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RALEIGH, N.C. -- Employers will get an opportunity to work with the North Carolina Industrial Commission to craft new guidelines for contact between employers and physicians treating injured workers.

The new cooperative effort follows the state commission's withdrawal of a controversial proposal that would have greatly restricted communication between employers and treating physicians (BI, June 8).

During three days of public hearings on the proposal in Raleigh, N.C., late last month, employer representatives repeatedly told commission members that proposed Rule 409 could unnecessarily cause delays in processing workers comp claims, increase expenses and encourage fraudulent claims because of the restrictions it would place upon employers.

Under the proposed rule, an employer would have been able to speak directly with the injured worker's physician only if the employee or the employee's attorney had been given "prior reasonable notice and opportunity to participate."

The proposal also would have imposed restrictions on written communication between employers and injured workers.

The proposal was developed as a result of the commission being instructed by the state General Assembly to draft a rule incorporating the North Carolina Court of Appeals' reasoning in its 1996 decision in Salaam vs. N.C. Department of Transportation.

That decision threw out a physician's testimony in a workers comp dispute because the doctor had spoken with the employer's attorney without the express permission of the employee.

The state Industrial Commission had argued at the time that such contact was permitted, but the state appeals court rejected the argument.

After the hearings and public comment period, the commission earlier this month tabled its proposed rule and authorized the creation of a special committee to study the issue.

The panel -- the members of which must be approved by the full commission -- should complete its work and issue a report to the Industrial Commission by Nov. 1.

The commission's move has drawn praise from risk managers and employers.

"We are very pleased that the rule has been withdrawn, and we look forward to working with the commission to come up with a proposal that isn't overly burdensome for employers," said Nancy Bradley, director of governmental affairs for the North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry in Raleigh, N.C.

"From an employer's perspective, I think, obviously, that it's a very good thing that the Industrial Commission has decided not to go forward with the proposed rule as written," said Mitch Byrd, manager of corporate risk for Public Service Co. of North Carolina in Gastonia, N.C., and former president of the Carolinas chapter of the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc.

"My main concern was that I would not be able to communicate immediately with the physicians about the condition of my employees, and whether his injury was caused by something I would need to alert other workers in the workplace to," Mr. Byrd said. "The bottom line is, if there is nothing in dispute, why have a rule that creates an adversarial position from the beginning?" he asked.

"People had many legitimate complaints about the proposed rule, but many of them offered no alternatives at all," said John Toay, chairman-legislative affairs for the Carolinas RIMS chapter and president of Loss Prevention Management in Fort Mill, S.C.

Mr. Byrd said the withdrawal of the rule showed the importance of employer input.

"It does appear that the system for having public hearings does work in North Carolina," he said.