Who Does The Company Doctor Serve?
You suffered a work-related accident. You properly reported the accident to your company. You did everything correctly. Now, you expect work comp to provide medical care. After all, that’s how workers’ compensation should work. If you are like most people, all you really want is to heal as quickly as possible.
What happens next? Many companies have an occupational doctor or medical clinic to treat injured employees. Some people call them “gatekeepers.” Some of these “gatekeepers” wrongly and unjustly try to lock the gate to real medical care. In northern Alabama, we have just a couple clinics that handle almost all initial workplace accidents and injuries. These occupational clinics are supposed to treat injuries. Their doctors are supposed to help you. Don’t doctors take an oath to help their patients?
Most doctors take their responsibility seriously. Most doctors care deeply for their patients. I know many doctors who do. Yet, these few gatekeeper occupational clinics are NOT like most doctors. These clinics work for industry for a reason — Cost Savings. Fewer recorded injuries means cost savings. Less medical treatment means cost savings.
Claim and cost savings! Maybe that’s why so many injured workers have contacted me over the years and asked why the occupational doctor seemed much more concerned with giving a post-accident drug test than providing real medical treatment. Some of these occupational clinics follow a pretty simple playbook. Ignore injury complaints if possible. Maybe the person will go away. If an accident cannot be ignored, first comes the drug test. Then comes the search for a non-accident excuse to explain away the worker’s injury or pain. Pre-existing condition? Exaggerated symptoms? Malingering? I’ve heard all of them. We’ve overcome many of these at trial through the years. I do have good news. If you get past the gatekeeper occupational doctor (get referred to a real specialist), then you will most likely get real care.
I was not surprised when I read a recent article about the occupational clinic used by Tesla. The article titled How Tesla and its doctor made sure injured employees didn’t get workers’ comp tells a familiar story. In my practice handling Alabama work comp cases, it sounds all too familiar. Tesla contracted with an occupational clinic to examine its injured workers. According to a former employee of that clinic, the occupational doctor “wanted to make certain that we were doing what Tesla wanted so badly. He got the priorities messed up. It’s supposed to be patients first.” Tesla’s occupational doctor failed his patients. That’s wrong.
The Tesla article continues by describing a “behind the scenes” arrangement to benefit the carmaker and doctor at the expense of injured employees. The article identifies several actual employees who suffered tremendously because the doctor failed to document, diagnose or treat their injuries. Incredibly, Tesla and its occupational doctor even texted to communicate how they would harm specific injured workers.
Some people associate work comp fraud with workers who fake injuries. Yet, the biggest fraud claims do NOT involve injured workers. In fact, the overwhelming bulk of fraud does NOT involve injured workers at all. Year-after-year, the biggest provable fraud claims involve employers or insurers cheating the system. A North Carolina law firm routinely reports the largest annual workers’ compensation fraud cases. None of them involve claims by injured workers. Personally, I believe the biggest fraud in work comp actually comes from the arrangement with frontline occupational clinics. Why do I say this? When a worker reports a serious injury and the biased occupational clinic either ignores the problem or generates a sham reason to deny the claim, that injury does not miraculously heal. No. Instead, you now have an injured worker who is either unable to obtain medical care OR must obtain care at the cost of others. Either way, the injury has a cost. Sometimes, the cost is huge. That cost is now handled by others. When the employer and its carrier wrongly handle real injuries, who bears the cost? Family members and taxpayers typically bear it. The fraud perpetrated by these gatekeeping clinics is rampant. It’s impossible to quantify fully. It impacts families across our community and elsewhere.
The Tesla story does NOT surprise me at all. I frequently advise injured workers across northern Alabama who are dealing with our local occupational clinics. If you are hurt, you can take steps. Be clear with the gatekeeper doctor about your accident and injuries. Be persistent in requesting medical care. Be attentive to appointments so you don’t provide a ready excuse for denial. A denial is so much easier when you miss appointments. A denial is so much easier when you are vague or unclear about your problems and how the accident caused them. Be prepared to seek advice from a local lawyer who understands and regularly handles work comp claims.
At the Blackwell Law Firm, we specialize in serious Alabama personal injury cases. Often, these cases involve workplace accidents and workers’ compensation claims. We are happy to answer your questions. Consultations are always free and confidential.