Frequently Asked Questions – Part Three

Posted on Wednesday, January 9th, 2019 at 4:56 pm    

Here’s our third series in common questions and answers about North Carolina and Virginia worker’s compensation.

What is a Nurse Case Manager? (NCM)

Employers have the right to appoint a nurse case manager to help injured and ill workers with their medical needs. Employers will say that the nurse case manager is just trying to help the worker get healthy. That’s not always the case, in fact it is mostly not the case. While a nurse case manager can help coordinate your appointments and help get workers to their treatment or therapy sessions; nurse case manager’s main goal is to show that you are ready to return to work. They are agents of the insurance company and one of the defense professionals usually hired to do the insurance company’s dirty work.

What is that “dirty work.” The insurance company’s interest is to get you back to work as soon as possible. In Virginia, if you are not yet under an Award, and you get released to light duty— that means ANY light duty—even with a one lbs lifting restriction—then the insurance company does not have to pay you a penny, even if your employer does not accommodate your restrictions.

Employees should review with their worker’s compensation lawyer exactly what the nurse case manager can and cannot do. Nurse case managers do have the right to know about your appointments. They do have the right to go the doctor’s office or therapy office. They do have the right to obtain bills and reports from the health provider’s office. They do have the right to discuss your medical condition (including the diagnosis, necessary treatments, and prognosis) with the health professional. They can help you get transportation to the medical office.

They don’t have the right to be in the examination room with you the entire time, if you do not want them in there.  At least some portion of your examination with your doctor should be private so you’re comfortable explaining exactly why you’re hurting. Your doctor should know you can’t lift objects or that it hurts when you move. You also have the right to be present when the nurse case manager discusses your case with the physician. The nurse case manager and the doctor are supposed to be there to help you – not bow to the insurance company’s desires. They do not have the right to “manage” your medical care by deciding where or with whom you will treat. Those decisions belong to the authorized treating physician.

For the most part, the nurse case manager’s access to your physician will be dependent on how open your physician is to dealing with the nurse case manager. Some are more open to allowing the NCM into the examination room, while others are less open to it. Our interpretation of the law is that their only obligation is to provide the records to the NCM. Beyond that, your physician is under no legal obligation to talk to the NCM. The issue is that many physicians realize that if they completely “shut out” the NCM, it is less likely that the physician is going to get any further referrals from the insurance company. In other words, it’s bad for business. Most patient advocate type physicians will walk a fine line of communicating with the NCM, but maintaining their own independent medical judgement, despite the pleas of the NCM to return you to work before you are ready.

What is an independent medical examination?

Sometimes, the employer or your own lawyer will request an independent medical examination (IME). An IME is a physical and oral examination of your current health condition. It is performed by a physician who is not one of your treating doctors. In North Carolina, you are entitled to an IME with a physician of your choice respect to your permanent impairment rating if you do not like your treating physician’s opinion in that regard, at the defendant’s expense. In North Carolina, you are also entitled to an IME at the defendant’s expense for general issues as well; however, there must either be an agreement by both sides as to who will perform the general IME, or the Industrial Commission will have to order who will perform the IME via a motion filed by the attorney.

In Virginia, you have no right to obtain an IME at the defendant’s expense; however, you are entitled to see any doctor you like at any time at your own expense. In North Carolina, it is not advisable to do this, as the IC will generally ignore unauthorized examinations and opinions.

On the other side, the employer’s insurance company also has the right to request an IME at any time in both Virginia and North Carolina. The defense may request an IME to try to show you are ready to go back to work, or when there is a question as to whether a procedure or surgery recommended by your physician is medically necessary. The doctor is hired by the employer’s insurance company which means he/she is not your friend. The employer physician normally only sees you one time at the IME. He or she will take an oral history and then conduct the physical exam.

You and your lawyer have the right to challenge any report the IME doctor makes that suggests you can return to work or that you can go back to work with some restrictions. Your lawyer will normally seek to have one of your own doctors review the IME doctor’s report – and explain where the report is not accurate.  Your treating doctors can show what the IME doctor misses because he/she only sees you one time and why any conclusions about your ability to work are not true.

Should I seek vocational rehabilitation?

Some workers can’t return to the type of job they did before their accident. For example, construction workers who needed to be able to lift 50-100 pounds or more to do their job may now not be able to lift much more than a few pounds.  Going back to work with restrictions may not be an option – either because there are no suitable restrictions (you just can’t do physical labor any more) or because the employer doesn’t have a job that matches your abilities.

Since you can’t do the job you’ve been trained for, you may be eligible to be retrained to do a new type of job. The new job is often more clerical and administrative if you were a physical laborer. Your North Carolina or Virginia work injury lawyer should then explain that you may be eligible to go back to school or to attend a training program so that you can be qualified to do more work.

That being said, the process of vocational rehabilitation, unless it is a simple payment for school tuition (rarely the case), is generally not what it sounds like. In our experience, it is generally an unpleasant and difficult process designed to strip you of your benefits. It is generally not designed to find you suitable employment but trip you up and find you out of compliance and hence no longer entitled to your workers comp benefits.  

While engaged in vocational rehabilitation, you still have the right to be paid your compensation checks (generally 2/3rds of your average weekly wages) and treat with you doctors. The insurance company is supposed to pay for your tuition or course costs, your books and training materials in connection with any vocational rehabilitation, but in our experience, they will typically take the cheapest road and enroll you in free courses if any re-training is required. If you need help getting to the course programs or school, vocational rehabilitation is supposed to either help or reimburse you for your transportation costs as well.

What does a vocational professional do?

This is someone who is trained to say what type of work a person can and can’t do based on the worker’s education, past job experience, current skills, and current physical and emotional abilities. Employers sometimes employ a vocational professional to say that – while you can’t do your current job – you should be able to find suitable work in the area where you live. These professionals usually review Department of Labor standards and other guidelines to help make their determination.

They will typically start with an initial session which goes through your entire work history to determine your current transferrable skills. They will also review any FCE’s and your doctor’s records to determine your current work restrictions. After that, the vocational rehab professional will often meet with you on a weekly basis to provide job leads for you to apply to. These job leads are supposed to be pre-screened, meaning they job must be within your physical restrictions, within your skills, and also at least some significant portion of your pre-injury wages. In other words, if you were earning $1500.00 per week pre-injury, having you apply for a minimum wage job would not be suitable employment.

Experienced work injury lawyers understand how to question vocational professionals. They also understand that most of the time, their job is not to find you suitable employment, but to trip you up so that you are stripped of your workers compensation benefits. They work to make sure the vocational rehabilitation counselor follows the rules and guidelines which govern what they can and cannot do.  In some cases, they may consult with another vocational professional who has a different opinion about the work you can and cannot do.

Attorney Joe Miller Esq. has been a strong advocate for injured and ill workers for more than 30 years. He’s helped thousands of North Carolina and Virginia employees get just recoveries when they’re hurt on the job or suffer an occupational illness. To speak with a lawyer who fights for injured workers, please call 1-(888) 667-8295 or fill out my contact form.