One of the areas of focus on Out Front Ideas with Kimberly and Mark has been addressing chronic pain without opioids. The workers’ compensation industry’s approach to chronic pain has historically been trying drugs and other medical procedures first. Then, if the pain has not subsided or has worsened, we look for psychological factors. If we truly want to help injured workers in pain and prevent opioid abuse and other unnecessary measures, we need to reverse that protocol. To learn more, we spoke with two of the nation’s most highly respected pain management experts, who gave us great insights into the experience of pain, how it can be best treated and non-pharmaceutical ways to treat pain.
Beth Darnell is a clinical associate professor in the division of pain management at Stanford; a clinical pain psychologist at the Stanford Pain Management Center; an NIH-funded scientist doing research on psychological treatment for chronic pain; one of the co-chairs of the Pain Psychology Task Force at the American Academy of Pain Medicine; one of the co-authors of the 2017 Chronic Pain Guideline updates from the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine; and author of multiple books on the subject: “Less Pain, Fewer Pills” and “The Opioid-Free Pain Relief Kit” — both written for patients. Dr. Darnell also recently co-published a research paper on The JAMA Network titled “Patient-Centered Prescription Opioid Tapering in Community Outpatients with Chronic Pain”
Dr. Steve Stanos is the medical director of pain management services for the Swedish Medical System in Seattle and runs the pain services for five hospitals in the system; the director of Occupational Medicine Services at Swedish; the president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine; and the medical director for myMatrixx. He was also a reviewer for the CDC’s Guidelines for Opioid Management and was involved in the National Pain Strategy.
Myths and Facts
Many of us have preconceived ideas about pain — what it is and how it should be treated. Unfortunately, many of these ideas are misconceptions and have led us to where we are today.
We think of pain as solely a physical experience. But our experts explained that pain is really a negative sensory and emotional experience. Psychology is an integral part of the pain experience, and, if we ignore that, we are not adequately addressing an injured worker’s pain.
Pain is very helpful in alerting us to situations where our bodies are at risk. If you put your hand on a hot stove, for example, the pain signals your brain to remove your hand. However, that does not work well for chronic pain when the continuing pain alert does not help us. Instead, it causes us fear and stress, which can actually exacerbate the pain. Those fears and stress are what we need to address in injured workers with chronic pain.
Another misconception is that people in pain are powerless to do anything about it and are at the mercy of drugs or other medical procedures. That simply is not true. There are teachable skills patients can use to assuage their own pain. These are learned skills.
We need to help injured workers understand and deal with the psychology of their pain experience up front, instead of waiting until the claim deteriorates. Medical providers, payers and others involved in a claim need to be aware of that and work with the injured worker to empower him or her to reduce their fears and stress and, in doing so, reduce their pain.
That leads us to another misconception — that dealing with the psychology of pain requires a specialist for extended sessions. Actually, non-behavioral health individuals can teach valuable skills to help cope with pain.
Again, this should be done early in the claim process for the best outcomes. The best predictor of outcomes in a pain program is early intervention with psychosocial factors. We need to have an early emphasis on behavioral health.
Yet another falsehood is that using drugs and medical procedures first is better for the patient because it does not assume he or she has any psychological issues. Instead, we are missing the elephant in the room, and, when the injured worker is finally sent for psychological intervention, it can be demoralizing. It sends a message to the injured worker that he or she is a failure and that the pain is all in his or her head. It does a terrible disservice to the injured worker.
We asked our experts whether all patients in chronic pain need psychological intervention. The answer was, yes, anyone in chronic pain can benefit from some level of behavioral intervention. That does not mean long-term, expensive, one-on-one treatments with a trained psychologist. Again, there are teachable skills to deal with chronic pain. The focus is on changing behavior.
Non-Pharma Pain Treatments
There are a variety of programs to help people deal with pain, many of which are based on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This short-term treatment is goal-oriented and takes a practical approach to problem solving by changing patterns of thinking and behavior. Doing so helps change the way patients feel.
CBT is considered the gold standard of psychological treatment for chronic pain. It teaches concrete information and skills with action plans to move forward. It helps in creating care pathways that promote organized and efficient patient care based on evidence-based medicine. It helps patients become engaged and active in their own treatment so they rely on themselves more than the medical system.
Patients can learn the skills of behavioral health principles through classes and videos as well as by talking with therapists and others. Again, it is something anyone in pain can and should learn — not just those who are profoundly depressed or have other, more serious psychosocial issues. It is active management of pain.
Some newer treatments include mindfulness training, acceptance and commitment therapy and chronic pain self-management. These are all based somewhat on CBT, although not necessarily on pain management. Acceptance and commitment therapy trains you to stay focused in the moment so you do not react to pain. Negatively reacting to pain can be more distressing than the pain itself.
