When it comes to setting reserves for claims, the most common expenses that come to mind are doctor’s visits, physical therapy, the potential for surgery, and indemnity benefits. Most of the time, significant consideration isn’t given to an expense like mileage. Frankly, mileage expenses rarely exceed five figures. However, mileage is unique in that almost every single compensable claim involves an employee needing to drive to seek medical treatment. Stated another way, mileage is arguably one of the few expenses that occurs in every case.
It should come as no surprise that there are very few cases in the Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Court where mileage is the sole dispute (though admittedly, it does occur once or twice a year). Likewise, mileage disputes aren’t usually hotly contested. The dispute is usually whether the underlying treatment is causally related to the alleged accident. However, several recent decisions from the compensation court serve as good reminders that mileage isn’t simply owed because the underlying treatment is compensable.
Before discussing the cases, it’s important to remember the overarching law regarding mileage. Mileage has routinely been considered a “medical expense” reimbursable pursuant to Neb. Rev. Stat. § 48-120. Specifically, when the employer is liable for reasonable medical services, it must also pay the cost of travel incident to and reasonably necessary for obtaining these services. Armstrong v. State, 290 Neb. 205, 218, 859 N.W.2d 541, 552 (2015). Before mileage is due, the burden is on the employee to prove that he or she had a compensable accident and injury, and that the treatment he or she is driving to is causally related to the same. Id. Assuming this burden can be met, most employees will demand mileage by providing the dates of medical treatment and the number of miles driven to and from that treatment. Once the employee provides notice that mileage is due, assuming there is no reasonable basis for the employer to deny the same, the employer must issue payment for the mileage within 30 days. There are very specific mileage rates depending on the date of the treatment. These rates are determined by the compensation court and can be found on its’ website here. With that general framework in mind, we turn to some of the recent compensation court decisions regarding mileage.
Pursuant to Neb. Rev. Stat. § 48-120(2)(a), an employee is not entitled to mileage if he or she selects a physician located in a different community than where the employee lives or works. This provision only applies if a physician is available in the employee’s local community or in a closer community than where the selected provider is located. By way of example, suppose that an employee living and working in Grand Island is injured. Pursuant to the Form 50 rules, the employee selects his doctor in Kearney to treat his injuries. While the law clearly allows the employee to make that selection, that decision also means the employee may not be entitled to mileage since there are many qualified physicians available in the Grand Island and Hastings areas, both which are in a “closer community” than Kearney. See Ripp v. Senior Lifestyle Holding Company, 2022 WL 2708076 (Neb. Work. Comp. Ct. July 2022)(J. Martin); Duarte v. Cargill Meat Solutions Corp., 2019 WL 5294637 (Neb. Work .Comp. Ct. Oct 2019)(J. Block).
While the judges are relatively consistent in applying the above approach, there is some disagreement as to whether this rule applies when the employee selects a surgeon outside of his or her local community. In 2016, Judge Hoffert held that an employee’s right to select his or her surgeon essentially trumps the provision regarding mileage not being compensable if there is a surgeon available in the immediate community. In Wilson v. JBS Holdings, 2016 WL 6142878 (Neb. Work. Comp. Ct. Oct. 2016), Judge Hoffert ordered an employer to pay an employee’s mileage from Grand Island to Omaha as it was reasonable for the employee to select an Omaha based surgeon despite Hastings and Grand Island having several surgeons available. However, how far this rule will stretch is a bit of an unanswered question. While selecting a surgeon within Nebraska seems to be more reasonable, disputes start to become more significant when an employee chooses a surgeon in a different state. See Heisner v. The Nebraska Medical Center, 2022 WL 18216313 (Neb. Work. Comp. Ct., Dec 2022)(J. Coe)(approving the parties proposed resolution regarding compromised mileage when the employee traveled to Chicago for the surgeon of her choosing).
Along the same lines, be mindful of a medical provider that offers treatment in multiple locations. For example, a pain management provider may have offices in Omaha and Lincoln. Absent a showing by the employee that the medical services were unavailable at the location closest to their home, the compensation court may disallow an increased mileage demand if the employee treats at the location farther away from his or her home. Morales v. JBS USA, LLC, 2022 WL 274865 (Neb. Work. Comp. Ct., Jan. 2022)(J. Martin).
Another important consideration when it comes to mileage is whether the employer can confirm that the reason for the mileage is related to the accident and injury. More often than not, an employee can prove the mileage is related by simply producing the corresponding treatment notes. However, it frequently happens that an employee fails to produce any evidence explaining the mileage. Take for example one of Judge Martin’s decisions in 2019. The employee demanded reimbursement of 3,440 miles to see her doctor. However, the treatment notes from the doctor were for entirely different dates of service. In light of the same, Judge Martin declined to award any mileage.
As a final reminder, because mileage is considered a “medical expense,” it’s important to ensure that mileage is paid within 30 days’ notice of the obligation to pay unless there is a reasonable basis to deny the same. If there is no basis to deny the mileage, an employee may request an attorney’s fee for the failure to pay within 30 days. Neb. Rev. Stat. § 48-125. There are many reasons that mileage may not be compensable, including those discussed above. This, of course, is not an exhaustive list of the reasons that mileage may be fairly disputed, but instead is only a small list of reasons that may shield an employer from potential penalties.
If you have questions about a case involving mileage, please contact any of the lawyers at CPW by phone or email. Want to ensure you don’t miss out on the next post in the CPW compendium series? Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter.