet. To stop any heat loss, the foot’s blood vessels constrict, which can cause circulation to be shut down. If not treated correctly and in a timely manner, the constrictions can cause tissue to die. Some of the symptoms of trench foot include blisters, redness of the skin, swelling, and numbness.

Frostbite. The disorder occurs when the skin and the tissues underneath the skin begin to freeze. Usually, frostbite occurs in the toes and the fingers – so that the body can keep the vital organs working. Any worker whose skin turns white or gray, whose skin becomes hard, or who develops blisters or numbness should be treated by medical professionals immediately.

Workers who suffer hypothermia, trench foot, frostbite due to direct exposure to the cold or suffer broken bones and other injuries due to workplace accidents have the right to file a work injury claim. The claim should include:

  • Payment of all medical bills including doctor visits, hospital stays, and medications
  • Compensation, primarily at the 2/3rds rate of their lost wages for the time they can’t work
  • If any part of the body requires amputation, the worker may be entitled to statutory benefits for a permanent disability.

North Carolina and Virginia workers’ compensation Lawyer Joe Miller Esq. has been fighting for injured employees for more than a quarter of a century. He’ll fight the efforts of the insurance company to deny or limit your claim. He’ll contest every attempt to force you back to work before you’re ready. His priority is helping you get all the medical benefits and lost wages the state laws permit. To review your rights and to speak with a strong advocate, call attorney Joe Miller at 888-667-8295. or complete my online contact form

Common Misconceptions of Workers Comp Cases

Posted on Friday, December 13th, 2019 at 1:33 pm    

Workers Comp Lawyer Joe Miller explains three of the most common misconceptions surrounding workers compensation:

Don’t Miss Your Doctors or PT Appointments

Posted on Wednesday, December 11th, 2019 at 1:33 pm    

Workers Compensation Lawyer Joe Miller talks about the negative consequences to your case if you miss your doctor’s appointments or physical therapy appointments when you are under an Award in Virginia or an Accepted Claim in North Carolina.

Mileage Adjustments for Medical Visits

Posted on Saturday, November 2nd, 2019 at 10:20 am    

Injured works and ill workers in North Carolina and Virginia are entitled to have all their reasonable and necessary medical expenses paid. This includes more than just paying hospitals for surgeries and hospital visits, doctors for their reviews and treatments, and therapists for their continual care. It includes more than the cost for medical devices and prescriptions. 

Workers also have the right to have the insurance company for the employer pay for the cost to get to the hospitals and their doctors. This is especially fair because the employer chooses the doctors patients can treat with and the choice is what’s best for the employer, not what’s best or convenient for the employee.

What reimbursement costs are allowed?

In both North Carolina and Virginia, the mileage and transportation costs include the cost to pay for cabs and rideshare services, public transportation, parking lot fees, and tolls. For employees who drive their car to the medical provider’s offices, they are entitled to a mileage allowance.

Reimbursement costs don’t include the cost of gasoline to get to these medical offices and they don’t cover trips to the pharmacy. Pharmacy costs generally aren’t covered because many workers and doctors can use mail pharmacy services.

According to the North Carolina Industrial Commission rules, mileage reimbursement is allowed for trips 20 miles or more (round trip – so 10 miles each way) as follows:

When and how can reimbursement for sick travel be collected?

In North Carolina, this is done through a Form 25T. If employees travel 20 miles or more round trip for medical treatment in workers’ compensation cases, they are entitled to collect for mileage at the rate of 25 cents a mile for travel prior to June 1, 2000; 

  • 31 cents a mile for travel between June 1, 2000 and January 17, 2006; 
  • 44.5 cents a mile for travel between January 18 and December 31, 2006; 
  • 48.5 cents a mile for travel between January 1 and December 31, 2007; 
  • 50.5 cents a mile for travel between January 1 and June 30, 2008; 
  • 58.5 cents a mile for travel between July 1 and December 31, 2008; 
  • 55 cents a mile for travel during 2009; 
  • 50 cents a mile for travel during 2010; 
  • 51 cents a mile for travel between January 1 and June 30, 2011; 
  • 55.5 cents a mile for travel between July 1, 2011 and December 31, 2012; 
  • 56.5 cents a mile for travel between January 1 and December 31, 2013; 
  • 56 cents a mile for travel between January 1 and December 31, 2014; 
  • 57.5 cents a mile for travel between January 1 and December 31, 2015; 
  • 54 cents a mile for travel on or after January 1, 2016.

