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A new study published by the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute addresses a long-standing policy debate about the role of workers’ compensation prices in outcomes of injured workers, specifically what happens to outcomes of injured workers when prices increase or decrease.

The study is the first to combine surveys of injured workers with claims data to examine the relationship between workers’ compensation prices for medical services and the outcomes that workers experience after a work-related injury.

Researchers determined that when the price of physician services increases relative to group health rates, injured workers report fewer problems getting the care they want but no significant improvement in physical function or speedier return to work.

In areas where workers’ comp paid less than group health, WCRI found increasing the price to approximately the group health rate led to a small increase in the duration of temporary disability, but little changes in measures of access to care, recovery of physical functioning and speed of return to work.

In areas where workers’ comp already paid more than group health, price increases led to fewer concerns about access to care, faster time to non-emergency visits with physicians, and more care provided to injured workers, but little change in measures of recovery of physical functioning, speed of return to work and duration of temporary disability.

“While prices are related to measures of access to medical care and the nature of medical care provided, changes in these measures when prices increase are not material enough to result in improved recovery and faster return to work,” the report says.

The Insurance Journal reported that Steve Cattolica, a lobbyist for the California Workers’ Compensation Services Association, which represents medical providers, said he isn’t surprised that research shows no correlation between increased medical prices and better outcomes for injured workers. He said there are numerous variables in any workers’ compensation system: Factors such as the method of utilization review, how well physicians communicate with payers and the administrative hurdles that each system presents to providers can have substantially more impact than prices on worker outcomes.

Cattolica said in the California workers’ compensation system about half the money paid out goes toward running the administrative system; everything from attorneys, to bill reviewers to claims adjusters.

“The elephant in the room is how that care is actually provided,” Cattolica said. “There’s ample proof that the industrial medical complex – you know like, Eisenhower’s industrial-military complex – has overwhelmed the cost of administering and providing benefits.”