A year after a go-ahead from the Washington Legislature, a program pioneered in Spokane has expanded to 16 counties east of the Cascade Mountains, sustaining jobs here, and improving care to thousands of Eastern Washington workers injured on the job.
Not incidentally, the Centers for Occupational Health Education, or COHEs, are also saving the Department of Labor and Industries millions of dollars, which helped hold 2012 premium increases for the workers’ compensation program to zero. Together with reforms like structured settlements for workers no longer able to work, the perpetually maligned workers’ comp program has come a ways in the last couple of years.
Senate Bill 5801, signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire exactly one year ago, was expected to save state employers $218 million over the next four years by connecting injured workers with doctors qualified to treat their injuries using best practices, determined by meeting with health care provider groups and reviewing medical literature.
By Jan. 1, 2016, every worker in Washington will have access to a COHE. L&I is taking comments on rules that will be used to set up a network of care providers, and is already taking applications from doctors, dentists and other health care providers who want to join.
COHEs germinated a decade ago at Inland Northwest Health Services of Spokane and Valley Medical Center in Renton. Using state grant money, INHS and VHS began building networks of doctors who received small incentive payments for identifying workers’ comp cases, notifying employers and L&I of new claims, and treating patients with approved therapies.
Early, appropriate treatment and communication among patient, provider and L&I quickly showed it could save the state money, employers the loss of valued employees, and return employees to work more quickly and in better health. The program also flagged serious injuries that might lead to pension claims, which represent a substantial share of the total for all workers’ comp claims.
The statistics are gratifying:
• Injured workers treated by a provider following COHE best practices had 20 percent fewer days off than other injured workers.
• Claim costs averaged $510 less per worker.
• Eastern Washington communities saved $15 million annually.
The COHE managed out of INHS handles 14,500 claims annually, more than the other three combined.
People have noticed. Dan Hansen, program manager for the Eastern Washington COHE, said New Zealand has adopted a similar model. Alberta and British Columbia may.
And Hansen said INHS is starting to apply the same model to the management of diabetes cases.
Last year, as he voted to get the COHE bill out of committee, Sen. John Conway said he was grateful the program would finally be introduced into his Pierce County district.
“The COHEs have proven themselves to be an outstanding example of how we need to do workers’ comp in this state in terms of bringing together employers with employees with providers, doctors. We get nothing but strong, strong endorsements.”