When you’ve been hurt at work, there comes a time when continuing to treat with your doctors doesn’t improve your medical condition. When additional medical treatments won’t improve your medical condition and the healing process is stopped – you’ve reached the point of Maximum Medical Improvement (MMI).
This does not mean that you no longer require medical treatment such as pain management. It just means that according to the opinions of your doctors, you are unlikely to improve your permanent outlook with additional treatment.
Workers have the right to get medical treatment for any injuries they suffer due to a workplace accident. Most workers start with a visit to an emergency room doctor or they see a physician designated by the workers compensation insurance company, or in some cases, their personal physician. Depending on the type of injury and the severity of the injury, injured workers may need surgery. They often need to see a specialist; maybe several specialists to address their work injuries. Injured employees often treat with physical therapists, occupational therapists, and/or rehabilitation therapists. Some workers also need to see a psychologist and/or psychiatrist.
Employees who are injured at work who suffer a compensable claim have every right to try to maximize their health and minimize the consequences of their injury at work. During the time they are working to improve their health, they are entitled to have the insurance company for the employer pay their medical bills and generally, 2/3rds of their average weekly wages for the time their authorized physician holds them out of work or for a maximum of up to 500 weeks. Some injuries completely heal with time – such as many minor fractures. Other injuries never completely heal and may require the insertion of hardware or other drastic methods of repair.
Maximum medical improvement is an important milestone in an injured worker’s case for a number of reasons:
- It enables your doctor to refer you for a Functional Capacity Examination to determine whether you have any permanent, physical restrictions due to your injuries;
- It enables your doctor to refer you for a Functional Capacity Examination to determine whether you have any permanent partial impairment in any specific body parts you may have injured in your accident;
- It is generally a signal to all parties that a potential settlement may be on the horizon;
- It is generally a signal to the defense that they may want to engage you in a program of vocational rehabilitation after the results of your FCE come in.
When workers reach MMI, several evaluations need to take place.
- The first evaluation is whether you have reached the point of MMI. Often employers will argue that you’ve reached MMI in order to force an early settlement or try and force you back to work or to try to cut off your right to your 2/3rds share of your average weekly wages. You have the right to challenge any claim you’ve reached MMI if you still think medical treatment can improve your health. Normally, the doctor who is treating you makes the initial determination of when you’ve reached MMI.
- The treating doctor, in some cases, may be a “company doctor” meaning he/she does have some bias towards getting you back to work per the insurance company’s wishes.
- In North Carolina, if you disagree with a determination that you’ve reached MMI, you have the right (with the help of an experienced North Carolina compensation lawyer) request an independent medical examination (IME). The IME is a medical review done by another physician of your choice. Unfortunately, there are no such provisions in Virginia; however, if you can afford to see a different physician, you can pay for the examination yourself.
- After the MMI determination by your physician, the second step is usually for that physician to order a Function Capacity Examination (FCE) by a licensed physical therapist’s office equipped for such exams. This evaluation is to determine if you can return to work with workplace restrictions. A typical workplace restriction is that you can work but you can’t lift or move any objects that weigh more than 20 pounds.
- After the FCE occurs, some employers may decide to adjust or accommodate your work routine so you can work with these restrictions. This way, you can earn your salary; however, this accommodation does not come without risks. Note that If the employer reduces your pay because of the workplace restrictions, you should be able to continue to receive pay loss benefits – but the benefits are adjusted to reflect 2/3rds of the difference in pay between your pre-injury wages and your new wages.
- If the employer doesn’t have a job for you that you can do based on your work restrictions, then you can continue to receive your 2/3rds per week disability payments. In Virginia, if you are not under an Award for benefits, or if your claim in in North Carolina, if your employer cannot accommodate your restrictions, you must look for a job you can do with those restrictions. If you are under an Award in Virginia, then you are under no obligation to look for other work. The burden shifts to the employer in cases of an Award to find you work and if they choose to do so, this is done via vocational rehabilitation.
- Oftentimes, the FCE also includes a portion of the exam which is designed to decide whether you are eligible for permanent partial disability or permanent partial impairment (PPI) benefits. When you’ve reached MMI, the treating doctor, after reviewing this portion of the FCE report, will normally also assign an injured worker a Permanent Partial Disability (PPD) or Impairment rating (PPI). Here, the physical therapist is performing tests on your injured body part to determine if you there exists a permanent disability in the injured body part. Based on that evaluation, the physical therapist— and later your doctor– will assign a percentage rating to that disability (called an impairment rating).
An example of a permanent partial disability/impairment is the loss of function of a hand. An impairment rating is an assignment of the severity of that loss of hand such as 90%. This means you’ve lost 90% of the function of your hand. If you are entitled to permanent disability benefits, the amount of the benefits (a specific number of weeks such as the maximum of 200 weeks for the hand– what North Carolina law permits) is multiplied by the impairment rating. So, if you would normally be entitled to 200 weeks for a permanent disability and you have a 90% impairment rating, you will be entitled to 90% of 200 – or 180 weeks. Note that this is NOT in addition to any weeks you remain out of work.
- After you have reached MMI and these evaluations occur is typically a good time to determine whether you want to consider a lump sum settlement. If you are unable to return to your former job and so far you are unable to find alternate employment or the insurance company has not been able to find any for you, then you have the potential for a maximum of 500 weeks of payments ahead of you. These potential future weeks, along with the value of the medical side of your claim can then form the basis of a lump-sum settlement demand by your attorney.
If, on the other hand, you have returned to work at a job at or higher than your pre-injury wages, and you have been determined to have a permanent partial disability and an impairment rating, then the number of weeks as determined by that percentage, plus your future potential medical treatment would be the basis of your attorney considering and possibly negotiating a lump-sum settlement (called a clincher agreement in North Carolina). In a lump-sum settlement, you’re a negotiated portion of what potentially is due to you in the future (the 2/3rds’ wages and medical bills) in one payment to you, so you control the money. The risk, of course, is that there is no do-over if your medical bills are more than you anticipated. On the other side, the risk to the insurance company is that you will, in fact, get better, require little further treatment, and find a good job on your own, in which case would not have ended up paying you what they paid out in settlement.
An experienced work injury lawyer will advise you about the pros and cons of a lump-sum settlement in your particular circumstance.
It’s important to understand that you are still entitled to seek medical help – after you reach MMI – and to have the employer pay for that medical care. The key requirement is that the medical care must be needed to help ensure your medical condition doesn’t worsen. Many patients, for example, who have chronic back pain due to their workplace injury need pain management or orthopedic maintenance so their back pain doesn’t get worse.
You should also understand that if you are in an accepted claim or under an Award, the burden to switch from temporary total disability benefits to permanent partial disability benefits, or from temporary total disability benefits to a termination of benefits, is on the employer.
Talk with a seasoned North Carolina and Virginia workers’ compensation lawyer today
North Carolina and Virginia workers’ compensation lawyer Joe Miller Esq. understands that many employers try to push workers to return to work before they’re healthy. He works with your doctors and independent doctors to help assess your medical difficulties and concerns. When you reach maximum medical improvement, he also works to assist your doctors in determining whether you have a permanent partial or full disability as you look to your future. To discuss your worker’s compensation case, call attorney Joe Miller, Esq., at 888-667-8295. or fill out our online contact form to schedule an appointment. You can also fill out our New Electronic Case Review. It’s a new way we’re offering so workers can contact us remotely.