December 31, 2020
by Sarah Cohen

Reflecting on 2020 and Looking Ahead to 2021

The past year brought many changes within the world of Washington workers’ compensation. Some changes were planned, such as the Department’s updated forms and templates and new rules for exempt employee salaries, while other changes were born out of necessity following the global outbreak of COVID-19. As we say goodbye to 2020 and look ahead to the coming year, we expect ongoing adjustments to the COVID-19 related rules which have been implemented and anticipate new trends influenced by the pandemic, which are likely to reverberate through Washington workers’ compensation for many years to come.

Effects of COVID-19

A multitude of issues associated with coronavirus will persist into 2021 and it will continue to impact how claims are processed and managed. Over the coming year, employers should prepare for an influx of workers’ compensation claims related to COVID-19 exposure as employees return to the workplace in greater numbers as the vaccine rollout gets underway. With increased claims, the Department and the state government are likely to continue to expand programs related to paid leave and sick time. We also anticipate an ongoing push to expand the use of presumptions, already in progress before the pandemic, to continue as well.

There is also a rising concern of comorbidities associated with COVID-19 and the impact on workers’ compensation claims. For workers with an accepted coronavirus claim, having a comorbid condition such as obesity, diabetes, or hypertension, may extend the life of a claim and impact medical costs resulting from hospital stays, need for extended rehabilitation or other factors dictated by the severity of illness. This will make identifying pre-existing, symptomatic conditions and investigating the scope of accepted injuries as important as ever.

For workers who have recovered from non-work related COVID-19, there are also many concerns related to the long term effects of the virus, which may impact and extend the recovery process for accepted injuries and/or conditions. Currently known as “long haulers,” many individuals recovering from COVID-19 report experiencing symptoms including joint pain, headaches, fatigue and body aches. The occurrence of symptoms is often inconsistent and vague, with reports of improvement followed by relapses with no known trigger.

We expect issues with ongoing symptoms from COVID-19 and “long haulers” to impact claims much like common comorbid conditions have. Much like claims involving comorbid obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, symptoms from coronavirus can be expected to result in delayed reports of improvement, difficulty returning to work on a full time basis and requests for treatment on a temporary basis, as a condition delaying recovery.  Additionally, there is an increased risk of providers relating complaints such as joint pain and headaches to a work injury, rather than COVID-19 recovery.

Telemedicine & Remote Training

Over the past year, COVID-19 contributed to the accelerated use of telemedicine and remote services, a trend we expect to continue and increase as we enter 2021. Allowing workers to utilize telemedicine has helped to avoid delays in medical care, address ongoing eligibility for treatment and/or time loss benefits. As we move into the new year, the acceptance of telemedicine is likely to expand, despite previous hesitations. Providers are already beginning to explore offering more services, such as physical therapy via video appointments, and increased use for mental health treatment. The Department has also continued to approve and actively encourage the use of telemedicine for IME’s where possible as well. The effect of improved technology has also made it easier for employers to obtain electronic copies of records and to schedule conferences with treating providers.

Prior to the pandemic, claimant’s attorneys and workers often objected to the use of remote training as part of the vocational process, and instead, demanded programs with in-person classes. However, the closure of in-person classes at many retraining programs and community colleges has highlighted the need for remote/online vocational retraining, as well as the many benefits it can offer. In 2021, we anticipate the expansion of retraining programs offering online classes and anticipate such options will remain a key offering even after the pandemic subsides.

If you have any questions regarding the anticipated Washington workers’ compensation trends for the coming year, please do not hesitate to contact me at (503) 595-6111 or scohen@sbhlegal.

SBH wishes everyone a happy and healthy 2021!