Sometimes, our Court of Civil Appeals issues a decision that creates a little “buzz.” This is what happened last week when the Court released the workers’ compensation decision in Alabama Forestry Products v. Harris. Usually, I read the decisions when released (or at least over the weekend after the release). This time I did not. I was busy briefing an expert witness issue. So, the phone call Monday morning from Work Comp Central asking my thoughts on Friday’s decision came as a surprise.
What’s the big deal with this case? It’s a big deal because the decision protects the right to medical treatment under Alabama’s Workers’ Compensation Act. And, it applies to working families.
I’ve written numerous articles about the impact of severe personal injuries on entire families. Entire families are altered as they adapt their lives to care for the hurt member. In many of our past cases, a spouse or parent had to quit their own job to care for a disabled loved one. So, how does this case protect medical benefits and promote families?
If injured on the job in Alabama, our workers’ compensation laws provide you medical care – at least that’s the intention. What kind of medical care is provided? Year after year, insurance companies try to chip away at the medical care requirement. If you read Alabama cases, you see tortured discussions and questions as to whether medical care includes, or does not include, functional aides, therapeutic devices, assistance to disabled workers with daily activities, and so on. While courts have the luxury of debating details, families altered by injuries do not.
Our workers’ compensation laws were intended to protect our workers. Does this include full medical care? Do we define and apply medical care narrowly — Approving only treatment that will actually heal the person? If we did, we would leave many workers needlessly suffering chronic pain. Do we define treatment narrowly to cover healing care but not maintenance or functional care? If we did, we might save lives but that’s all we would do. We would leave many people in pain, unable to function, and with little hope. We would save lives but deny care to lessen chronic pain. We would save lives but deny care to maintain functionality.
Medical treatment is much broader than healing. It involves helping with maintenance and function as well. The Court’s decision endorsing the broader view is a welcome one. As the Court noted in its decision:
treatment and services fall within the scope of § 25-5-77 [medical provision of the Act] if they are designed to prevent the deterioration of an injured employee’s physical or mental condition or to aid the employee in achieving normal function lost due to his or her injury.
Healing. Maintenance. Function. Medical treatment involves all three. This case involved a question of paying a family member to provide necessary attendant care (assistance in the home). Sometimes, this is medically necessary and prescribed by the doctor. If a family member is able to provide the care, this is certainly a less expensive option for the insurance carrier than hiring a licensed nurse or even an outside caregiver. Either way, our courts should be able to consider the medical evidence, decide if the care is necessary, and determine if the family member is an acceptable option. If so, it should be covered by our workers’ compensation laws. In this recent case, the Court of Civil Appeals agreed.
I doubt we’ve heard the last for Friday’s decision. I see the decision as a positive statement for working families. Yet, insurance carriers are “buzzing” about the impact on them. I suspect the insurance company will appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court. We will see. For now, our Courts have it right. Our law recognizes that medical care is more than simply healing a person back to full health. It’s also about allowing the person to really live.
At the Blackwell Law Firm, we represent injured workers across Alabama. We have tried workers’ compensation and jury trials to verdict in counties across the state on behalf of our severely injured clients. If you have questions about a personal injury or work comp issue, let us know. Consultations are always free and confidential.