The IRS sets the reimbursement rates so the amount workers can be reimbursed is the same in Virginia as it is for North Carolina. As of this writing, it is .555 cents per mile.  In Virginia, there is no prescribed form to recover mileage, but it should be done clearly and legibly, with each date of service listed as well as the mileage roundtrip for each date. 

In addition to transportation expenses, in North Carolina: “Employees are entitled to lodging and meal expenses, at the rate established for state employees by the North Carolina Director of Budget, when it is medically necessary that the employee stay overnight at a location away from the employee’s usual place of residence.”

Your North Carolina and Virginia workers’ compensation lawyer will help you obtain and fill out the correct reimbursement forms. It’s critical that you document all your travel expenses. This means getting receipts where you can and keeping a travel and mileage journal.

Medicare vs. Workers’ Compensation – Who Pays

Posted on Wednesday, October 30th, 2019 at 10:19 am    

Many older workers who are injured on the job or suffer an occupational illness are entitled to both Medicare and Worker’s Compensation benefits.

There are two general issues involving Medicare. The first involves the regular medical submissions from doctors and other health providers while the employee is getting treatments so they can return to work – or know if they can’t return to work. These payments are paid until the worker reaches maximum medial improvement – the point at which future medical treatments won’t help the worker’s health improve. 

The second issue involves the settlement of the claim after the worker has reached maximum medical improvement. In a settlement, funds need to be allocated ahead of time, often before the worker is eligible for Medicare, to account for what Medicare will pay and what workers’ compensation will pay. This is discussed in several places on this website and is known as a Medicare Set-Aside (MSA)

Workers’ compensation is managed by the state where you work. Medicare is a federal program. Generally, the bills for work injuries are submitted to the insurance company for your employer. If they refuse to the pay the bill with 120 days, then Medicare should pay the bill – conditionally. This means Medicare pays the bill – but reserves the right to be reimbursed if it is agreed that the workers’ comp carrier should have paid the bill or there is a ruling that they should have paid the bill. 

The medical bill should be something that Medicare covers. Complicating matters is that Medicare normally only pays 80% of hospital and physician services. Supplemental insurance pays the other 20% if the worker has supplemental insurance. The issues get more complex if the worker has reached the age of Medicare eligibility before he/she has reached maximum medical improvement.

A Workers’ Compensation Medicare Set-Aside Agreement is used to pay future bills in a settlement. Typically, before any long-term settlement is reached, the lawyer for the employer will contact a company who specializes in estimating the future medical costs of the injured worker in relation to their work injuries. That company will usually then prepare a detailed Medicare Set-Aside report which sets forth, in great detail, the estimated amounts of the injured worker’s future treatment for his or her work injuries. 

If the injured worker is a current Medicare recipient, the employer’s attorney must then submit that report to Medicare’s CMS Office to get approval for any funds that are set aside to pay Medicare in the future. This is money that is set aside is first used to pay the future medical expenses in relation to the employee’s work injuries.  Once approved by CMS, the settlement can then proceed. 

 Only when the set-aside amount is used up can the worker request that Medicare pay for any other future medical bills. To ensure that Medicare isn’t paying more than it should, if the worker is a current Medicare recipient, he or she must obtain the OK from Medicare for set-aside amount.  Sometimes the set-Aside arrangement will be lump sum, other times it will be an initial seed amount, followed by yearly payments for a set number of years to the worker. In addition, sometimes the Medicare money is “self-administered” by the employee, and other times, it is administered by a Medical Management Company. 

