Tag Archives: claims administrators

Would a Formulary Help in California?

Introducing a closed pharmaceutical formulary into California workers’ compensation could produce two main benefits. The first is to further lower the cost of pharmaceuticals by either restricting or eliminating certain medications. The second is to reduce the possibility of drug addiction.

An October 2014 California Workers’ Compensation Institute (“CWCI”) report titled, “Are Formularies a Viable Solution for Controlling Prescription Drug Utilization and Cost in California Workers’ Compensation” states that pharmaceutical costs could be reduced by 12%, or $124 million, by introducing the Texas workers’ compensation pharmaceutical formulary.

To achieve the second benefit, an assembly member introduced AB1124 to establish an evidence-based medication formulary and wrote, “The central purpose of our workers’ comp system is to ensure injured workers regain health and get back to work. When workers get addicted to dangerous medications, goals of the program are not met. An evidence-based formulary has proven to be an effective tool in other states and should be considered in California.”

To confirm whether these benefits could be achieved through the introduction of the Texas formulary, a review of the CWCI study and the opioid medications available under the Texas formulary was conducted. The findings, summarized below, suggest that the answer is no.

Although California does not restrict or limit medications in treating injured workers, it does limit the prices paid and provides an opportunity to question prescribed medications that appear to be out of the ordinary. Medi-Cal prices (California’s Medicaid health care program) are used for establishing the maximum prices for workers’ compensation medications, in contrast to states such as Texas, which use the average wholesale price (AWP).

A review of two cost-saving examples that referenced specific medications calculated projected savings based on CWCI’s ICIS payment data for prescriptions paid between Jan. 1, 2012 and June 30, 2013.

The first example compared 50mg Tramadol prices from five different suppliers. The highest was $190, followed by $23, $18, $12 and $8 per script. Here, CWCI suggested that the manufacturer of the highest-priced script be removed from the California formulary. From mid 2009 through 2013, however, the unit price for 50mg Tramadol from the supplier of brand name Ultram and at least 10 other suppliers in California was nine cents, so the AWP for a script was $2. So, overpaying for medications is an issue even if the $190 supplier is removed.

The Workers’ Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) also reported that California claims administrators paid a unit price of 35 cents for 5mg Cyclobenzaprine and 70 cents for 10mg while the unit price from Californian suppliers was 10 cents for 10mg and 15 cents for 5mg. Again, the prices suggest that California claims administrators were paying more than the maximum prices.

Based on randomly selected manufacturers and strengths of the top 20 medications identified in the 2013 NCCI prescription drug study, California’s prices were on average 20% lower than the AWP and in some cases as little as 1/24th the cost. California prices were found to be at the lowest retail price range compared with those published on goodrx.com. Pharmacies located in Los Angeles, Miami and Dallas were used for comparison. Findings suggested employers in California workers’ compensation are paying no more than the general public for medications, whereas in Texas employers are paying more by using the AWP.

The second example compared script prices of seven opioid agonists, including Tramadol and Oxymorphone. Oxymorphone was the highest-priced script at $600 and Tramadol the lowest at $60 per script, suggesting a saving of as much as $540 if Tramadol were to be prescribed instead of Oxymorphone.

But prescribing oxymorphone when tramadol could suffice or vice versa could be regarded as an act of gross negligence by the physician. On the World Health Organization (WHO) analgesic ladder, tramadol and codeine are weak opioids regarded as “step two” while acetaminophen and NSAIDs are “step one.” “Step three” opioids include medications such as morphine, oxycodone and oxymorphone, which all differ in their pharmacodynamics and pharmacokinetics, so choosing one or more to treat pain becomes a balance between possible adverse effects and the desired analgesic effect. Oxymorphone (stronger than morphine or oxycodone) is recommended for use only when a person has not responded to or cannot tolerate morphine or other analgesics to control their pain.

A list of opioid medications published by Purdue Pharma was used to identify which opioids were excluded from the Texas formulary. The list of more than 1,000 opioid analgesics was prepared by Purdue to comply with the state of Vermont law 33 V.S.A. section 2005a, requiring pharmaceutical manufacturers to provide physicians with a list of all drugs available in the same therapeutic class. Being in the same class, however, does not necessarily mean they are interchangeable or have the same efficacy or safety.

