Tag Archives: california department of industrial relations

Stop Overpaying for Pharmaceuticals

Legislators in all jurisdictions have attempted to rein in the cost of pharmaceuticals in workers’ compensation in an effort to reduce insured employers’ workers’ compensation premiums.

California, in particular, passed legislation between 2002 and 2007 to reduce pharmaceutical costs, yet expected reductions have not been forthcoming. Attention needs to focus on whether claims administrators have taken full advantage of this legislation and whether they could be doing more to help reduce the cost of pharmaceuticals.

A recent Workers Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) study titled “Are Physician Dispensing Reforms Sustainable?” found that the average price paid in California for 5mg and 10mg Cyclobenzaprine, a muscle relaxant, ranged from $0.35 to $0.70 per tablet (from the first quarter of 2010 through the first quarter of 2013). An independent study of Medi-Cal pharmaceutical prices used for California Workers’ Compensation found, however, that since 2009, 10mg Cyclobenzaprine has been priced at $0.10 per tablet and as low as $0.05, while 5mg Cyclobenzaprine has been priced at $0.16 per tablet and has also been as low as $0.05. The comparison suggests that claims administrators have overpaid.

The 2006 California Commission on Health and Safety and Workers’ Compensation (CHSWC) study titled “Impact of Physician-Dispensing of Repackaged Drugs on California Workers’ Compensation, Employers Cost, and Workers’ Access to Quality Care” also showed significant cost differences. For example, an insured employer’s estimated total cost for each tablet dispensed at the correct Medi-Cal price of $0.10 was $0.29 per tablet. For each tablet dispensed at a price of $0.35, estimated total costs increased by between $0.70 and $0.99. When dispensed at $0.70 per tablet, estimated total costs increased by between $1.69 and $1.98 per tablet. This significant increase is directly caused by claims administrators paying far more than the published Medi-Cal price.

What can claims administrators do to ensure they do not overpay for medications?

First: Monitor medications dispensed. Second: Ensure that no more than the legislated maximum price is paid.

The California Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) website provides a medication pricing inquiry screen requiring entry of a National Drug Code (NDC) and other details taking approximately 10 seconds to obtain the price of a medication on the date it was dispensed. In addition, current pharmaceutical pricing data is available that can be loaded into a claims administrator’s computer system or program, such as a spreadsheet. To complement the DIR’s offerings, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website also provides NDC inquiry and download facilities, plus a downloadable file of suppliers of medications showing their labeler code(s) along with their company name. The labeler code is the first of three parts associated with the NDC identifying the supplier of the medication. For claims administrators wanting to know more about medications, the FDA offers the “Orange Book” for download, listing all FDA-approved medications along with therapeutic equivalence evaluations. With all this free information, California workers’ compensation claims administrators have no excuse for overpaying.

For jurisdictions that utilize the average wholesale price (AWP) to set their maximum price for a medication, claims administrators will need to license pricing information from sources such as Medi-Span (Wolters Kluwer Health) or Red Book (Truven Health Analytics). Both offer extensive pharmaceutical information for download into a claims administrator’s computer system or, alternatively, use of the vendor’s inquiry facilities.

The passing of legislation in California that set the same prices for medications regardless of dispenser (i.e. pharmacy, mail order/PBM or physician) has provided opportunities for medications to be dispensed by a physician without paying a higher price and for more accurate and timely details relating to medications being available to claims administrators.

The invoice a physician submits (either paper or electronic), includes services rendered at the person’s medical appointment with a report outlining their current medical conditions and other pertinent information, including the date of their next medical appointment. Receiving billing details on the same invoice for medications dispensed, which would include the NDCs, quantities dispensed and prices charged, provides the claims administrator with an excellent opportunity to review the appropriateness of the medication against the diagnosis and treatment plan as well as the prices charged, all in one step. In addition, there is the opportunity to review any physician treatments that differ from the norm (i.e. guidelines), which may be necessary so as not to interfere with any non-work-related treatments under the control of the person’s own physicians.