If the injured worker is not a current Medicare recipient, but the settlement is over a certain amount and the worker has applied for Social Security Disability (SSDI), it is recommended that a Medicare Set Aside be done privately by the employee as part of settlement, and that the amounts set aside be recited in the settlement agreement. This is to make sure Medicare’s interests are protected, because a worker who is deemed disabled by the Social Security Administration will automatically qualify for Medicare at 24 months from his or her date of disability. Although such arrangements for non-Medicare recipients do not have to be reviewed in advance by Medicare, they are advisable to avoid any problems down the road. 

The bottom line is that the law wants to prevent “double-dipping.” Medicare does not want to see a worker receiving a settlement which includes money for future medicals for his or her injuries, and then see that same worker turn around and hit up Medicare for those same bills. 

Experienced workers’ compensation lawyers know how to review Medicare-Set Aside plans to help determine what your future medical needs such as continued therapy, medication, or diagnostic procedures a will be. Once a settlement is made, the employee can’t go back and ask for more. That being said, the beauty of a formal Medicare Set-Aside is that once the money is used up, the worker can then turn to Medicare to cover his or her treatment related to the work injuries.

Virginia and North Workers’ Compensation Attorney Joe Miller Esq.  knows his way around the rules pertaining to authorized physicians as well as Medicare.  He’ll help you come up with legitimate strategies to find a solution if the company doctors are more interested in rushing you back to work than in treating your injuries or illnesses. He’s helped thousands of employees get the full workers’ compensation awards and settlements they deserve. For help now, call lawyer Joe Miller at 888-694-1671. or fill out my contact form to make an appointment.

A Few Unique Medical Considerations in a Workers’ Compensation Case

Posted on Wednesday, October 30th, 2019 at 10:08 am    

In Virginia, workers are generally required to treat with a doctor chosen from a list of doctors provided by the employer. This list is known as a “panel” of doctors. Panels must be provided for each individual specialty required.  Oftentimes, there is no time to choose from a panel because the injured worker has been transported by ambulance to the emergency room and/or undergone surgery by a physician such as an orthopedic surgeon, who will typically continue to treat the injured worker.  If the injuries are severe, there is often an extended hospital stay where the injured worker may see several specialists while in the hospital. In those circumstances, panels are not usually required, as the doctors who treat the injured worker in the hospital will typically become the authorized treating physicians by virtue of their visits with the patient and their familiarity with his or her injuries and treatment over time. 

Workers in Virginia should be wary of companies who shuffle workers off to a “company doctor” as the sole means of treating an injury. This is not in accordance with the law. The injured worker in Virginia is entitled to choose from a panel of three doctors which the employer/comp carrier must provide.  Note that all of the doctors on the panel must be from different practices. The employer cannot simply list three doctors within the same practice and ask the injured worker to choose one.   

In North Carolina, there are no panels of physicians offered. The workers’ compensation carrier is pretty much given free reign to choose a physician to treat the worker’s injuries. The thinking is that if the employer is footing the bill, they get to choose the doctor. That being said, the same kind of restrictions apply as in Virginia for Emergency treatment: The surgeons or other providers who treated the injured worker in the hospital will typically become the authorized physicians, and the carrier really does not have the right to randomly switch treating physicians just because they do not like the surgeon who performed the surgery in the hospital. 

The big difference in North Carolina is that there is a provision for a second opinion exam at the expense of the insurance company if the worker is dissatisfied with the treatment of the authorized treating physician. This must be agreed upon or ordered by the Industrial Commission. 

In Virginia, there are unfortunately no such provisions for a second opinion examinations with physicians chosen by the employee; however, workers are free to pay for their own second opinion examinations or treatment with whatever doctor they want to if they so choose, or if they are able to do so under private health insurance. That being said, workers should be cautioned that the VWCC will always give more weight to the opinions of the authorized treating physician than the injured worker’s chosen doctor. 

While the pain doctors, orthopedists, and other doctors that treat workers are of primary concern, a secondary concern is which pharmacy the employee uses and the prompt filling of prescriptions. The treating doctor is the physician who fills out the prescription. The nurse or staff for the doctor normally calls in, emails, or mails the prescription to a local pharmacy. It can be extremely frustrating for some patients when the workers compensation insurance company either delays the approval of certain medications or simply does not respond to the pharmacy’s requests for approval in a timely fashion. 