The list showed available strengths and included (1) immediate and extended release, (2) agonists such as fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodone, oxymorphone, tramadol, codeine, hydromorphone, methadone, morphine, tapentadol and levorphanol and (3) combinations such as acetaminophen with codeine, oxycodone with acetaminophen, oxycodone with asprin, oxycodone with ibuprofen, hydrocodone with acetaminophen, hydrocodone with ibuprofen, acetaminophen-caffeine with dihydrocodeine, aspirin-caffeine with dihydrocodeine and tramadol with acetaminophen.

It appears that extended-release medications used for around-the-clock treatment of severe chronic pain have been excluded or are not listed in the Texas formulary, with a few exceptions. For example, 80mg OxyContin (Oxycodone) ER 12 hour (AWP $18, Medi-Cal $15) is excluded. 120mg Hysingla (Hydrocodone) ER 24 hour (AWP $41, Medi-Cal $34) is not listed. However, 200mg MS Contin (Morphine) ER 12 hour (AWP $31, Medi-Cal $26) and 100mcg Fentanyl 72 hour transdermal patch in both brand name and generic forms are approved under the Texas formulary. Immediate-release generic medications such as oxycodone, hydromorphone and hydrocodone with acetaminophen in all strengths are approved, but immediate-release hydrocodone with ibuprofen and oxymorphone in either immediate or extended release are excluded.

Would the objective of AB1124 be achieved by utilizing the Texas formulary? The above review suggests it would not. All the opioid medications available through the Texas formulary have the potential to cause addiction and be abused, possibly leading to death either accidentally or intentionally. As an example, the executive director of the Medical Board of California has filed accusations against Dr. Henri Eugene Montandon for unprofessional conduct including gross negligence. His patient was found dead with three 100mcg fentanyl patches on his upper chest. The autopsy revealed he potentially had toxic levels of fentanyl, codeine and morphine in his bloodstream at time of death. These three opioids are available under the Texas formulary.

An article published on the website www.startribune.com described the challenges in treating returning soldiers from combat duty. The article discusses Zach Williams, decorated with two Purple Hearts who was found dead in his home from a fatal combination of fentanyl and venlafaxine, an antidepressant. Venlafaxine in both immediate- and extended-release form is approved in the Texas formulary. In addition, the following statement was made in a 2011 CWCI study into fentanyl: “Of the schedule II opioids included in the Institute’s study, the most potent is fentanyl, which is 75 to 100 times more powerful than oral morphine.”

The top 20 medications identified by the 2013 NCCI prescription drug study were also compared with the Texas formulary, and six medications were found to be excluded, including three extended-release opioids, OxyContin (Oxycodone), Opana ER (Oxymorphone) and the once-daily Kadian ER (Morphine). The twice-daily, extended-release morphine MS Contin, however, was approved. Flector, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory transdermal patch used for acute pain from minor strains and sprains, was excluded, as was carisoprodol a muscle relaxant classified by the DEA as a Schedule IV medication (the same as Tramadol). The Lidocaine transdermal patch, which is a local anesthetic available in both brand name and generic. was also excluded. Lidocaine patches have been found to assist in controlling pain associated with carpal tunnel syndrome, lower back pain and sore muscles. Apart from carisoprodol, it would appear the remaining five were excluded from the Texas formulary because of their high price rather than concerns regarding their safety or potential for abuse.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for the approval of all medications in the U.S. Its approved list is the U.S. pharmacy formulary (or closed formulary). California workers’ compensation uses this list for treatment and the Medi-Cal formulary for medication pricing. In comparison, Texas workers’ compensation uses its own formulary, which is a restricted list of FDA-approved medications, and pays a higher price for approved medications than California’s system does.

Implementing an evidence-based formulary, such as in Texas, may result in an injured worker’s not having the same choice of medications as a patient being treated for pain under California’s Medicaid healthcare program. How can this be morally justified? Will we see injured workers paying out-of-pocket to receive the medications necessary to control their pain?

Claims administrators can greatly reduce pharmaceutical costs through their own initiatives by (1) ensuring that they pay no more than the Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) published price for a medication, (2) ensuring that physicians within their medical provider network (MPN) treat pain using the established pharmacological frameworks such as the WHO analgesic ladder, (3) ensuring that quantities and medication strengths are monitored, along with how a person has responded to analgesics, (4) ensuring that, when controlling pain with opioids, there is a heightened awareness for potential abuse, misuse and addiction, (5) establishing a multimodal pain management regimen including non-pharmacological therapies such as acupuncture, aerobics, pilates, chiropractic and physical therapy tailored to a person’s medical condition and, (6) for chronic pain, considering introducing an Internet-delivered pain management program based on the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy.

