The COVID-19 pandemic is having an unprecedented effect on conducting business in the United States and globally. Office buildings have been traded for home offices and make-shift desks. Meetings in conference rooms have been replaced with video conferences. Business travel has all but been grounded completely. High-end restaurants are serving curbside to-go meals. And finally, happy hours at the local bar have been swapped for virtual happy hours via webcams.
The claims industry has also had to change overnight. Formal hearings, in-person mediations and in-person conferences have been cancelled or postponed indefinitely. Judges’ decisions will be delayed in many cases. Injured workers who are under quarantine may be unable to visit their medical provider or deposit their check in the bank. Some companies deemed “non-essential” may no longer be able to provide modified work for injured workers. In many ways, the industry was prepared for this obstacle, but there is always room for growth – and situations like this can spur that growth.
1. Telemedicine/Telehealth. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, telehealth refers broadly to electronic and telecommunications technologies and services used to provide care and services at-a-distance. On March 6, Congress passed the Telehealth Services During Certain Emergency Periods Act of 2020 as part of the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act. This legislation makes it easier for medical providers to practice telehealth by temporarily waiving certain Medicare requirements and regulations. It appears that this will introduce more medical providers to this type of treatment, which may expand telehealth options around the country.
While telehealth has been available for some time before the pandemic, it was normally only used for independent medical exams in which there were geography constraints. Today, in many cases, telemedicine is the only option injured workers have for evaluation and treatment. Medical providers are utilizing video chat and other software to provide virtual consults and follow-up visits. Virtual physical therapy is also increasing in availability and utilization. Fortunately, because of these innovations, injured workers are not missing out on the treatment and therapy needed to rehabilitate their injuries.
2. Virtual Mediations. As a mediator, I avoided telephonic mediations as much as possible. On the telephone, rather than in person, it is more difficult to gain rapport and impossible to pick up on non-verbal cues, such as body language and facial expressions. Although sometimes necessary when a party is in a remote location or travel is otherwise not an option, telephonic mediations were never my first choice.
Mediation through video conferencing, however, is becoming more readily available and seems to be a much better option when parties are unable to come together in-person. Video conferencing software is now more robust, affordable, and accessible than ever before. Through video, parties can feel more immersed in the process and mediators can more easily gain rapport with the participants and be able to understand the issues that need to be resolved. While not as effective as in-person mediation, virtual mediation is a worthy alternative to consider in these times.
David Widener joined AEU in 2019 as Director of Claims Advisory Services. David began his longshore career in 2003 with F.A. Richard/American Equity Risk Services, where he was a claims supervisor for eight years. He joined the U.S. Department of Labor as a claims examiner in 2011, and was promoted to District Director six months later, overseeing operations for the Houston District Office. He is a frequent speaker at Loyola Law School’s Annual Longshore Conference, Longshore Claims Association meetings, and Defense Base Act seminars. He has developed and conducted continuing legal education seminars in conjunction with Loyola Law School and the U.S. Department of Labor. David has a B.S. in finance from Louisiana State University and is a credentialed mediator for the state of Texas.