These programs teach people how to self-soothe. They also help establish meaningful goals and the steps to achieve them so people are not stuck in a passive mindset about their pain.
Functional restoration programs incorporate many of these aspects and can also be great, not only for at-risk patients already struggling with chronic pain, but also for early intervention. These programs have been around for years and typically involve physical and occupational therapy, psychology, relaxation training, exercise and vocational rehabilitation. The cost is fairly inexpensive when you compare them to unnecessary surgeries, so they can be helpful.
There are also certain medical procedures and services that have been overused in the past but can actually have a role as part of an overall pain management plan. Spinal cord stimulators and injections are among them, along with chiropractic care and spinal manipulation. These can help with function for certain patients, such as those with acute pain. But they must be integrated into an overall plan, and they are only appropriate for certain individuals.
Passive treatments, such as acupuncture and massage therapy, might be helpful for some pain patients, at least in the short term. But again, it needs to be used in conjunction with an active therapy program in which the patient is helping to manage his own pain through skills learned from CBT and other techniques.
One treatment on which both experts are hesitant to recommend at this point is medical marijuana, mostly because of its classification as a Schedule I drug under federal law. The science on it is just too sparse; there is no safety regimen around it and no protocols for when to use it, what type to use and how much could help.
“Prehab” is a relatively new term that might hold some promise. Think of rehab before the fact. It focuses on things like wellness, how to relax during the day and stress reduction techniques. The idea is to intervene with patients prior to surgery or other treatments and prevent poor outcomes. Patients who have fear avoidance or catastrophic thinking can be taught skills so they are better able to deal with their pain and stress later on.
Education programs are key in helping pain patients to avoid overuse of medications and services. Because so many do not understand pain or how to control it, they may seek multiple treatments to eliminate the pain.
The 2017 revisions to the ACOEM Chronic Pain Guidelines, released in May 2017, included an extensive section on behavioral health, the role of psychology and recommendations to integrate psychological principles in chronic pain.
The CDC’s guidelines for managing opioids have been invaluable in the attention they have brought to the opioid issue since they were released last year. However there has been some confusion and pushback, especially on the recommendations that deal with the morphine equivalent dose. The CDC recommends providers avoid or carefully justify prescriptions of more than 90 MED. Some payers have incorrectly interpreted that to mean physicians cannot prescribe above the 90 MED.
Another controversial recommendation says providers should only prescribe opioids for the duration of expected pain, typically between three and seven days. But some providers have been mistakenly told they can only prescribe the drugs for a specific number of days.
Both experts say a shift from fee-for-service to outcomes-based care could be a huge benefit because it would allow for a more holistic approach, including the integration of behavioral health. Putting behavioral health efforts on the front end of the claim is one of the biggest changes that they believe would help chronic pain patients. This would be a game changer in the workers’ compensation system and would cost more up front, but the speakers believe it would pay off in dividends.
Precision medicine is an emerging field that the speakers say could provide great promise for treating injured workers with chronic pain. It involves deep phenotyping patients on the front end and at each point of care. It includes an array of psychosocial variables and assessments to determine the specific needs of each patient for targeted interventions. It moves beyond the one-size-fits-all approach.
Technological advancements will allow for more and better treatment, such as apps and videos that reinforce behavioral health techniques. Telemedicine is a way to help keep patients engaged. Telehealth can allow for virtual face-to-face meetings between patients and psychologists. Virtual reality also holds promise as a way to help decrease pain levels during treatments.
Clearly there is much that the industry can do to reap better outcomes for our injured workers and, in turn, their employers. However, we need new ways of thinking; a change in the way we have been doing things. All stakeholders need to truly understand pain and what we can do to address it better and faster.
Across the U.S., the number of reported events exemplifying the opioid and heroin epidemics continues to skyrocket. U.S. Government Publishing Office data shows that the usage of both prescribed stimulants and prescribed opiates increased by a factor of 19 in just two decades since 1994(1). On Dec. 18, 2015, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report showing drug overdose deaths reached record highs in 2014, fueled in large part by the abuse of narcotic painkillers and heroin. In 2014, more than 47,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, an increase of more than 14% from 2013. About 61% of those deaths involved the use of opioids. From 2000 to 2014, the report noted that nearly half a million people have died from overdoses in the U.S. In 2014, there were approximately one and a half times more drug overdose deaths than deaths from motor vehicle crashes!(2)
A very worrisome statistic and trend…
For workers’ compensation insurers, opioid use in treating chronic pain has also exploded over the past two decades. Although there appear to be some signs that opioid use is finally cresting, insurers still have a long way to go in helping to ensure that physicians and the injured workers they treat are fully educated on the pros and cons of using opioids with various types of injuries and pain. As the Risk & Insurance article “Paying for Detox – The Opioid Epidemic Is Addressed by Detoxification Programs” notes, some workers’ compensation insurers have been funding tapering and detoxification programs to help dependent or addicted patients wean themselves off the very medications that were designed to ease their pain(3). Unfortunately, recidivism is common, with experts noting that it can take several attempts to wean someone off narcotics.
