Human Resources News & Insights

Want to ease FMLA headaches? Doctors prescribe 3 remedies

Here’s a great way to clear up FMLA certification and administration headaches. 

Ask the doctor.

Physicians are an invaluable, but often untapped, source of ideas on how employers can eliminate confusion in, as well as streamline, the FMLA process.

Get them talking

The main problem from employers’ viewpoint: Doctors have busy schedules, and can put off the vibe that they don’t have time to listen to employer concerns or answer their questions.

But the reality for many healthcare providers is very different

A lot of physicians are willing to talk, and they want the best outcome for all parties involved — workers, employers and themselves.

As a result, many have provided key insights on the FMLA process that employers can put to good use.

Here’s what employers need to know:

‘It can feel like a battle to us, too’

A pediatric surgeon from Kalamazoo, MI, told Public Insight Network that one of the law’s side effects is that it can make a doctor feel wedged in the middle of a hostile employer/employee relationship.

Naturally, this can create a lot of problems. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The solution? The surgeon said he’s willing to share info with both parties, but it helps if the employer and employee have laid some groundwork for the employee’s leave before the situation reaches his doctor’s office.

Takeaway: An employer should communicate with the employee that it’s willing to grant leave (with proper certification, of course), what the process will look like and what the requirements are for the employee to be able to take leave.

This helps set expectations, reduces employees’ uneasiness and can stave off any unintended hostility.

In addition, the process can run smoother when doctors are given employees’ job descriptions/duties during the certification process. It can help doctors make more accurate determinations about employees’ needs.

‘We appreciate a chat’

At a recent Impairment Without Disability conference, sponsored by the Mayo Clinic, healthcare providers indicated to Jeff Nowak, attorney and author of the FMLA Insights blog, that they appreciate spending some time on the phone with an employer early in the certification process.

They acknowledge this will result in fewer requests for clarification down the road.

The problem here is HIPAA. Before you can speak directly to an employee’s physician, HIPAA privacy conditions must be met.

Those conditions are:

  • The worker must provide written authorization (here’s a sample generic HIPAA release).
  • Only another healthcare provider, HR official, leave administrator or management official (who’s not the person’s direct supervisor) can obtain info from the person’s doctor — even with a HIPAA release.
  • You can’t ask for info beyond what’s on the FMLA certification form.

‘Our determinations are a guideline’

A common gripe physicians shared with both Public Insight Network and Nowak: Some employers treat leave durations as gospel, when they’re more like guidelines.

Here’s what doctors want employers to know: Healthcare providers are only human, and can only be so precise in their predictions. They’re making educated guesses based on individuals’ symptoms. And, in the end, workers will all heal at different paces that even doctors can’t predict.

Their best advice for employers: While you certainly want to follow timelines doctors provide when it comes to FMLA leave, resist the urge to label it “abuse” when employee absences start to wavier from those timelines until you’ve gathered more info.

Track the absence patterns you’re seeing. Then, when at least 30 days have passed since the employee’s last certification, approach his or her doctor with a recertification request and the info you’ve gathered. (Note: Employers may request a recertification in fewer than 30 days in some more extreme circumstances.)

Next, ask the physician if the person’s absences are consistent with their medical condition/treatment.

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