Program aims to get Vermonters back to work after injury with DHMC’s help

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/6/2019 10:26:03 PM
Modified: 8/7/2019 10:33:16 AM

EAST THETFORD — As a delivery driver for UPS for more than 30 years, Mark McMahon did a lot of heavy lifting.

When a herniated disk in his back threatened to put him out of work in 2010, the East Thetford resident wondered if he’d ever recover. At first, he said, his wife had to help him put his shoes and socks on.

“I don’t think anyone pictures themselves going to work and getting injured,” McMahon said. It’s “not only a physical injury (but a) psychological injury as well.”

He said he considers himself fortunate to have found a team of occupational and environmental medicine providers at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon who could work with him to develop strengthening exercises to get him back on the job, where he lifted between 5,000 and 10,000 pounds of packages per day, climbed hundreds of flights of stairs and repeatedly got in and out of his truck. And the team did so without surgery and within months of the injury.

“I was very lucky,” he said.

Though he retired last December, the 60-year-old McMahon said he hopes to help other injured workers by sharing his perspective with the organizers of a new pilot program called the Vermont Retaining Employment and Talent After Injury/Illness Network (RETAIN) funded by the U.S. Department of Labor and aimed at getting people back to work as quickly as possible after injuries.

“Everybody wants to go to work and do a good job,” said McMahon, who is also a former selectman in Thetford.

Vermont is one of eight states that received federal grants last fall for pilot projects, based on a successful program in Washington state, aimed at addressing this challenge. Vermont received $2.3 million for phase one of what officials hope will be a two-phase project.

Working with OneCare Vermont — the state’s accountable care organization that aims to reward providers for preventing patients from needing high levels of care — the project plans to identify at least 120 workers with musculoskeletal work-related injuries or illnesses who are not receiving federal disability benefits.

To prevent the workers from falling out of the workforce, the project — through a contract with Dartmouth-Hitchcock — will work with the small group of patients by phone to help coordinate a range of services such as vocational counseling, occupational therapy and physical therapy. In the second phase of the project, if the state gets the federal funding for it, resources will be available statewide.

Though small, Vermont has one of the highest rates of work-related disability among working-age adults, with a little more than 6% of Vermonters between the ages of 18 and 64 receiving Social Security Disability Insurance, compared with the national average of less than 5%, according to the state’s application for federal funding to support the project.

The state is also so short on workers that it has begun offering money to attract them to the state. In part because of this shortage, the RETAIN project has the support of Vermont Gov. Phil Scott.

“The governor is very supportive of inclusive work environments, especially as a way to expand and strengthen our workforce, so he’s excited for this project and the potential it holds for Vermonters,” Scott spokeswoman Rebecca Kelley said in an email last week.

Unemployment is a risk factor for a range of health conditions for the affected individuals and their families, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, depression and suicide, infant mortality, and divorce, according to information provided by Dr. Karen Huyck, a D-H occupational and environmental medicine specialist who is serving as chief medical officer for the RETAIN project.

Though Vermonters with work-related injuries and illnesses often seek care in a primary care office — there are just a few occupational and environmental medicine specialists in the state — primary care providers may not have the expertise or the time necessary to get injured workers back on the job quickly. And research shows that the longer workers are out of work, the less likely they are to return.

“The system isn’t structured to address those issues,” Huyck said.

Challenges may include problems with the diagnosis; delays getting patients in to see specialists; complications related to other medical conditions; issues getting to medical appointments such as problems with child care or transportation; and cultural or resource issues at the employer level.

“We’re a small state,” Huyck said.

With just about 800 primary care physicians practicing in Vermont, “We’re in a position where we could actually reach every primary care physician and support them,” Huyck said.

In addition to working with a small group of patients in the first phase of the project, Huyck and her team are also collecting information from employees, employers — including members of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, which is a partner in the project — and other service providers to identify the resources available to help injured workers and any gaps in the system of care there might be that are preventing people from getting back to work as quickly as possible.

“We hope people are viewing this as support for work that’s being done and an opportunity to build things that we might want that don’t exist,” Huyck said.

The RETAIN project will host an event for employees who work in Vermont or live in Vermont and work in New Hampshire to share their experiences with an injury or illness that limits their ability to work on Thursday, noon-1:30 p.m., at DHMC. A similar event for employers is set for Friday at DHMC, noon-1:30 p.m. More information is available by emailing

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at or 603-727-3213.

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