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October 13, 2014

Good Answer (Maybe) on Opioids in California

Summary:

The new research is right that a formulary could cut lots of workers' comp costs -- but other attempts have failed.

Photo Courtesy of Calvin C

The California Workers’ Compensation Institute (CWCI) has added its voice to the growing national consensus that greater controls are needed over the use of Schedule II medications in workers’ compensation medical treatment and disability management. But the CWCI research must be analyzed in a broader context.

First, we continue to view the abuse of these medications in a “going forward” context – we focus on, how can we stop over-prescribing these medications on claims from the effective date of such reforms? Second, we inevitably take these recommendations out of the context of the state being analyzed — can we say that the Texas closed formulary will work in any state whose system otherwise doesn’t bear any resemblance to the Texas system?

One body of work and thought proclaims the overuse of Schedule II medications to treat industrial injuries is “bad medicine” and should be stopped as soon as possible. Guidelines from Ohio, Texas and Washington, however, recognize the need for prescriptions to relieve acute and chronic pain and provide detailed guidance on moving from acute to chronic pain management. Encompassed within that guidance is recognizing when weaning from these medications, or other early interventions, is appropriate and how to taper dosages to maximize clinical effectiveness and minimize adverse consequences to injured workers.

Many of these concepts are embodied in proposed guidelines from the California Division of Workers’ Compensation (DWC) and the Medical Board of California (MBC). It is encouraging that on Sept. 29 of this year the DWC presented its work to the MBC’s Prescription Task Force at a public hearing and that both agencies are moving forward with compatible guidelines. As seen in other states, notably Washington, inter-agency cooperation is critical so as not to create conflicts between the regulatory agencies that oversee benefit delivery systems and licensing agencies that oversee providers.

To take advantage of the potential cost savings in California’s complex workers’ compensation system identified by CWCI and the Workers Compensation Research Institute (WCRI), however, more needs to be done than adopting a closed formulary. That aspect of the Texas system requires prior authorization before prescribing an “N” drug, which includes Schedule II pain medications. After all, the California system already has: (1) claims administrators’ authority to direct medical care though the medical provider networks (MPNs); (2) the ability to adopt formularies through the MPN; (3) utilization review; (4) a medical treatment utilization schedule (MTUS) that sets forth presumptively correct guidelines for treatment, and; (5) post-Senate Bill 863 (DeLeón), independent medical review (IMR) for resolution of treatment disputes.

We are continuing to have the discussion  regarding Schedule II medications because over the past decade the controls that have been put in place to manage the care and cost of medical treatment more efficaciously and efficiently have not produced the desired results. Some of this can be attributed to the pre-SB 863 environment where the MTUS was regularly subverted through the med-legal process. Claims where high level of opioids and other medications were approved for continuing treatment are still in the system and are now subject to IMR. While the adoption of IMR may be viewed as beneficial from a payment standpoint, it is not automatically beneficial in terms of patient care. As the actions of other states have shown, for those who have become addicted or incapacitated because of their overuse of these medications – at the direction of their treating physician – necessary care means more than saying you shouldn’t have had these, or as much of these, so we’re cutting you off.

Also, more needs to be understood about the universe of claims that will be most immediately affected by a closed formulary – long-term, open claims and claims where compensability has been denied, whether completely or whether there is a dispute over a consequence of an accepted claim. As the DWC moves forward with its new Guideline for the Use of Opioids to Treat Work-Related Injuries, there needs to be more specific treatment of legacy claims or any claim where the liability of the employer is in dispute. The MBC’s Pain Management Guidelines, currently under revision, are applicable to all practitioners regardless of the nature of the injury or illness or the mechanism by which a provider is compensated. The DWC would do well to incorporate that work product into the MTUS as a reminder to all providers that, even if the claim is not accepted, it is not “off the grid,” and the MBC requirements still apply.

Finally, the claims administration community needs to take a long hard look at how we review these cases. There is a universe of claims where Schedule II medications are being approved that would not seem to be supported by best medical evidence. Payers are an integral part of the close monitoring of claims where pain management is indicated and determining when it is appropriate to start tapering use of opioids with a goal of returning the injured worker to employment. As noted by the MBC in its draft revised Pain Management Guidelines, when referring to workers’ compensation:

“The use of opioids in this population can be problematic. Some evidence suggests that early treatment with opioids may actually delay recovery and a return to work. Conflicts of motivation may also exist in patients on workers’ compensation, such as when a person may not want to return to an unsatisfying, difficult or hazardous job. Clinicians are advised to apply the same careful methods of assessment, creation of treatment plans and monitoring used for other pain patients but with added consideration of the psycho-social dynamics inherent in the workers’ compensation system. Injured workers should be afforded the full range of treatment options that are appropriate for the given condition causing the disability and impairment.”

As payers, we have the ultimate leverage to make certain treatment of injured workers meets this standard. But if we simply want to find a quicker, better way to say “no” when a request for authorization is faxed in, then a closed formulary will only be yet another attempt at lowering medical treatment costs that failed to meet expectations.

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About the Author

Mark Webb is owner of Proposition 23 Advisors, a consulting firm specializing in workers’ compensation best practices and governance, risk and compliance (GRC) programs for businesses.

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