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Workers' Compensation

CWCI Finds a Steep Drop in California Workers’ Comp IMR Volume in the First Half of 2020

Oakland –With the pandemic taking a toll on the California economy, statewide unemployment spiking to a record level, and the volume of workers’ comp claims and medical services on the decline, the number of independent medical reviews (IMRs) used to resolve California workers’ compensation medical disputes fell sharply in the first half of 2020 according to the latest tally by the California Workers’ Compensation Institute (CWCI).

Under California law every workers’ comp claims administrator must have a Utilization Review (UR) program to assure that the care provided to injured workers is supported by clinical evidence outlined in medical guidelines adopted by the state. Most treatment requests are approved by UR, but in 2012 state lawmakers adopted IMR to give injured workers a chance to get an independent medical opinion on treatment requests that UR physicians deny or modify. IMR took effect for all claims in July 2013 so CWCI began monitoring IMR activity in 2014. In its latest review, the Institute tallied 70,273 IMR decision letters issued in the first half of 2020 in response to applications submitted to the state, compared to 85,318 letters issued in the first six months of 2019 (-17.6%). Once again, about 40% of the letters included decisions on multiple services, but with the decline in letter volume, the total number of primary service decisions fell by 19.3% from 148,069 in the first half of 2019 to 119,514 in the first half of 2020.  

While IMR volume was down, a review of IMR outcomes in the first half of this year noted little change. After reviewing the medical records and other information provided to support a disputed treatment request, IMR doctors upheld the UR physician’s modification or denial of the service in 88.8 percent of the IMRs in the first half of this year compared to the 88.2 percent uphold rate from 2019. As has been the case since IMR was first adopted, prescription drug requests accounted for the largest share of the January through June IMR decisions (39.8 percent), though that percentage is down from nearly half of all IMR disputes prior to the state’s adoption of the opioid and chronic pain treatment guidelines at the end of 2017 and the Medical Treatment Utilization Schedule Prescription Drug Formulary in January 2018. Even with the guidelines and the formulary, opioids still accounted for 29.2 percent of the 2020 prescription drug IMRs – down only slightly from 30.9 percent in 2019. Requests for physical therapy; injections; durable medical equipment, prosthetics, orthotics and supplies (DMEPOS); diagnostic imaging; and surgery together comprised 40 percent of the IMRs from the first half of 2020, while all other medical service categories combined accounted for 20.2 percent of the disputed requests. The 2020 uphold rates for the various service categories ranged from 80.1 percent for psych services to 91.3 percent for DMEPOS.

As in the past, a small number of physicians continued to account for most of the disputed medical services that went through IMR this year. The top 10 percent of physicians identified in the IMR decision letters issued in the 12 months ending in June 2020 accounted for 83 percent of the disputed service requests during that period, while the top 1 percent (97 providers) accounted for 40 percent of the disputed service requests.

Additional data and analyses on the IMR data through June 2020 has been published in a CWCI Bulletin, which CWCI members and subscribers will find under the Communications tab at www.cwci.org.