In cases of pain management and where step-therapy is used, the claims administrator can ensure that physician-dispensed medication quantities are limited to the next medical appointment and assist in determining when the person may be able to either return to work or stay at work during their recovery. In many cases, acute pain is treated with acetaminophen (aka paracetamol) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), allowing a person to either stay at work or return to work earlier. At times, however, narcotic analgesics may be required to control pain that blocks pain receptors to the brain, slowing the person’s cognitive function and reaction times, possibly restricting their ability to either stay at work or return to work early.

Claims administrators also have the opportunity to monitor a physician’s pharmacy formulary to ensure they are dispensing medications from suppliers with the lowest or the average lowest price for a medication. Claims administrators should never have to pay the “no substitution” price for a physician-dispensed medication. For some medications, the Medi-Cal “no substitution” price can be much higher than the regular price.

Considering that claims administrators currently perform some form of medical bill review, to include pharmacy price and utilization verification would add minimal additional effort to the overall medical bill payment process, regardless of whether the physician’s invoice is received on paper or electronically.

Claims administrators with computer systems that monitor medications through the NDC have the opportunity through physician dispensing to invoke timely automated processes based on the NDCs shown on the physician’s invoice. For example, if claims administrators use an adaptation of the biopsychosocial and shared-decision making frameworks (i.e. collaboration) to address a stay at work (SAW) or early return to work (ERTW), a more empathetic approach to claims handling is required. This SAW/ERTW approach can be enhanced through invoking processes based on the physician’s submitted NDCs, which may include: a pre-defined questionnaire associated with distress and risk, focusing on somatic and emotional symptoms: a pre-existing anti-depressant medications questionnaire that establishes whether the person is already taking anti-depressants’ as well as a cultural sensitivity questionnaire relating to a person’s religious or spiritual beliefs and their cultural and language preferences. The results from these questionnaires can directly influence the medical treatment pre-authorized by the claims administrator as well as assist in determining when the person is likely to return to “normality.” All this information directly influences the cost of the claim, which in turn determines the future premiums paid by the insured employer. For claims administrators who do not have capabilities such as these in their computer systems, there are systems available.

Having physician-dispensed medications billed in a timely way on the same invoice as other medical services improves both transparency and accountability. This recent WCRI study has highlighted that insured employers in California may have paid higher premiums for policy periods from 2011 through 2014, caused by claims administrators overpaying for the 5mg and 10mg Cyclobenzaprine medications, which was only brought to the attention of the workers’ compensation community in 2015.

Considering that expected savings from the enacted California legislation relating to pharmaceuticals have not been forthcoming, it is only a matter of time before insured employers conduct their own studies investigating how much has been overpaid for dispensed medications and how much this overpayment may have increased their premiums since 2007. Depending on the findings from this type of study, a possible outcome could result in California workers’ compensation insurers being forced to restate their claims costs associated with pharmaceuticals and all pharmaceutical overpayments by their claims administrators to be treated as an expense outside of their workers’ compensation insurance portfolio.

SB 863 Update: Is the California Workers’ Compensation System Better Than it Was One Year Ago?

The passage of SB 863 in California came with a promise of higher benefits for injured workers and lower costs for employers.  Just over one year later, where does this promise stand?There has been improvement, but there is still a long way to go.

I recently attended and spoke at the California Workers’ Compensation & Risk Conference in Dana Point, California, where, as expected, the major focus was SB 863.  Just over one year ago, employers and labor came together at the end of the legislative term to pass a bill designed to improve benefits for workers and reduce costs for employers.

I moderated the opening session, which was a diverse panel featuring representatives from employers, carriers, injured workers, and medical providers. My first question to the panel set the tone for the rest of the session, and for the rest of the conference. That question was: “From your viewpoint, is the California workers’ compensation system better off now than it was a year ago?”

