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September 16, 2014

Paging Dr. Evil: The War Over Opioids

Summary:

The author describes a dialogue that can help resolve the fight between insurers and healthcare providers that has lasted generations.

Photo Courtesy of Loren Borud

Over the past several years, the epidemic of prescription drug abuse under the guise of “pain management” has generated headlines all across the country. The improper use of Schedule II medications in the workers’ compensation system is a part of this public health crisis. Publications by the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute (WCRI), the California Workers’ Compensation Institute (CWCI) and the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) have underscored not only the costs of such abuse but the tragic consequences to those who, through no fault of their own, have been consigned to a life of addiction and disability. Those tragedies are unnecessary and avoidable.

When it comes to workers’ compensation, the payer community has been at war with the provider community for generations. In some respects, the debate can be reduced to a clash of two business models  — the claims payer wants to reduce workers’ compensation costs while providing mandated medical care, while the care provider must build a business model around a dazzling array of payment (and paperwork) systems to maintain profitability. It is, in part, the economics of healthcare that so confounds payers and so stymies providers who are honest and ethical but who nevertheless still have to keep their offices open and a roof over their heads.

But consigning the issue of opioid abuse to this paradigm is too easy an exercise.

Equally significant, regrettably, are the problems associated with the insular world of workers’ compensation and how regulatory decisions are made within this highly regulated, if not suffocating, environment.

Some states get the process right. Oregon and Washington have transparent and inclusive processes to engage claims payers, worker representatives, providers and regulators on important issues of occupational medicine. The Oregon Medical Advisory Committee has as its charge: “…to advise the director, with a diversity of perspectives, on matters relating to the provision of medical care to injured workers. The ‘director’ is the director of the Department of Consumer and Business Services or the administrator of the Workers’ Compensation Division (WCD).” That’s a lot larger charge than adopting treatment guidelines in a rule-making process.

In Ohio, Gov. Kasich’s Opiate Action Team developed prescribing guidelines in a process that involved all key public and private stakeholders: “The clinical guidelines are intended to supplement — not replace — the prescriber’s clinical judgment. They have been endorsed by numerous organizations, including: Ohio State Medical Association, Ohio Osteopathic Association, Ohio Academy of Family Physicians, Ohio Chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians, Ohio Pharmacists Association, State Medical Board of Ohio, Ohio Board of Nursing, Ohio State Dental Board, Ohio State Board of Pharmacy, Ohio Hospital Association, Ohio Association of Health Plans and the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation.” Like Washington, Ohio maintains a monopolistic state fund to provide workers’ compensation benefits. Ohio’s Bureau of Workers’ Compensation uses the same guidelines as every other provider of medical services.

And, of course, there is the large body of work being done by the Agency Medical Directors Group in Washington. That entity coordinates medical treatment among all state agencies providing medical care, including their state-run workers’ compensation program at the Department of Labor and Industries. Professional licensing boards and medical associations are also an integral part of that process.

Why aren’t these collaborative initiatives the template for further prescription drug reforms in states like Arizona or California? The much-lauded Texas closed formulary wasn’t created in a vacuum, and policymakers in that state recognized that open (“legacy”) claims required special treatment. As reported in TexasMedicine, the publication of the Texas Medical Association, “The regulations require physicians and carriers to formally discuss the pharmacological management of these patients. Ideally, the two parties would agree before Sept. 1 (2013) on how to proceed. That agreement could include a weaning schedule, a plan to continue the patient on the N drug or other alternatives.” California didn’t do that when making the transition from a judicial medical dispute resolution process to independent medical review, and Arizona has on the table a review/dispute process that will be equally jarring for open claims

It would be remarkably naïve to suggest that a more transparent approach to the development and application of treatment guidelines and having processes in place that encourage a peer-to-peer dialogue between requesting and reviewing physicians would result in an immediate drop in prescription drug abuse. But it would also be remarkably cynical to proclaim that the approach won’t have an effect.

The current workers’ compensation monologues over Schedule II drugs needs to be replaced with a dialogue that has as its goal not only the delivery of appropriate care to those who will be injured at work in the future but that also addresses the sad legacy of the abuses of past decades and offers help to those who so desperately need it now.

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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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