Sometimes this is based on the fact that the particular medication prescribed by the treating doctor is simply too expensive. 

 

Deciding the right medications for a worker’s condition

“According to the Insurance Journal, North Carolina authorized a study (called a drug formulary) of which drugs should be used to treat specific work injury conditions and illnesses in 2015.

“A drug formulary is, very simply, a preferred list of prescription drugs. This list can include both generic and brand name drugs, and is composed to identify drugs that are: 

(1) appropriate to treat the compensable injuries and

(2) offer good value. 

The drugs included on a formulary are considered to be medically appropriate and also cost-effective when prescribed for certain medical conditions. It is not uncommon for health care payors to maintain lists of pre-identified and pre-approved drugs. Formularies are widely considered an appropriate tool to encourage the safe and affordable use of prescription medicines.”

Supporters of drug formularies claim it saves costs and offers better medical treatments. Opponents argue that the employee may not be getting the correct drug for his/her medical condition. 

North Carolina eventually decided not to use a drug formulary. Instead they developed rules for the use of opioids for pain management.

Virginia does not use formularies, either. The authorized treating physician is free to prescribe whatever medications that he or she deems necessary to effect a cure or give relief to the patient. 

Choosing the pharmacy

Generally, while the employee in a North Carolina workers’ compensation case must use the company’s doctors, the employee can decide which pharmacy to use. The employee can also switch pharmacies if one pharmacy isn’t satisfactory. 

An alternative to visiting the local pharmacy is to use a mail-order pharmacy. For employees who can’t move about easily (workers’ compensation does not normally pay for the cost of travel to the pharmacy, a mail-order pharmacy offers the convenience of not having to leave home and saves the costs. If the carrier will not pay the costs of the medication outright, the injured worker can make a claim in North Carolina for prescription costs with a Form 25P

Often workers who have reached the point of maximum medical improvement – where additional treatments with their doctors won’t improve their condition – still need to use medications for the rest of their lives or for a substantial period of time.

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 888-694-1671. or use my contact form to make an appointment.

More Information on Clincher Agreements

Posted on Thursday, August 1st, 2019 at 3:23 pm    

Why employees consider a clincher agreement?

For many workers, once it becomes clear that they have reached maximum medical improvement (MMI) (that no further treatments will improve their health), it makes sense to start thinking about their long-term position. Some of the reasons workers consider lump-sum payments are:

  • Plain and simple – the worker gets to control the money.
  • The worker can’t rely on the 2/3rds of your wage weekly checks, which only come once per week. It is more advantageous to have a lump sum, so the funds can be invested, or used for a business, so that the family can be taken care of, and for other reasons personal to the worker.
  • If the injured worker dies at any point, his or her checks will stop and so will all future, potential medical treatment. A settlement usually converts a significant future portion of the future checks and medical treatment the employee would receive to a lump sum of cash, which cash can be saved, invested, and passed on to one’s heirs. 

The disadvantages of a clincher agreement

  • If your condition gets worse than you expected, you can’t go back and ask for additional medical benefits. This is why it is critical that you and your attorney work with your doctors to fully understand your medical prognosis.
  • If you are out of work and unable to obtain an alternate job within your restrictions, you may run out of the clincher money. 

The amount you receive will be discounted to reflect the idea that the lump sum can earn interest over the time you normally would have waited to get your payments.

If, as we’ve pointed out before, you are receiving any unemployment compensation pay, you will lose the right to claim those benefits.

How is the amount of the lump sum payment determined?

The answer depends on your type of injuries. The basic types of injury categories in North Carolina are:

  • Permanent and Total Disability. This type of settlement is reserved for workers where it is clear you will never be able to return to work due to:

 

    • Your injuries from a workplace accident
    • An occupational disease
    • Your combination of skills, ages, and injuries means you can never expect to work again even if you are retrained
    • You have one of the categories of injuries that North Carolina considers to be permanently disabling, brain damage, paraplegia, or quadriplegia.