This article will highlight some of the challenges in front of us and share some innovative ideas on potential ways to help prevent opioid dependency and addiction before the habits requiring tapering and detoxification programs are ever formed.
The Challenge in Front of Us
In January 2011, USA Today shared a powerful story about David Fridovich, a three-star Green Beret general who has become an advocate for warning soldiers about the epidemic of chronic pain and the use of narcotic pain relievers sweeping through the U.S. military(4). Much like others across the country who have suffered a severe back injury, the general began taking narcotics for chronic pain in 2006. Over time, the general became addicted to narcotics. During one 24-hour period the general took five dozen pain pills. After going through a detoxification program, the general has been helping other soldiers avoid the complications he faced because he was unaware of the addictive nature of the pills he was taking.
In a recent book about the opioid and heroin epidemic in the U.S., Dream Land author Sam Quinones shares his research on the history of how we ended up where we are today. From a workers’ compensation perspective, the author shared a story about a prison guard who had injured his back during a fight with an inmate. The doctor, who took the guard off of work for six months, also prescribed opioids to be taken twice a day for 30 days. After becoming severely addicted, the guard said, “It really humbles you. You think you’re doing stuff the way it’s supposed to be done. You’re trusting the doctor. After a while, you realize this isn’t right, but there really isn’t anything you can do about it. You’re stuck. You’re addicted.”
Both stories illustrate how the use of painkillers can lead to dependency and addiction without warning. They also highlight the critical role prescribing physicians play in educating patients about the warning signs and addictive nature of opioid prescriptions. As part of this education process, prescribing guidelines and analytics can play an important role in driving better outcomes.
Opioid Prescribing Guidelines
For workers’ compensation insurers, it is critical to understand the opioid prescribing guidelines that underlie the way physicians are treating injured workers. The more the insurers can help educate physicians on best practices, the better off insurance companies may be in helping to prevent any issues that may arise because of unnecessary or excessive opioid prescribing.
The CDC worked with the National Drug Institute, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology to review existing opioid prescribing guidelines for chronic pain. Their review and analysis of eight prescribing guidelines highlighted a number of important provider actions, such as the review of pain history, medical and family history, pregnancy, prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMP), urine drug screening, evaluations of alternatives to opioids, rational documentation, tapering plans, referrals for medication assisted treatment, evidence review, conflicts of interest and more(5). In January, Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear announced his support for national guidelines for prescribing opiates for chronic pain, stating: “In Kentucky, we face a crushing epidemic of addiction. One of my core missions as attorney general is to better address the drug problem faced by our Kentucky families and workforce.”(6) In his speech, the attorney general mentions that he is joining other state attorneys general in voicing support for the CDC guidelines for prescribing opiates for chronic pain.
California’s “Division of Workers’ Compensation Guideline for the Use of Opioids to Treat Work-Related Injuries” documented treatment protocols for three specific pain categories:
Opioids for acute pain (pain lasting as much as four weeks from onset)
Opioids for subacute pain (one to three months)
Opioids for chronic pain and chronic opioid treatment (three months or more)(7)
The guidelines state that, in general, opioids are not indicated for mild injuries such as acute strains, sprains, tendinitis, myofascial pain and repetitive strain injuries. Just as important, the guidelines clearly warn physicians to consider and document relative contraindications (e.g., depression, anxiety, past substance abuse, etc.). The document provides an abbreviated treatment protocol for the three pain categories that address important topics like prescribing a limited supply of opioids, documentation, accessing California’s PDMP, monitoring opioid use, evaluating the use of non-opioid treatments, completing opioid use, educating patients on opioid usage and potential adverse effects, responsibly storing and disposing of opioids, tracking pain level, screening for the risk of addiction, testing urine for drugs and more.
At the end of the day, it is important for workers’ compensation insurers and physician employees to clearly understand the opioid prescribing guidelines that help physicians achieve a proper balance between treating workers’ pain and keeping them safe from any adverse impacts of excessive opioid usage. With more insurance companies leveraging early physician peer-to-peer outreach to open a dialogue between the insurance company physician and the treating physician, knowing prescribing guidelines and sharing that knowledge will be more important than ever in improving outcomes and return to work.
