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The WCAB has issued a number of panel level decisions eroding the jurisdiction of the UR and IMR process for technical mistakes that were claimed to have “invalidated” the process and the UR/IMR finding.  These cases  favored handing the issue of appropriate medical treatment over to the WCJ to decide. As a result UR/IMR seemed to be subjected to a slow death by a thousand such cuts. However, the trend of erosion of UR/IMR jurisdiction may have suffered a setback at the hands of a new Court of Appeal published decision.

Dorothy Margaris suffered a work-related injury to her left foot and lumbar spine while employed by the California Highway Patrol. The State Compensation Insurance Fund is the adjusting agent for this claim.

On October 16, 2014, her treating physician submitted a request for authorization of medical treatment to SCIF proposing to treat applicant with a lumbar epidural injection. On October 21, 2014, SCIF denied the request.

Applicant timely requested independent medical review. On November 26, 2014, SCIF sent the necessary medical records to Maximus Federal Services, Inc. On January 8, 2015, Maximus issued its IMR determination, upholding SCIF’s denial of the proposed medical treatment. The IMR determination became the final determination of the director as a matter of law. (§ 4610.6, subd. (g).)

Margaris appealed the IMR determination to the appeals board (§ 5300), which directed the matter to an administrative law judge for a hearing (§ 5310). She argued argued that the IMR determination was invalid because Maximus failed to issue it within the 30-day time period provided by section 4610.6, subdivision (d), and the applicable regulation (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 8, § 9792.10.6, subd. (g)). The judge agreed the IMR determination was issued 13 days late, but nevertheless found the determination was valid and binding on the parties, concluding that an untimely IMR determination “does not confer jurisdiction on the [workers’ compensation judge] to decide any medical treatment issues.”

In response to her petition for reconsideration, a majority of the three-member panel agreed with applicant and went on to find, contrary to the IMR determination, that the proposed treatment was supported by substantial medical evidence and was consistent with the treatment schedule promulgated by the director. One member of the panel dissented, and would have found that the IMR determination, though untimely, was valid and binding on the parties.

The Court of Appeal disagreed with the WCAB and reversed in the published case of California Highway Patrol and SCIF v WCAB (Margaris).

The 30-day time limit in section 4610.6, subdivision (d), is directory and, accordingly, an untimely IMR determination is valid and binding upon the parties as the final determination of the director. The Court of Appeal interpretation of the statute in this manner is consistent with long-standing case law regarding the mandatory-directory dichotomy, and implements the Legislature’s stated policy that decisions regarding the necessity and appropriateness of medical treatment should be made by doctors, not judges.

Generally, time limits applicable to government action are deemed to be directory unless the Legislature clearly expresses a contrary intent. By creating IMR, a system in which “medical professionals ultimately determine the necessity of requested treatment,” the Legislature intended to “further[] the social policy of this state in reference to using evidence-based medicine to provide injured workers with the highest quality of medical care.” Further, the Legislature observed that the prior system of dispute resolution, i.e., the “process of appointing qualified medical evaluators to examine patients and resolve treatment disputes,” was not only costly and time-consuming, but “it prolong[ed] disputes and cause[d] delays in medical treatment for injured workers.” (Stats. 2012, ch. 363, § 1(f).)

“The Legislature intended to remove the authority to make decisions about medical necessity of proposed treatment for injured workers from the appeals board and place it in the hands of independent, unbiased medical professionals. Construing section 4610.6, subdivision (d), as directory best furthers the Legislature’s intent in this regard.”