Workers Comp Insurers Preparing for Disasters

Flood waters courtesy of NOAA

With the U.S. heading into another hurricane season, the Midwest digging out from a series of devastating storms, and record heat and potential wildfires blanketing the West Coast, worker’s compensation insurers are ramping up efforts to ensure that beneficiaries continue to receive care and financial compensation when disaster strikes. Following the lead of Boston-based Liberty Mutual Insurance, which developed a “worker’s compensation weather playbook” to help providers anticipate and deal with service interruptions back in 2017, insurers across the country are making plans to ensure that injured workers continue to get the care they need.

Preparing for Disaster

Continuing service to disabled or injured workers in the face of a disaster requires a multifaceted approach, according to Doug Anderson, vice president and regional manager of workers compensation claims for Liberty Mutual Insurance and Helmsman Management Services LLC, who spoke with Business Insurance about the company’s plan. First, the insurer must identify beneficiaries who are or may be impacted by a natural disaster. Then it needs to mobilize local caseworkers, who check to make sure that injured workers are safe. These same caseworkers are tasked with ensuring that beneficiaries have access to needed medications, can attend scheduled appointments, and are able to receive their workers’ compensation checks.

The task can be daunting in the wake of a disaster, Anderson explained. After nearly 60 tornadoes and massive flooding hit the Midwest this past May, the company reached out to over 400 workers comp beneficiaries, he said.

Storm damage, floods and fires can also impact the care delivery system, both upstream and downstream. Claims adjusters themselves may be impacted by a disaster and unable to do their work. Courthouses and field offices may be underwater or destroyed, and care providers may be unable to access the facilities where injured workers receive care. And if an injured worker is displaced, they may be unable to receive mail, so direct deposit of benefit checks will need to be arranged.

State Boards Get Involved

In addition to insurers, some state Workers Compensation Boards have also taken steps to avert service disruptions as a disaster unfolds. As Texas prepared for back-to-back hurricanes Harvey and Irma in 2017, state workers compensation insurance commissioner Ryan Brennan issued an emergency declaration that allowed the system to continue functioning in spite of the storms. In addition to preemptively waiving penalties for insurers who failed to comply with electronic filing deadlines, he lifted restrictions prohibiting claimants from receiving medical care in out-of-network facilities, and authorized payments for up to 90 days of prescription medications for pharmacies. Florida, which was also devastated by Hurricane Irma, soon followed suit.

Proactively waiving penalties to insurers was a particularly  important step, explained Mark Lechowicz, chief compliance officer third-party claim administrator Gallagher Bassett Services Inc., since state regulators rarely take natural disasters into account when issuing fines.

Communication Is Key

With the potential for hundreds if not thousands of injured workers to lose access to benefits during a natural disaster, maintaining communication is key to preparing for them, insurance experts say. Case managers should always have multiple ways to reach beneficiaries, including cell phone numbers, email addresses, and apps like WhatsApp and Snapchat. When normal lines of communication are disrupted, these avenues may be the only way to reach displaced beneficiaries, FEMA says.

Additionally, caseworkers should warn beneficiaries to preserve cell phone batteries by minimizing use, keep car chargers handy, and download FEMA’s mobile app.  Available for Android and iOS devices, the app provides real-time weather alerts, safety tips, and the locations of shelters and disaster recovery centers in the affected area.

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