For Return to Work, Tennessee Offers Ample REWARD

27 Jun, 2022 Bob Wilson


With record low unemployment, the “great resignation,” and staffing shortages almost everywhere, the timing of the Tennessee Bureau of Workers’ Compensation’s rollout of a new Return to Work program could not be better. Called “Return Employees to Work and Reduce Disabilities (REWARD), it is a comprehensive effort that involves training and support for employers looking to reduce their expenses and keep their businesses staffed. More importantly, it can reduce the dirge of “disability dependence” we see when people are not returned to a functional contributory role in society.

The REWARD program makes Tennessee one of the few states, perhaps on par with only Washington, to truly focus on an effective return to work effort.

According to the BWC:

Returning Employees to Work And Reducing Disabilities (REWARD) is a program developed by the Tennessee Bureau of Workers’ Compensation to help interested employers develop an effective return-to-work program or improve an existing program. The REWARD program was developed by a task force of interested employers, medical professionals, insurance companies, and Bureau of Workers’ Compensation staff.

There are five components that make up the REWARD program:

  • A Toolkit that includes information and resources for starting a REWARD (return-to-work) program 
  • Certified Physician Program with increased billable hours 
  • Training for Return-to-Work Coordinators 
  • Resources and networking opportunities for employers 
  • Yearly Honor Roll that recognizes employers who have outstanding return to work programs

The program features monthly virtual training sessions, as well as in-person lunch and learn meetings to exchange ideas and hear respected speakers talk about return-to-work practices.

While a couple of elements of the program, such as the Yearly Honor Roll, will be implemented later this year, the core components have been up and running for most of this year. Suzy Douglas, Medical Services Coordinator for the BWC, tells us that approximately 150 employer representatives have attended either the RTWC training or REWARD employer meetings. According to Douglas, participants represent case managers, physical therapists, and attorneys. The goal for this “core group” of early adopters is for them to build relationships and hopefully benefit from the information suggested in the toolkit to help them create or enhance their RTW program.

The REWARD Toolkit itself offers ideas “for any size company that will help them to return their injured employees to work sooner.” 

The toolkit includes: 

  • Advice on actions to take before and after an injury occurs to return injured employees to work as quickly as possible 
  • Information on effective transitional work assignments 
  • Sample return-to-work and transitional job offer policies 
  • Information about a Return-to-Work Coordinator’s function and training for this role available through the Bureau 
  • Tips on choosing the right medical panel physicians and effective communication with them 
  • Return-to-work calculator to predict savings from implementing a return-to-work program 
  • Assistance for employees who can’t return to work after an injury 
  • The role of Case Managers 
  • The catastrophically injured employee 
  • Information about the upcoming Certified Physician Program which will train, test, and certify physicians interested in utilizing best practices in the Tennessee workers’ compensation system 
  • Information on Support and Recognition opportunities for employers who enroll in the Bureau’s REWARD program 

One of the most interesting components of the program, which will be launched later this summer, is the Certified Physician Program. This is a critical area, as physicians tend to be a major stumbling block in the arena of return to work. We have far too few Occ Med specialists, and all too often doctors untrained in this area allow the patient opinion alone to dictate what their RTW status will be. And as I recently wrote, physicians’ constant focus on restrictions versus ability do not help the matter.

The Certified Physician Program should have a major impact on those current issues. The Bureau’s program will provide certification (training, testing, ongoing evaluation) of physicians interested in providing medical care in workers’ compensation based on best practices.  

This will include: 

  • The value of return-to-work and instructions to encourage the injured workers’ participation in their recoveries 
  • Training in the TN workers’ compensation system, including: Causation analysis, work restrictions and report writing 
  • Use of the Guidelines and Formulary, ODGbyMCG for treatment guidelines 
  • Coaching injured workers to increase their activity as soon as possible 
  • Assessment of maximum medical improvement (MMI), and 
  • Assignment of permanent impairment ratings and permanent work restrictions.

It is my hope that other states take a good look at what Tennessee is doing, recognizing that an effective Return to Work effort will reduce expense and disability while helping employers to improve employee relations and maintain adequate staffing. That last point is even more critical today than ever before.

We’ve known it for a long time, but it is a lesson many employers and states seem to have forgotten. Return to Work is essential for our society and economy, and now, in Tennessee at least, it seems to have an even more ample REWARD.

You may learn more about the REWARD program here. 

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