The Inspiration for Using Analytics
For more than a decade, Deloitte Consulting’s Advanced Analytics & Modeling practice has been developing claim predictive solutions designed to help insurance companies, self-insureds and third-party administrators better segment and triage predicted high-severity from low-severity claims, enabling business decisions and actions that can help drive loss cost savings of as much as 10% of an organization’s annual claims spending. (See Claims Magazine articles “Analytics on the Cloud: Transforming the Way Claims Leverages Advanced Analytics “(2011)(8), “Enhancing Workers’ Comp Predictive Modeling With Injury Groupings” (2012)(9), “Reaping the Financial Rewards of End-to-End Claims Analytics” (2014)(10) and “The Challenges of Implementing Advanced Analytics “(2014).(11) A large part of the claims modeling success is attributed to gaining actionable insights as early as first notice of loss before adverse chain reactions can set in, and shortly thereafter with the three-point contact investigation where additional information is learned about the patient’s history and co-morbidities.
The authors, having observed the success of predicting claims complexity outcomes early in the claim’s lifecycle, became excited about the application of similar models to help identify early warning signs of future excessive opioid usage by injured workers. With as much as 60% of workers’ compensation spending going toward medical costs, one-fifth of that related to prescription drugs(12), we believed the use of predictive models… combined with physician peer-to-peer outreach and proper prescribing guidelines… could help workers’ compensation insurers improve the lives of the injured workers while significantly reducing medical expenditures. The following sections explain the analytics journey undertaken to help move the needle on this issue.
Defining the Target Variable: Predicting Future Excess
An important part of any analytics journey is defining the target variable (i.e., what we are trying to understand and predict). Excessive opiates usage is difficult to ascertain, as higher consumption may indeed be necessary for the most severe injuries. Therefore, various tests on the most appropriate target variables were conducted to probe these hypotheses. Many versions of opioid supply days were tested (i.e., ultimate total supply days across all opiates drugs prescribed to, and consumed by, the injured worker). Variations of opiates prescription counts were also considered (i.e., ultimate count of opiates prescriptions through the lifecycle of the claims). Similarly, supply units were analyzed (i.e., ultimate sum of all individual opiates pills prescribed to, and consumed by, the injured worker from the day of the injury until the claim closure). Figure 1 illustrates the calculation of total supply days for three different opiates that were prescribed to, and consumed by, the injured worker over the duration of his workers’ compensation claim:
Figure 1. Supply Day Illustration
Methodology and Data Considered
Using predictive analytics and data science, a number of algorithms were built, tested, iterated and fine-tuned to better understand those like-injury cohorts (i.e., same injury sustained) that consumed more opiates than their corresponding peers who managed to consume a lower amount. Various thresholds of “excess” were analyzed by injury and venues, thus controlling for differences that affect the prescription base.
By testing these algorithms, it was determined that segmentation was similar across the different target variables. However, total supply days seemed to exhibit the most robustness from a modeling perspective and had intuitive interpretability (i.e., number of days an injured worker consumes opioids).
The algorithms used more than eight years of lost time workers’ compensation claims to accumulate enough data credibility. Claims were selected for various injury groups where opiates were prescribed and consumed for at least one prescription. The data was organized for a longitudinal study observing a claimant over time and quantifying her consumption of opiates. The comparison to this usage to like-injury counterparts over thousands of cases and using hundreds of attributes is what helped the model shed light on claimants who consumed excessive amounts of opioids relative to the entire population.
Over the years, Deloitte healthcare practitioners and claims professionals used ICD-9 codes that describe a disease or condition, as well as National Council on Compensation (NCCI) nature of injury and body part codes, to create more than 70 proprietary injury groups that are factored into the model to provide enhanced segmentation within like injury claims.(13) For illustration purposes in this article, we presented results for the injury group representing medium- and high-complexity spinal disorders (e.g., ICD-9 codes 722.0 – displacement of cervical intervertebral disc without myelopathy, 722.10 – displacement of lumbar intervertebral disc without myelopathy, 724.9 – other unspecified back disorders, etc.). We selected medium- and high-complexity spinal disorder claims because they are significantly more severe than the average workers’ compensation claim, and, as expected, these claimants typically have more prescriptions filled by their physicians. In addition, the models aren’t run on just any injury group. For example, an injury group containing low-complexity injuries such as finger cuts and minor open wounds would not be part of our analysis. Claimants with these types of low-complexity injuries do not require opioids, given the nature of injury, so it would not make sense to include these injury groups in the model.
The information attributes used to understand excessive consumption were sourced from similar data sources used in developing our claim-severity models. They are large in number and varied in terms of coverage. They include claimant data (e.g., claimant age, gender, job classification, years of employment, wage, claim filing lag, cause and nature of injury, etc.), prior claims data (e.g., prior frequency and type of claims), employer information (e.g., financial characteristics, years in business, etc.), injury circumstance (e.g. location, type, body part injured), three-point contact information (e.g., co-morbidities, early medical services) as well as other standard external third-party data sources (e.g. lifestyle, behavioral, geo-demographic).
