New California workers' compensation law cuts mental health coverage, sparks concern among medical and legal communities

By Stephen M. Pfeiffer, PhD

Earlier this month, lawmakers passed a new

California workers' compensation law

that stands to enact a series of changes to the current system in an effort to cut insurance costs. According to

CBS News

measure SB863 was approved in the California Senate by a 68-4 vote, and in the State Assembly by a similarly lopsided margin. However, while the vote went overwhelmingly in favor of the bill, the vast majority of those involved in the decision did not have an opportunity to even so much as read the measure prior to the floor vote, which was held on the last day of the Legislature’s session. The bill’s passage has thus prompted grave concern among those affected by the legislation -- including injured workers, doctors, attorneys and psychologists – who view the vote as a back-room deal enacted without proper input and review.

CBS News reports that SB863 would alter the manner in which worker’s compensation benefits are calculated, including the elimination of coverage for mental health disorders secondary to physical injuries. Under the new law, the section dealing with the elimination of disability benefits for psychological injuries which are added as secondary disabilities to physical injuries constitutes what many critics of the bill call a terrible step backwards for the system. Additional concerns have been raised over the fact that most of those who voted on the measure did not in fact have the chance to read, no less fully understand the bill. As Democratic Assemblyman Ben Hueso of San Diego told CBS, “I can’t take a vote on something I can’t explain.” Hueso was one of several lawmakers who refused to participate in the vote; but with strong support and swift intervention from California Governor Jerry Brown, SB863 passed -- despite initial voter resistance among members of the State Legislature -- in a period of less than 24 hours.

As an experienced clinical and forensic psychologist and

Qualified Medical Evaluator

, I would argue that the SB863’s provisions regarding mental health coverage discriminate against workers who have sustained serious physical injuries and subsequently develop mental problems (depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc.) as a direct result of those injuries. While there are certainly some worker’s compensation cases in which claims of psychological injury are not valid, there are an abundance of cases in which significant psychological disability does in fact result directly from traumatic physical injury. To operate under a law that functions as if no such disabilities exist would, I believe, be a huge disservice to injured workers. Furthermore, this section of the law turns back the hands of time by re-establishing discrimination against individuals with mental disorders in not recognizing the validity of their injuries. This inequity was corrected several years ago at both the federal and state levels when mental health parity legislation required that private health insurance companies respond to and treat physical and mental disorders equally.

For more information about SB863 and the medical and legal communities’ efforts to challenge portions of the legislation, contact me via email at

stephen@pfeifferphd.com

or go online, to

www.pfeifferphd.com.

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