One of the major changes in the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act, which was enacted in the 1996 amendments, is the creation of the Impairment Rating Evaluation (IRE). Under this concept, once an injured worker receives 104 weeks of temporary total disability benefits, the workers’ comp insurance company has the right to send the injured worker for an IRE. If the IRE results in a whole body impairment rating of less than 50% (which covers more than 98% of injured workers; this is an impossibly high standard), the status of workers’ compensation benefits can be changed from total to partial. This change in the status of benefits does not effect the rate of the weekly compensation, but how long such benefits can be received by an inured worker.
In PA, an injured worker can only receive a maximum of 500 weeks of partial disability benefits (there is no limit to the receipt of total disability benefits). Therefore, once the status of benefits is changed from total to partial, the receipt of benefits may be capped at 500 weeks.
If the IRE is requested within 60 days of the expiration of 104 weeks of total disability benefits, the change in status is automatic (the PA workers’ comp insurance carrier only has to file a Notice of Change of Status). On the other hand, if the request is not made within this window, the PA workers’ comp insurance carrier must file, and litigate, a Petition for Modification to have the status changed. In this situation, attorneys representing injured workers in PA have wondered whether the change in status takes effect on the date of the IRE or the date a Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) decides the Modification Petition.
The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania recently answered this question in Ford Motor/Visteon Systems v. Workers Compensation Appeal Board (Gerlach). Unfortunately, the Court stated that the change in status is effective on the date the condition changed (the date of the IRE), rather than the later date the WCJ decides the Modification Petition. Given that litigation of a Modification Petition often lasts over a year, the injured worker is then left with far less than 500 weeks of benefits when the dust settles.