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Increased efficiency leads to more ADR in workers' comp. system.

Byline: Matthew Chaney

Each year, more and more cases in Virginia are resolved through alternative dispute resolution. But, according to an annual report published Sept. 13 by the Virginia Workers' Compensation Commission, this number is going up particularly quickly in workers' compensation cases.

A new annual report from the commission shows that from 2016 to 2017,there was an 80 percent increase in the number of workers' compensation dispute cases that went through some form of ADR.

Deborah W. Blevins, the deputy commissioner for the VWC's Alternative Dispute Resolution Department, said that the increase is part of a larger plan to increase the efficiency of the state's workers' compensation commission.

"The growth of ADR in workers compensation has been intentional," she said in a recent interview. "In 2012, there was a 10-month delay between filing a claim and the time it took to get a hearing."

Because of that delay, and demand from lawyers for more ADR, Blevins said the VWC's ADR Department began working with programmers and outside consultants to create a more efficient system. One of the major solutions was the creation of an ADR electronic claims management system, which earned the VWC a national award in 2016.

The new system allowed the VWC to better organize case information in a single place and screen cases to determine which form of mediation would resolve the problems most easily.

"Part of what we did was what I think of as triage," Blevins said. "We looked at the system as a whole and identified the many types of claims and bottlenecks and developed many ways to address the problems we saw."

Blevins said that 2017 was the first year that the new system was fully operational for the entire year, hence the large increase in cases that went through some form of ADR over the previous year.

However, apart from the computer system change, the VWC has also adopted a willingness to work to create new forms of ADR that hadn't existed in Virginia's workers' compensation system before, Blevins said. This included adopting the use of telephone and video conferencing for less complex matters to save litigants' time and money that would have been otherwise spent on travel.

Other inefficiencies were remedied by creating a form of dispute resolution dealing with specific issues from a case. Blevins said the plaintiffs don't necessarily have to be represented by an attorney to participate in this form of dispute resolution.

"As opposed to settling out the entire case, these focus on specific issues like granting the authorization for medical treatment or changing who the treating physician is," Blevins said.

One step down from issue mediation is what Blevins called issue facilitation. She said facilitation is an even less formal way of trying to help people resolve issues by serving as a go-between to clear up misunderstandings.

"We have an ADR staff now made up of commission employees," she said. "Some are lawyers, some are not, but they're all specifically trained to get on the phone to problem solve issues."

Ultimately, Blevins said the increases in efficiency are good for everybody.

"It's better for the insurance carrier and the employers paying premiums because it means you don't have to go to court," she said.

In addition, Blevins said alternative dispute resolution is especially helpful in the workers' comp arena because it can help settle disputes early in cases where lifetime awards are not uncommon.

And from an administrative perspective, there has been a 31 percent decrease since 2012 in the amount of time needed to get a claim fully resolved, she said.

"The reason for that is we pulled out and successfully resolved claims that otherwise were being adjudicated or referred to the hearing docket," she said.

Andrew J. Reinhardt, a workers' compensation attorney from Richmond, said he believes the increase in mediation is partly the result of the VWC increasing the number of trained mediators.

"The number of mediators is much larger than is used to be, so it's easier for parties to get a mediation scheduled without having to wait too long," he said.

Reinhardt also alluded to an increase in demand from lawyers as being partly responsible for the increase.

"If we use a workers' compensation judge, that's beneficial for both sides to have a facilitator with that knowledge, and the facilitation can go from there to evaluation," Reinhardt said. "You can avoid delays and costs, and the parties become decision makers rather than having a judge decide the case."

Reinhardt agreed that the increase in mediation, beyond administrative efficiency, benefits all parties.

"You can not only eliminate risk, but come up with creative solutions to close the file, close parts of the file, or do a variety of things that a judge is never tasked to do," Reinhardt said. "The judge is just going to rule on this one matter that's pending in front of him or her, whereas a mediator can assist the parties in resolving whatever it is they want to work on. That just makes tremendous sense."

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Title Annotation:alternative dispute resolution, Virginia Workers' Compensation Commission report
Author:Chaney, Matthew
Publication:Virginia Lawyers Weekly
Date:Sep 27, 2018
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