Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Jan. 22, 2010.
Last week, the UI Benefits Office e-mailed staff that, effective immediately, all workplace injuries sustained by UI employees in the Iowa City area now must be seen at UI HealthWorks in North Liberty. Before that e-mail, UI employees could choose between going to the North Liberty clinic and going to a workers' health clinic at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
The decision, unfortunately, doesn't make any sense. And we can understand why UI employees are so upset about the time and transportation challenges they face to getting treatment for their workplace injuries. Laurence Fuortes, a UI professor of occupational and environmental health who works with the employees' health clinic, said that regardless of the intent of the policy, the effect will be "to create an obstacle to receiving workers' compensation service."
State officials from the Department of Administration Services, where the decision was made, say the rationale for the change was based on finding the most experienced care for the employees. They say the physician at the North Liberty clinic is an occupational medicine physician and the physicians at the UIHC clinic aren't. They also point out that UI employees will be transported by university vehicles, when available, or will be reimbursed for mileage or even a cab. Plus emergencies still can be treated at UIHC, and injuries that need specialty care can be referred to UIHC.
Unfortunately, the folks at the state Department of Administrative Services seem to have not bothered to check with the people providing service at UI. Richard G. Saunders, UI assistant vice president of Human Resources, said the university didn't have a say in the change. And Patrick Hartley, the medical director of the University Employee Health Clinic & Occupational Medicine Clinic at UIHC, said he wasn't told the reason for the switch in policy.
Plus the costs for transportation -- whether borne by the university or by the employee -- make the decision all the more confusing. Given the number of employees who seek out treatment for work-related injuries, it would make much more sense to bring in "an occupational medicine physician" to the UIHC clinic rather than to require about 1,000 patients to go to North Liberty -- even when the 20- to 30-minute commute would make employees lose even more work time. (And contrary to what state officials tell us, the staff at the workers' clinic seem to be well experienced in occupational medicine.)
We're all for state agencies reorganizing to save money. And we're all for the state seeking out the most appropriate care for employees who are hurt on the job. But the Department of Administration Services needs to revisit this decision and allow UI workplace injuries to be treated at the workplace -- especially when the roads are icy, especially when it's unclear whether a workplace injury constitutes an "emergency" and especially when that workplace is the premier hospital in the state.