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February 28, 2002

New L&I program will explore getting injured workers back on the job

TUMWATER - The vast majority of workers hurt on the job are successfully treated for their injuries and are back at work within a few days. Most claims don't even involve time-loss.

But for those employees who are off the job for more than three months, the chances of returning to work grow slimmer by the day. Although their absence is costly to employers, the impact of long-term disability to the worker, his or her career, and the worker's livelihood can be even more devastating. While just 5 percent of all workers' compensation claims result in long-term disability, those claims consume 85 percent of all benefits paid annually in Washington's $1 billion system.

Recently, the Department of Labor & Industries has set out to improve the situation with a pilot program designed to quickly identify workers who are hurt and may have risk factors for long-term disability that can be addressed.

In partnership with L&I, Valley Medical Center is signing up and training doctors in South King and North Pierce counties to use health care best practices in treating workplace injuries. Physicians signing up for the program will be expected to provide injured workers with a speedy diagnosis, immediate treatment, follow-up care and an early assessment of barriers to return to work. The doctors, or their assistants, with help from Valley Medical Center, also will be expected to work with their patients' employers to get them back to work.

"This program gives doctors resources they need to help injured workers get back to work," said Diana Drylie, senior project manager. "It will help doctors and employers identify and remove many barriers to returning to work before they become walls a worker can't get over."

The three-and-a-half-year Occupational Health Services Project will be run in cooperation with Valley Medical Center. The center is in the process of recruiting doctors who will be trained in occupational health best practices. Participating physicians will be given financial incentives for submitting claim information quickly, for doing an early assessment of barriers to returning to work and for contacting employers to explain what duties an injured worker is capable of performing.

Valley Medical Center also will serve as an information resource for doctors and health care providers in the pilot community who don't regularly work with L&I claims.

The program will explore and evaluate whether occupational health best practices for injuries, such as lower back sprain, fractures of the arms and legs, and carpal tunnel syndrome, will reduce disability. The goal isn't to send severely injured workers back to work before they are healed. Instead, the program will get the patient's doctor more involved in helping those who can work get back to the job before the risk of disability increases.

The project has the support of organized labor and employer representatives. The contract with Valley Medical Center is for $770,000, which will cover the costs of administering the pilot program until June 2005. The cost of medical care, including the financial incentives, will come out of Labor & Industries' medical aid fund.

Among activities Valley Medical Center will be providing are continuing medical education in occupational health for participating doctors, coaching and mentoring for doctors, assistance coordinating patient care and return to work, if needed, and help in streamlining the workers' compensation process.

Under the program, an injured worker can still select his or her own doctor. If that physician is someone who does not normally handle L&I claims, he or she can use the program as a resource to learn best practices.

Valley Medical Center was one of four health care organizations that applied to administer the pilot program. Though all of the bids were competitive, the center was selected for the strength of its existing occupational health program. The center understood the purpose of the project and demonstrated a willingness to work with all attending doctors in their community. The center's medical director is board-certified in occupational and environmental medicine and has 17 years experience providing care for ill and injured workers.

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