Anyone who follows our blog, or the Pennsylvania workers’ compensation system, knows that one of the fastest changing areas these days is that of Impairment Rating Evaluations (IREs).  To keep pace with these changes, and continue our goal of educating the injured worker throughout PA, we have updated the IRE section of our website.  The new page can be accessed here.

For those unfamiliar with the IRE process, this was something the insurance industry lobbied hard for when major changes were made to the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act (Act) in 1996.  As seen with other States in the Country, an IRE process can change the status of an injured worker from “total” disability to “partial” disability.  While this may not (and in PA does not) change the amount of the weekly benefit received by an injured worker, it does start the clock ticking on the number of weeks of partial disability benefits an injured worker can receive (in Pennsylvania, an injured worker can only receive a maximum of 500 weeks of partial disability benefits; there is no limit to the number of weeks of total disability benefits that can be received).

In 2017, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania declared the IRE process, as set forth in the Act, unconstitutional.  This set the powerful insurance lobby into full panic mode (though, frankly, the actual financial impact of the loss of the IRE process on the insurance industry is in dispute).  As a result, the PA legislature capitulated to the lobby and passed Act 111, reinstating the IRE process.  To the surprise of very few, the elected representatives chose to side with the insurance industry over the injured worker.

As we have noted in the past, generally, the Pennsylvania Bureau of Workers’ Compensation does not publicize when Workers’ Compensation Judges (WCJs) move from county to county, or even when they change into a different role in the Bureau.  So, it falls to us to share with injured workers what seems to be happening from our view.  Since none of this has actually been confirmed by the Bureau, all of what we are saying here is purely rumor.

Perhaps the most significant change is the appointment of Judge Joseph DeRita (who had been hearing cases in Easton and Doylestown) to the role of Director of Adjudication for the Bureau.  We offer sincere congratulations to Judge DeRita in his new role.  While we will miss his intelligent and patient view from the bench, his leadership will now benefit the entire Bureau of Workers’ Compensation.

It appears that the Easton workers’ compensation hearing office will now feature Judge Brian Puhala, along with Judge Bruce Doman.  Judge Thomas Kuzma, who had been in Reading, will assume half a case load in Allentown (and the remainder still in Reading).  The Doylestown workers’ compensation hearings will be conducted by Judge Karen Wertheimer (who is the Judge Manager for the Eastern District), and Judge Robert Benischeck, who had been stationed in Bristol.

The last free seminar of the Continuing Education Series presented by Brilliant & Neiman LLC will take place on Thursday, November 29, 2018 at 7:00 p.m., at the headquarters of the firm, 260 West Street Road in Warminster, PA.

This program will talk about the medical issues involved with an injured worker, the types of treatment seen with different conditions, and the insurance and billing issues that can arise. We will also address dealing with chronic pain, in the current environment where prescriptions for opioids have drastically dropped.

While the Community Education Series is free, and we want every injured worker (and those who care about him or her) to attend, reservations are required. To reserve a seat for the program on November 29, 2018, call (215) 638-7500 or e-mail gneiman@bnlegal.com.

We have been following the status of the Impairment Rating Evaluation (IRE) process in PA closely, ever since the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania declared the IRE process unconstitutional in Protz v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Derry Area School District).  This has included interpretations by the Commonwealth Court of PA in the  Whitfield and Timcho cases.

As we long suspected, though, the real response would come from the Pennsylvania legislature.  In their ever-present desire to bend to the wishes and desires of the insurance industry, the legislature passed Act 111 (formerly known as House Bill 1840).  This was signed into law by Governor Thomas Wolf on October 24, 2018.  This immediately reinstates the IRE aspect of the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act.

Since we have previously discussed what the IRE process involves, we will not again detail that information.  If you would like to see more of that discussion, we would suggest reviewing the prior blog entries regarding the Protz, Whitfield and Timcho cases.

Did you know that an injured worker in Pennsylvania can choose his or her own doctor?  There is a common misunderstanding in the general public that the workers’ compensation insurance carrier can dictate the medical treatment of an injured worker.  While a workers’ comp insurance company MAY be able to have some limitation on the choice of a doctor for an injured worker, that control is narrow.

If an employer posts a valid list of healthcare providers for an injured worker to select (called a “panel posting”), the workers’ compensation insurance carrier may only have to pay for treatment with one of the listed providers (for the first 90 days).  This would only be true if the list is a valid one (there are rules of what providers can or cannot be on a list), the list is posted in a prominent location, and the injured worker signs an acknowledgement that he or she has seen the list, both before and after the injury.  Employers frequently do not meet all of these requirements, allowing an injured worker to treat with a doctor of his or her own choosing (and having the workers’ comp insurance carrier responsible for payment).

As the PA Bureau of Workers’ Compensation notes on its website, “The PA Workers’ Compensation Act gives employers the right to establish a list of designated health care providers.”  Many Employers simply do not take advantage of this “right,” giving them no control over the medical treatment for an injured worker.  Again, even if an Employer has a properly posted “panel,” this control over medical treatment only lasts for the first 90 days of treatment.

For better or worse, there has not been much happening in the Pennsylvania appellate court system, so we have not be able to post any case law updates.  However, we would like to remind everyone that the next seminar in Brilliant & Neiman LLC’s Continuing Education Series is scheduled for Wednesday, October 24, 2018 at 7:00 p.m. at the firm’s Warminster office (260 West Street Road, Warminster, PA 18974).