The lift curves shown in Figure 2 illustrate the segmentation achieved by using multivariate equations to predict total supply days. Each claim below was scored using the model, which generated scores from 1 to 100, with lower scores corresponding to smaller predicted supply days and higher scores corresponding to larger predicted supply days. This score is represented on the x-axis of Figure 2, where each “decile” refers to a group of claims that compose 10% of the data. The actual supply days are tracked and plotted on the y-axis in the appropriate decile.
Figure 2. Lift Curve – GLM model
As one can see from Figure 2, injured workers studied who are predicted to fall in decile 10 have more than 18 times the supply days as workers predicted to fall in decile 1. Injured workers studied who scored in decile 10 consume, on average, more than three and a half years of opioid supply days! This very large and widespread segmentation suggests that individuals sustaining the same injury can still vary significantly in their future consumption of opioids… and this variation ranges from a couple months to more than three and a half years.
In Figure 3, we compare two 24-year-old male claimants with very similar injuries but drastically different predicted outcomes.
Figure 3. Similar Injuries, Drastically Different Outcomes
As one can see from Figure 3, the claimant scoring in decile 10 has a number of variables that correlate with the potential for excessive opioid use. Given the combination of co-morbidities, worker health, reporting lags, employer business conditions and additional attributes collected on the individual from external sources (e.g. lifestyle and behavioral data), it is possible for the insurance company to identify and analyze the early drivers that may lead to future excessive opioid the first few days after receiving notice of the claim.
With more than 60 predictive variables in the model (e.g., co-morbidities, prior claims history, job classes, injury causes, business characteristics, claim characteristics, etc.), the most influential categories and reason codes driving the score represent “eyeglasses” for the insurance company physician. The model helps the insurance company physician weigh together multiple pieces of information but doesn’t replace his judgement. Analogously, many of us wear eyeglasses to read a dinner menu, but those eyeglasses do not order the food for us.
Armed with a plethora of facts and the opioid prescribing guidelines, a physician can open a dialogue with the treating physician to help guide the discussion in a direction that best benefits the injured worker. The physician, using the prediction from the model, can tailor appropriate decisions and actions – from low touch or regular prognosis for the first claimant above, to a much more closely managed case for the second individual.
Figure 4 provides a drill-down into the actual versus predicted supply days achieved in the highest-scoring 30% of medium- to high-complexity spinal disorder claims for the train/test data and validation data. Using the train/test/validation approach, the models were trained and enhanced using approximately 70% of the claims data. The validation results shown below were derived from the remaining 30% of the claims data that was held in “cold storage.” Using this kind of blind-test validation data helps ensure that the model’s estimated “lift” (i.e., segmentation power) is true and unbiased.
Figure 4. Highest Score Drill-Down
Approximately 60% of claims scoring in deciles 8, 9 and 10 exceed one year in supply days. For a quarter of the claims, the injured workers take in excess of four years in supply days of opioids. At the far end of the spectrum, roughly 4% of medium- to high-complexity spinal disorder claims scoring in deciles 8, 9 and 10 will exceed a decade’s worth of opioids in supply days.
One Last Check
In addition to the generalized linear models (GLMs) discussed above, focused on predicting the actual supply days, we also ran a logistic regression model focused on predicting which claimants would take more than a year’s supply of opioids. Using classical statistical measures of precision (i.e., how many of the positively classified results are relevant), recall (i.e., how accurate the model is at detecting the positives) and specificity (i.e., how good the model is at avoiding false alarms), we achieved the following results: a precision of 59%, a recall of 64% and a specificity of 72%.(14) As one last test of the logistic regression model’s segmentation power, we calculated the receiver operating characteristic (ROC) curve. At almost 80%, it represented a good model from a statistical perspective. Although illustrative, we prefer the GLM model presented above.
Behavioral Economics and Nudges
All across the country, physicians and medical boards are spreading the word about the responsible prescribing of opioids. State and federal agencies are toughening criminal and administrative penalties for doctors and clinics that traffic in prescription drugs. Governors across the country are forming opioid working groups that include senior Health and Human Services professionals, attorneys general, drug courts, hospital professionals, elected officials and more.