The progress of many of these initiatives can be automatically monitored through a claims administrator’s technology solution, where a yellow or red flag is raised when prices paid exceed the legislated maximum amounts, when a pharmacological step therapy or progressive plan has been breached or when non-pharmacological therapy goals have not been achieved.

Using these initiatives, as opposed to restricting specific manufacturers or medications through a closed formulary, will undoubtedly yield a far better outcome for the injured worker and lower the cost to the employer, benefiting all involved.

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.

A Key Ruling on Workers’ Comp in California—and What It Means

The workers' compensation community watched anxiously for months as the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California considered a constitutional challenge to the lien activation fee — an important component of the 2012 reforms in Senate Bill 863. In the case (Angelotti Chiropractic, et al. v. Christine Baker, et al.), Judge George Wu ruled on Nov. 12 that the fee is indeed unconstitutional based on the Equal Protection provisions of the U.S. Constitution. His reasoning was that there was no rational basis for exempting large institutional lien holders (health care plans, union trusts, etc.) from the activation fee and that all lien claimants should either be in or out when it comes to filing fees.

The injunction against enforcing the lien activation fee took effect on Nov. 19. In anticipation, the Division of Workers’ Compensation notified the community Nov. 15 that it would no longer be requiring the fee be paid for liens filed prior to Jan. 1, 2013.

It is important to note that there are two filing fees enacted in SB 863. The one that applies to liens filed prior to Jan. 1, 2013, is the lien activation fee and is the subject of the federal lawsuit. The other is the lien filing fee, which is not affected by this litigation. In addition, statutory and regulatory changes made in SB 863 and the regulations adopted by the Division of Workers’ Compensation eliminate liens for most service providers that are subject to a fee schedule for dates of service on and after Jan. 1, 2013.

That is not to say that the injunction against enforcement of the activation fee is inconsequential, for it most certainly is not. In the last two calendar quarters of 2012 alone, more than 800,000 liens were filed. Of those, almost two-thirds are in Los Angeles County. Most of these have not moved through the system, undoubtedly because some lien claimants were waiting to see whether the activation fee was going to be upheld. It is assumed that many of these liens were never going to be filed because of the activation fee. As such, many liens would have expired by operation of law on Jan. 1, 2014. That, too, is now part of the unknown that comes from the Court’s decision.

Obviously, the Department of Industrial Relations and claims administrators are not happy with this ruling. To a certain extent, neither are the plaintiffs in the case, who saw two of their three claims summarily dismissed by the court. Whether these issue now go up to the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals remains to be seen. Plaintiffs, and indeed all lien claimants regardless of whether they were parties, have secured the relief they sought – enjoining the activation fee—but that could be put at risk if there is an appeal. Conversely, while the Department of Industrial Relations disagrees with the finding that the activation fee is unconstitutional, the fact that Judge Wu dismissed the claim that the activation fee constituting a “taking” of private property is a big win for proponents of SB 863 – for the taking argument has much broader implications than does the Equal Protection argument that Judge Wu found persuasive.

Because the Jan. 1, 2014, dismissal by operation of law date on old liens has been enjoined, it is not automatic that there will be a flood of activity on liens filed before Jan. 1, 2013, at the Appeals Board before year end. It is a fair observation, however, that liens many in the community thought would be extinguished by operation law won’t be. Whether those liens are going to be the subject of Appeals Board hearings and ultimately paid, however, remains uncertain. And uncertainty is a chronic symptom of our oft-ill but rarely cured workers’ compensation system.

And in case no one noticed, on Nov. 14 a new federal lawsuit was filed challenging both the lien activation fee and the lien filing fee. The plaintiff, who is seeking class action certification, is also demanding disgorgement of fees paid and reinstatement of any lien dismissed for failure to pay the appropriate fee. That case is Kancilia v. Brown, et al. and was filed in a different federal district court than Angelotti.

