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Closing Medical Benefits — The New Normal In Alabama Workers’ Compensation?

I recently attended a workers’ compensation seminar in Birmingham. Several speakers discussed the issues involved in closing medical benefits. Here is the backdrop — Injured workers in Alabama are entitled to medical treatment under our workers’ compensation laws. Can an injured worker agree to give up this right to medical care as part of a settlement? Yes, he can. The better question is — Why would an injured worker agree to give up such an important and guaranteed right? Closing medical benefits can raise many complicated issues for injured workers who receive (or may receive) important government benefits like Medicare.

The seminar was very informative. My problem is with the presumption expressed by the speakers that closing medical benefits was now the new normal. It should not be.

Do I ever recommend to clients that they close medical benefits? Yes, sometimes. Does the claim have issues that make success at trial unlikely? That’s when I might counsel a client to consider closing medical benefits in order to settle. If you have a good claim, the court must provide medical benefits. And, in that situation, you should be extremely hesitant to give up that right.

Have you considered Medicare’s interests? Do you have other, clear and valid, options for future medical care? If you do and the work comp carrier wants to pay more money to you, then closure might be an option.

The new normal is this — too many lawyers take workers’ compensation cases with no intention or desire to fight for their clients at trial. Instead, these lawyers look for the quick settlement. That’s NOT in the best interest of injured workers. That’s NOT in the best interest of our communities who must now assume these obligations. Who benefits? The insurance companies benefit at the expense of taxpayers. Because this has become the new normal, we now see employers and insurance carriers who expect any settlement to be conditioned upon the worker simply giving up medical rights. That’s wrong.

Last month, I had a worker’s compensation case set for trial in Huntsville against a big box retailer. In the weeks prior to trial, the retailer made a low offer conditioned upon closing medical benefits. The defense lawyer said his client no longer settles any cases unless the worker gives up all medical rights. So, we decided not to respond to the offer. We simply prepared for trial. The morning of trial, we were ready. And, our client kept her right to medical care while also getting the compensation she deserved under Alabama law.

My strongest criticism is for plaintiffs’ lawyers. Too many lawyers advertise for workers’ compensation cases yet are unwilling to do the difficult work of fighting for clients. Those lawyers have created the presumption medical rights will be given away. Those lawyers have harmed clients who genuinely need workers’ compensation benefits.