Research shows that a number of factors can help insurance companies better understand the severity of claims early on in the life cycle of a claim. Two studies by the National Council on Compensation Insurance, Inc. (NCCI) highlight the effect of obesity on workers’ compensation claims. According to “Reserving in the Age of Obesity,” a Nov. 1, 2010, NCCI study by Chris Laws and Frank Schmid, the ratio in the medical costs per claim of obese to nonobese claimants deteriorates over time from a ratio of 2.8 at the end of one year, to 4.5 at the end of three years, to 5.3 at the end of five years.(15) In a following study from May 29, 2012, “Indemnity Benefit Duration and Obesity,” authors Frank Schmid, Chris Laws and Mathew Montero found the duration of obese claimants is more than five times the duration of nonobese claimants, after controlling for primary International Classification of Diseases (ICD)-9 code, injury year, state, industry, gender and age for temporary total and permanent total indemnity benefit payments.(16) Deloitte’s claim predictive models have shown that the number of medical conditions at the time of injury plays a significant role in determining the ultimate severity and potential for excess opioid usage (e.g., claims with three or more existing medical conditions are 12 times more costly than claims with no existing medical conditions).
With energy and momentum building around addressing the opioid epidemic, insurance companies can leverage behavioral economics and data-driven nudges to help treating physicians improve outcomes and return to work. Leveraging prescribing guidelines and the model results and reason codes that help explain the top five drivers behind the model prediction, insurance company physicians can be more strategic in shaping the discussions they have with treating physicians. For the highest-scoring claims, the insurance company may want to use a mix of peer-to-peer contact and data-driven nudges (e.g., “did you know that 95% of physicians we work with follow the state prescribing guidelines and only prescribe 30 days of opioids for this type of claim,” ”for injuries of this type, physicians we work with usually prescribe less than x milligrams of strength,” etc.). For lower-scoring claims, the insurance company may touch base with the treating physician but skip any reference to data-driven nudges.
In the end, it is important for workers’ compensation insurers and their medical professionals to clearly understand opioid prescribing guidelines and the internal and external factors that could affect the opioid usage and habits of their injured workers. A Business Insurance white paper titled “Opioid Abuse and Workers’ Comp – How to Tackle a Growing Problem,” described the challenge well: “Monitoring or managing opioid abuse is another key step for workers’ comp managers. It’s not enough to simply dive into the data and look for claimants who appear to be using lots of opioids. Nor is preventing doctors from prescribing opioids a desirable action. The goal is to find claimants who are struggling with a problem they never intended to have, and support those claimants in solving that problem.”(17)
However, our hope is that through the use of predictive analytics (i.e., the ability to identify, in the first few days of receiving a claim, individuals most likely to become high consumers of opioids), prescribing guidelines and physician peer-to-peer outreach, we can help increase insurers’ and treating physicians’ awareness as they work to help prevent injured workers from struggling with dependency and addiction before the behaviors or habits ever form.
As former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said, “What we anticipate seldom occurs; what we least expect generally happens.” The science and passion exists today to better anticipate opioid trends and help prevent opioid dependency and addiction before it happens.
As used in this document, “Deloitte” means Deloitte Consulting LLP, a subsidiary of Deloitte LLP. Please see www.deloitte.com/us/about for a detailed description of the legal structure of Deloitte LLP and its subsidiaries. Certain services may not be available to attest clients under the rules and regulations of public accounting.
This communication contains general information only, and none of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, its member firms, or their related entities (collectively, the “Deloitte Network”) is, by means of this communication, rendering professional advice or services. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your finances or your business, you should consult a qualified professional adviser. No entity in the Deloitte Network shall be responsible for any loss whatsoever sustained by any person who relies on this communication.
 Precision measures the ratio of true predicted positives to the ratio of true predictive positives plus false predicted positives. Recall, also referred to as sensitivity, measures the ratio of true predicted positives to the ratio of true predicted positives plus false predicted negatives. Specificity measures the ratio of true predicted negatives to the ratio of true predicted negatives plus false predicted positives.
Common wisdom suggests that major workers’ compensation legislative activity won’t take place during an election year. For 2016, that would seem to hold true.
That is not to say, however, that various interested parties will be sitting idly by, waiting for the clock to turn to 2017.
CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL ADD TO THE LIST OF CHRONIC PAIN GUIDELINES
On Jan. 13, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) closed the public comment period for its proposed Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain. According to the CDC, the guideline is being proposed to offer “… clarity on recommendations based on the most recent scientific evidence, informed by expert opinion, with stakeholder and constituent input considered.”
The guideline goes to great lengths to address two important issues. The first is that current guidelines in many states – both public and private – are based on dated information. The second, which is critical, adds to the growing number of voices to say that best practices for providers include accessing physician drug monitoring programs (PDMP) to reduce the risk of doctor shopping and toxic – and sometimes fatal – mixtures of prescription drugs when the patient provides incomplete histories or none at all of their drug use (both prescription and illicit).
This need to access a PDMP before, and during, treatment with opioids is echoed by the Medical Board of California (MBC) and the DWC. Their comments also underscore a considerable problem facing California policymakers when trying to create incentives for providers to use the Controlled Substance Utilization Review and Evaluation System (CURES) without directly mandating access.