Before you can gauge the success of SB 863, you must remember where we started.  Permanent disability (PD) benefits to injured workers had been cut significantly under prior reforms, so injured workers were unhappy with the system. Employers were equally unhappy, as workers’ compensation costs in California had been increasing steadily for years.

With a system that both injured workers and employers were very dissatisfied with, something had to be done.

SB 863 provided an immediate increase in permanent disability benefits for accidents occurring after 10/10/2013.  PD is being increased by a total of 30%, phased in over two years. There is also a $120 million fund to compensate certain workers who are unable to return to their pre-injury job because of physical restrictions.

The savings for employers are to come over time.  The largest of the savings under SB 863 are to come from changing the processes for liens and medical disputes. Thus far, these changes are receiving mixed reviews.

On the plus side, liens have fallen significantly since a fee for filing them was implemented Jan. 1. Some of the drop can be attributed to the fact that medical providers filed all the liens they could before the fee took effect. However, there clearly has been a significant drop in new liens filed.

The filing fee is being challenged, though, by a lawsuit that seeks to have it declared unconstitutional, and some of the anticipated savings from SB 863 are likely to be eroded if the courts don’t uphold the fee.

The bill also restructured the medical dispute resolution process, with the introduction of the Independent Medical Review (IMR). The IMR process was modeled after successful programs in states such as Texas. It is designed to have physicians, not judges, deciding disputed medical issues. It is also designed to expedite resolution so appropriate treatment is provided to injured workers in a timely manner. The IMR process clearly remains a work in progress. First, 10 months after implementation, the process is still operating under emergency rules. Until the final rules are in place, those participating in the process will face uncertainty. Second, it appears there is significant gaming of the IMR process. Approximately 16,000 requests were filed in both August and September of this year alone, significantly more than anticipated.  In one month, there were more disputes filed than in an entire year for the same process under group health.  Employers alone bear the costs of the IMR process, so those filing all these requests may be attempting to cripple the system at absolutely no cost to themselves.

The issues facing the IMR and lien processes illustrate what many see as the major impediment to delivering cost savings for employers in California: There are special interest groups that do not want the system to become more efficient and self-executing, because they make a great deal of money off the chaos.

In her speech at the conference, Christine Baker, director of the California Department of Industrial Relations, expressed concern about “significant gaming.” While this gaming is not unique to California, from my national viewpoint its impact on the workers’ compensation system is more profound in California than in other states.

The biggest challenge is that the workers’ comp system in California is flawed by design. No other state has issues with medical liens in workers’ compensation. Bills are reduced to fee schedule with no further disputes seeking additional payment. Treatment that is not authorized is subject to litigation over necessity. If the employer prevails, “no” means “no.”  In California, “no” means “file a lien and litigate further.”

Another issue facing California employers is continuous trauma (CT) claims, which can be filed for a 1% aggravation of a pre-existing condition. The legislature recently fixed this problem for the National Football League by passing a bill specifically limiting CT claims by professional athletes, but CT claims in California continue to be a significant cost driver for other employers, and their frequency has more than doubled over the last 10 years.  It is common in California for injured workers to file both CT and specific injury claims for the same body part.  In no other state are CT claims as prevalent and embedded into the workers’ compensation system as they are in California.

In addition, allocated loss adjustment expenses (ALAE) covering items such as bill review, utilization review, and litigation costs are higher in California than other states, and these costs are increasing at an alarming rate.

The gaming of the system significantly increases the costs for employers and delays the delivery of benefits to injured workers.  The main stakeholders in workers’ compensation, the employers and workers, need to work together so that benefits can be delivered faster and at lower cost.  SB 863 was a step in this direction, but there is more work to be done. The people who worked together to make SB 863 a reality need to continue to work together to preserve the savings elements designed into the bill.  If they can do this, perhaps California can finally achieve some stability in its workers’ compensation marketplace, which would benefit both employers and injured workers.