The transition from one set of rules to another on the heels of major legislative changes is never easy, regardless of the subject matter. In time, because of the other changes wrought by SB 863, the disruption caused by these suits will work its way through the system. Relief from the costs associated with the lien process will be delayed, and the income the fees provide to the Division of Workers’ Compensation will be less than anticipated, but ultimately the lien problem will be solved – just later than most had hoped.

The Real Challenge for Reforming Workers’ Comp

Sifting through the claims and complaints of those involved in California’s complex workers’ compensation system could leave both the casual observer and the seasoned veteran wondering when, if ever, this multibillion-dollar program will ever get properly aligned. It would be fairly easy to say, “Not during our lifetime.” But that would be too cynical even when discussing a system that for the past several decades could easily invoke cynicism.

Every participant in workers’ compensation has two faces. Some employers provide benefits, have a compliant return to work program and enforce a culture of safety at the workplace, while other employers view employees as a necessary evil. These latter employers view adherence with the legion of local, state, and federal laws and regulations regarding the workplace as burdens that need only be acknowledged if employers are required to do so, generally in the form of a legal proceeding against them.

We have seen the abuses in the medical system from unnecessary surgeries, overuse of Schedule II medications, and downright fraud in billing insurers and other payers, and yet if there is one indispensable party in the workers’ compensation system beyond labor and management it is medical providers. As recent events have demonstrated, we have yet to figure out how to empower the noble practitioners of the healing arts while keeping the venal away from injured workers.

Claims administrators vary in expertise, motivation, and professionalism, as do the various service providers and the tactics they employ to provide services and collect fees. “Insurers” have borne an unfair brunt of criticism largely because it is an easier talking point to cast such a broad brush than to single out any one bad actor or group of them. Without the ability to transfer risk, however, the workers’ compensation system could never be sustainable.

Each system participant has a particular grudge against the others. We allow policyholders to sue insurers for claims handling practices, and, in far narrower circumstances, an injured worker may pierce exclusive remedy and sue a claims administrator when conduct is so egregious that it goes beyond the grand bargain that is at the core of workers’ compensation.  Periodically, claims administrators and service providers resort to the civil courts with a variety of complaints over unfair business practices.  And, of course, the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board is the forum where all participants flock with even the slightest provocation.

The appellate courts weigh in on a wide range of benefit delivery challenges, as well. Their decisions in Guzman and Ogilvie were two of the main incidents inciting changes in permanent disability benefit determinations codified in Senate Bill 863 (De León). Even today, we are litigating issues over the apportionment changes brought about in Senate Bill 899 (Poochigian) enacted almost a decade ago. Litigation in federal court is rare, although not unprecedented, as the current challenge to the lien activation fee in SB 863 demonstrates.   State-imposed fee schedules have periodically worked their way into federal court on the theory that reimbursement rates are so low that they are confiscatory – a challenge unlikely in California while the fee schedule is not mandatory, but still possible given the breadth of authority that the Division of Workers’ Compensation has been given to develop fee schedules for virtually all service providers.

“Well, that’s just California workers’ comp.”  That may be the case, but such resignation does tend to take the focus away from core problems that magnify the multiple personality disorder that plagues this system. As we work our way through the implementation of SB 863, we must also recognize that not every solution to the high cost of comp, both in dollar and human terms, can be put down on paper in Sacramento or Oakland.

While compliance is part of best practices, it does not define them exclusively. To be sure, the new costs associated with complying with SB 863 are consequential. As is inevitably the case when new comprehensive workers’ compensation laws are enacted, there will be considerable friction moving from one set of rules to another. The threat of litigation will hang over the changes made in this legislation just as it has in prior iterations of reform. It will take years to sort this all out.

In the meantime, there is much work to be done to improve the system even if it is not in  reaction to a new law or regulation or judicial decision. As has been the case all too often over the past two decades, laws are driven by anecdote. The adage “bad facts make bad law” applies equally to the legislative, regulatory, and judicial processes. Navigating California’s complex system is never easy. If claims administrators expect the process by which laws are made and interpreted to provide the necessary clarity and simplicity we crave to do our jobs, then we are all sadly mistaken.

Yet, when we commit to best practices both as employers and claims professionals, we can create better outcomes than Sacramento could ever hope to achieve. The challenge, therefore, is not what legislators or regulators or justices will do for us, but rather what will we do for ourselves?