Following up on the successful September topic (“Settling a PA Workers’ Compensation Case – What the Injured Worker Has to Know”), October’s subject will be the PA workers’ compensation process.  Come learn about how a case progresses through the system.  What happens after a work injury, including the time frames and details.  What rights and obligations an injured worker has under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act.  And, how what you don’t know may actually hurt you.

As with all of our Continuing Education Series, the program is absolutely free, and we want every injured worker (and those who care about him or her) to attend.  However, since space is limited, reservations are required.  To reserve a seat for the program on October 24, 2018, or for any of the additional programs, call 215-638-7500 or e-mail gneiman@bnlegal.com.

A couple of months ago, we talked about the Whitfield v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Tenet Health System Hahnemann LLC) decision by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania.  This was the first time the Court addressed the PA Supreme Court decision in Protz v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Derry Area School District), which struck the entire Impairment Rating Evaluation (IRE) process from the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act (Act).

As a brief refresher, the IRE provision of the Act allowed a workers’ compensation insurance carrier to have an injured worker undergo an evaluation, after the injured worker received total disability benefits for two years.  This evaluation, known as an IRE, would change the status of benefits to “partial” from “total” if the injured worker was less than 50% whole-body impaired by the work injury (note that 99.9% of injured workers are less than 50% whole-body impaired; that is a ridiculously high standard).  While this would not impact the amount of benefits an injured worker received, it would start the clock ticking on the 500 week maximum entitlement.

The decision in Protz struck the entire IRE provision from the Act, finding it unconstitutional.  This left attorneys who represent injured workers in PA needing answers to how this would impact the many injured workers already now receiving “partial” disability benefits due to an IRE.

Brilliant & Neiman LLC is proud to announce a Continuing Education Series, with topics of interest to the injured worker in Pennsylvania.  The initial seminar in the series will take place on Tuesday, September 25, 2018 at 7:00 p.m., at the headquarters of the firm, 260 West Street Road in Warminster, PA.

The program on September 25, 2018 will be entitled “Settling a PA Workers’ Compensation Case – What the Injured Worker Has to Know.”  We selected this topic to start the series, since we are often asked questions regarding the settlement of workers’ comp cases in Pennsylvania.  Specifically, we will be discussing the timing of a settlement, the factors that go into determining the value of a PA workers’ compensation case (and the factors that, for reasons we will explain, do not), and the process (from the start of the settlement negotiations to the final approval of the Compromise & Release Agreement).

Additional programs will be held in October and November (for those marking their calendars, the dates will be October 24, 2018 and November 29, 2018).  The program in October will examine and explain the PA workers’ compensation litigation process, from the origin of a claim, and the starting of benefits, through litigation when an insurance carrier seeks to reduce or end the benefits.  We felt this topic would be helpful to address the stress an injured worker faces about the direction and future of his or her case.  Finally, the November program will talk about the medical issues involved with an injured worker, specifically, as dealing with chronic pain.  Depending on the level of interest, there could be additional programs added to this series.

When an injured worker in PA settles a personal injury case against a third party (typically from a work-related car accident, a products liability case or similar), the workers’ compensation insurance carrier has its hand out to get repaid for the wage loss and medical benefits provided to the injured worker.  For past wage loss and medical benefits, that remains the law.  For future medical benefits, however, things have changed dramatically.

Recently, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania issued a decision in Whitmoyer v. Workers Compensation Appeal Board (Mountain Country Meats).  The Court found that while a workers’ compensation insurance carrier is entitled to a credit against future workers’ compensation wage loss benefits (when a third party settlement is more than the insurance carrier has already paid), the insurance company is NOT entitled to a credit against future medical benefits.  This represents a large change in practice.

When a third party case is settled in the presence of a workers’ comp case in PA, there is a specific form one uses to calculate both the lien (how much the workers’ compensation insurance carrier is getting back for money they have already paid) and the “balance of recovery” (dealing with how the money above the lien amount is treated for future payments).  The balance of recovery is used to calculate the “reimbursement rate” for future payments.  Instead of having to pay the entire amount due for future obligations, the workers’ comp insurer would only have to pay that amount times the reimbursement rate, typically less than half.  This form is called a “Third Party Settlement Agreement” (TPSA).

Facial disfigurement is the only aspect of the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act under which a Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) has the discretion to award anywhere from zero to 275 weeks of workers’ compensation benefits.  Since such injuries can range from barely noticeable to tremendously disfiguring, these cases vary widely in the amounts awarded.  Note that the scarring can be traumatic, or from a work-related surgery.  After a WCJ views a scar, and renders a decision, either side can appeal the decision to the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB).

What the WCAB can do with this decision was recently addressed by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in Keister Miller Investments LLC v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Hoch).  Here, the injured worker (Claimant) was involved in a work-related motor vehicle accident wherein he suffered a broken nose and a laceration to the right side of his head.

A Claim Petition was filed, seeking compensation for the facial scarring.  After viewing the scar, and describing it for the record, the WCJ granted the Claim petition, finding, as required, that the “work-related injury resulted in a serious and permanent disfigurement of Claimant’s face, which is of such a character as to produce an unsightly appearance and not usually incident to the employment.”  In so doing, the WCJ awarded 40 weeks of benefits.