 

If all these criteria are met, you will be entitled to checks of 2/3rds of your average weekly wage for the remainder of your life.  

    •  Extended Compensation Application for extended compensation at 425 weeks.  This is a separate category of injury where your injuries are so severe that you have lost your entire residual capacity to work. This can come from any type of injury, but you must prove that you cannot work and you cannot file for extended compensation until you reach 425 weeks of compensation. If granted, the Industrial Commission may grant you benefits beyond the typical limit of 500 weeks for your weekly checks. That being said, even if granted, the defendants may, from time to time, challenge your ongoing rights to receive benefits beyond the 500 weeks, by forcing you to again prove that you remain disabled.
    •  Temporary Total Disability. For most employees, workers who are placed in this category are entitled to up to 2/3rds of the average weekly wage for up to 500 weeks. This type of settlement commonly entered by workers who have the ability to engage in some kind of work, but are unable to return to their pre-injury job.  Workers must prove that they are unable to find suitable work with these restrictions may seek a clincher agreement.

 

  • Permanent Partial Disability Settlements, or ‘ratings only’ settlements. This category is for employees who can return to work but not the same job or same pay as before the accident or occupational illness. The amount of your weekly benefits is based on an impairment rating and your type of injury.

 

 

  • Partial Incapacity Settlements. Some workers who achieve maximum medical improvement can return to work but at a lower pay. They are generally entitled to the 2/3rds of the difference between the lower current pay and higher pre-accident or pre-occupational disease pay. Most workers, except those with very old claims, are entitled to this sum for up to 500 weeks.

 

  • Death Benefits to Survivors. If a worker dies, the spouse and/or other relatives may be entitled to long-term benefits which can be paid in a lump sum. An experienced work injury lawyer can explain what benefits are allowed including the costs of the funeral and who is entitled to the benefits.

How are future medical bills addressed in a clincher agreement?

 

It is typically not advisable for a worker to settle his or her workers’ compensation claim if the worker has not reached maximum medical improvement. Additional surgeries, treatments, and therapies may improve your condition. They can be quite expensive. You shouldn’t forfeit the right to get as healthy as you can by having the employer and insurance company pay for that treatment. Then again, each and every case is different. 

You may feel, for instance, that your skill set will enable you to obtain an alternate job where you can find health insurance which will likely cover future costs, in which case, it may make sense for you to examine settlement. 

Once workers have achieved their maximum health, some may not need additional medical care – for example, if they broke a bone and the bone has healed. Many workers, however, will need continuing health care to prevent their condition from getting worse. This is especially critical for workers with occupational diseases which often worsen with time. Workers with chronic injuries or other physical injuries may need constant help. If a worker needs a prosthetic, the prosthetic may wear out with time. The cost of medications must be part of the overall clincher settlement agreement.

There is always some risk in settling your case if you need more medical care. An experienced workers comp attorney can help you make an estimate as to what your future medical bills will be.

In any event, once it is determined that a full and final settlement of your case may be advantageous, your attorney will help calculate your future medical costs related to your injury by first estimating our life expectancy. This can be done by relying on certain statutes in North Carolina that actually provide the average life expectancies for both males and females each year across the State. 

Are there other issues to consider in a worker’s compensation clincher agreement?

One complicated problem is how your Medicare benefits and Social Security benefits are figured since many workers may be eligible for both Medicare and workers’ compensation benefits if they have a lifetime disability or were older when they first applied for work injury benefits. This is typically handled through something called a Medicare Set-Aside Arrangement or MSA. Basically, if you are a current Medicare recipient or if you are on Social Security Disability, you cannot settle your workers compensation claim without taking into account Medicare’s interests. 

Also, if you’re going through a divorce, you’ll need to review your marital rights with a family lawyer.

North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Attorney Joe Miller Esq. has been fighting for injured workers in North Carolina and Virginia for more than 30 years. He is highly respected by his legal peers and former clients. He’ll fight to get you every dollar you deserve. He’ll contest any effort by the employer to terminate or reduce your benefits. Call attorney Joe Miller today at 888-694-1671. 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) 694-1671 or use my contact form to schedule an appointment.

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