This dilemma is best summed up by the analysis of Senate Bill 482 by Sen. Ricardo Lara (D – Bell Gardens) that is at the Assembly Desk pending referral to committee. The bill, which would mandate participation in the CURES system as well as other measures to curb the abuse of opioids, has garnered opposition from medical associations and one medical malpractice insurer. The opposition, according to analyses by legislative staff, is based on two issues – the first being whether the CURES system is capable of handling the volume of inquiries a mandate would engender, and the second being concern that requiring CURES access will become a standard of care that could subject providers to malpractice liability.
As to the former, this issue arose during the campaign waged against the 2014 ballot measure Proposition 46. According to the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), “Currently, CURES does not have sufficient capacity to handle the higher level of use that is expected to occur when providers are required to register beginning in 2016.” This raises an important question – does the CURES system now have the capability to meet the demand that a mandate would create? If it doesn’t, then the legislature needs to understand why.
As to the second issue, it is difficult to comprehend the level of distrust that is subsumed in the position that opposing a mandatory review of possible prescription drug abuse by a patient would establish more potential malpractice liability than knowing that the CURES database exists and not checking it. In time, perhaps, it will be the appellate courts that resolve that issue.
There is no shortage of guidelines that address the appropriate use and cessation of use of opioids for non-cancer chronic pain. The DWC is finalizing its latest iteration on this issue as part of the MTUS. It will differ from both the CDC and the MBC guidelines to some degree, but the overall treatment of this issue is very similar. In addition, the division will be implementing a prescription drug formulary as required by Assembly Bill 1124 by former Assembly member Henry Perea (D – Fresno). That, too, will likely provide opportunities to address the proper use of opioids in the workers’ compensation context, preferably after the chronic pain guidelines are completed.
As noted by the CDC and the MBC, and implicit in the DWC’s guidelines, this is not just a question of UR. If all the work by the division is simply viewed as a more effective way of saying “no” regardless of the circumstances, then the public health issues associated with the abuses of opioids will continue.
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The workers’ comp industry is burdened with perhaps 200,000 or more injured workers on long-term opioid treatment for chronic pain. Many more workers enter these ranks yearly. For 10 years, I have observed this awful misery slowly accumulate. But claims payers can do more to prevent new case and resolve “legacy” cases. It will require from them more commitment to best practice care and a lot more frank, open collaboration among themselves and with medical providers.
Conservative care is hugely under-exploited as an approach to prevent and resolve chronic pain among injured workers. Workers’ compensation claims payers would not have paid so much for opioid treatment, failed surgeries and claims settlements had they adopted conservative care decades ago, when research support for this approach was already pretty strong. The failure to promote this approach cost the policyholders perhaps $100 billion in higher premiums and cost injured workers years of disability and, in some cases, funerals.
By conservative care, I refer to functional restoration programs, which came into existence in the 1970s or earlier. Cognitive behavioral therapy became established in the 1980s. Coaching, as a non-medical method of helping persons in pain, has been around forever but recently gained visibility as a scalable form of intervention. There’s a lot of innovation going on, such as the PGAP program imported from Canada and a number of nerve-stimulation services such as Scrambler in New England.
Payers need to learn how to create conditions within which conservative care can prosper rather than repeatedly blossom only to die.
A friend prods me to use the term “evidence-based medicine.” But “conservative care” is my choice for an umbrella term because it is easy to remember, though inexact.
A few years ago, I talked by phone with a senior medical case manager at a claims payer in Kentucky, an epicenter of opioid prescribing excesses, who had never heard of functional restoration programs. This reminded me of the Harvard professor who spent a year in Munich without ever hearing about Oktoberfest.
The long history of insurers includes many instances where they brought risk management solutions like conservative care to the market. The first modern evidence of that goes all the way back to London fire insurers in the late 17th century. Mutual insurance companies played an essential role in introducing automatic fire-suppressing sprinkler systems to American factories in the late 19th century.
In my special report published by WorkCompCentral, “We’re Beating Back Opioids – Now What?”, I propose that claims payers and selected medical providers collaborate for the purpose of better success in treatment. This is particularly valuable for conservative care. The collaborations would allow each party to act on its own but to pool information. Periodically, analysts will dig into the database to report on the group’s experience on outcomes and costs.
The healthcare community, sometimes with the explicit support of health insurers, engages in collaborations to improve health outcomes. A Health Affairs article in 2011 is titled, “How a Regional Collaborative of Hospitals and Physicians in Michigan Cut Costs and Improved the Quality of Care.” The article addresses surgical collaborations, for instance:
Michigan BCBS has been supporting since 2006 a bariatric surgery data-sharing project involving 27 hospitals and some 7,000 patients a year.
Its major general and vascular surgery collaboration recorded 50,000 patients a year.
The article concludes that “results from the Michigan initiative suggest that hospitals participating in regional collaborative improvement programs improve far more quickly than they can on their own. Practice variation across hospitals and surgeons creates innumerable “natural experiments” for identifying what works and what doesn’t.
Elsewhere, collaborations among independent medical providers have been noted in asthma, diabetes, surgery and congestive heart failure.
Another analysis of collaborations commented that “real improvements [in treatment] are likely to occur if the range of professionals responsible for providing a particular service are brought together to share their different knowledge and experiences, agree what improvements they would like to see, test these in practice and jointly learn from their results.
Claims payers need to help this cross-fertilization happen. Hard as it may seem, they need to “own” the need to build conservative care resources in their markets. Physicians don’t understand conservative care; referral patterns are not set; and the providers of conservative care are often under-resourced. Claims payers need to step up.
It was the best of claims; it was the worst of claims… the age of wisdom, the age of foolishness… belief vs. incredulity… hope vs. despair… etc., etc. The iconic opening paragraph from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities makes one realize such conflicts do exist in the same space and time, albeit through different personal perspectives. Such is the reality in workers’ comp claims, where the single biggest factor in outcome is often the claimant’s attitude.
A client claim-audit project offers a jarring comparison between two claim files from different parts of the country. The claims exemplify how little control we actually have over an employee’s attitude in the disability management process, and show how vastly different the human tolls can be.
Both claims were in excess of 10 years old. Both involved exaggerated and evolving symptoms with eventual narcotic prescriptions for “pain management.” At approximately the same time, however, each took a different path.
One claimant found her own reasons and will-power to end the years she spent on prescribed pain-killers. She entered a drug treatment process on her own, eventually stopped her prescriptions and found a full-time job. The other claimant dove deeper into narcotic addiction and exhibited classic drug seeking behavior – such as “losing” his prescriptions and requiring early refills. He tested positive for other illegal drugs once his rightfully suspicious physician initiated a monitoring program.
There was no appreciably different set of claim management tools or tactics used for the claims – the stark difference in outcome came down to the want of the individual… an almost impossible aspect for the day-to-day claim practitioner or human-resources manager to reach or control. And, at the time of my audit, the claims were equally easy to close.
The woman free of prescriptions and carrying a full-time job was simply no longer a claimant. She was probably very happy to have her case closed and the dark chapter of her life over. We decided on an administrative closure of the claim.
On the other hand, the gentleman was barred from his erstwhile treating physician and pain management clinic for abusing meds and refusing a drug treatment program. A host of independent medical opinions indicated the man did not require further meds for the old injury. His everyday behavior was highly unfocused and erratic, apparently causing no attorney to take his WC case. He lived out of a tent in a relative’s backyard.
The man’s claim was also an easy administrative closure because of lack of any foreseeable prosecution. I have to admit his situation nicked at my coat of cynicism, the one layered thick from years in this profession. I hated the plain fact that he was a doomed victim of a WC system enabling his addictive conditions.
To my good readers, I ask: Which closure would you rather preside over?
Quick-Tip: Know When to Hold ‘Em But Don’t Wait to Fold ‘Em
When reasonable medical treatment has no impact, quickly consider other options. A claimant with misguided intentions or extraneous problems and no desire to be “cured” might just be his own worst enemy and using the WC claim as a primary enabler.
– Find appropriate ways to incorporate employee assistance programs (EAPs) or other specialty counseling services to support employees or WC claimants who have debilitating outlooks or possible addiction issues.
– Maintain a “no-fill” position on narcotic prescriptions. This will give you and your defense team at least an opportunity to block dangerous drugs before they are automatically initiated.
– Consider any “chronic pain” diagnosis to indicate maximum medical improvement (MMI). “Chronic” as a term arguably fits MMI. Try to settle the case under that premise. Fight the diagnosis and treatment plan, as a means to pressure settlement. If the plaintiff’s side argues against an MMI determination, then demand a treatment outlook and timeline that results in stopping pain medication.
– For claims with long-term narcotic situations, seek peer reviews to ascertain if the regimes are excessive and if a recommendation for detoxification is appropriate. Specifically set up medical evaluations to confirm addiction and substance abuse tendencies.
– Never presume a claimant with the wrong attitude and bleak outlook will be cured by any type of treatment. Know when you are wasting time and money. You must sense and act on this early. Don’t rely on adjusters to raise questions, as their inclination is to keep treating as long as medical opinion approves. You must take the role of disruptor.
Bottom line” It is distressing that workers’ comp enables addiction. Closing such cases is not always pretty. Learn from the disasters and take more responsibility in the future. Recognize that claimant attitude and outlook are of primary importance, for good or for bad.