Tag Archives: epidemic

Opioids: A Stumbling Block to WC Outcomes

On a weekly if not daily basis, there are media reports about the growing impacts of addiction to opioids. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 78 people a day are dying from the effects of opioid overdose. Families are being systematically destroyed by the multiplicity of effects of this increasingly pervasive problem. In 2014, there were more than 47,000 drug overdose deaths in the U.S., and more than 28,000 of those deaths were caused by opioids (including heroin). The current overdose epidemic is unfortunately only one symptom of a greater problem in the U.S. Our nation consumes 80% of all opioids produced in the world, yet the American population makes up only 5% of the total world population. This strongly implies there is a societal, cultural profile in America that is unlike anywhere in the world, driving such demand and overuse.

As the national “epidemic” of opioid abuse continues to get increasing attention, it’s important to realize the effect it has on employers. Prescription opioid abuse alone cost employers more than $25 billion in 2007. Even if the injured worker never develops an opioid misuse disorder, long-term opioid use is still extremely problematic. The evidence tells us that the effectiveness of chronic opioid therapy to address pain is modest and that effect on function is minimal. In addition, when injured workers are prescribed opioids long-term, the length of the claim increases dramatically and even more so when other addictive medications like benzodiazepines (alprazolam, lorazepam) are prescribed. Perhaps the most troubling statistic of all: 60% of injured workers on opioids 90 days post-injury will still be on opioids at five years.

See also: Potential Key to Tackling Opioid Issues

Workers’ compensation stakeholders are increasing efforts to call more attention to the use of these potent pain-relieving drugs by injured workers. In the highly complex and diverse field of workers’ compensation, entities from state governments to insurers and other workers’ compensation stakeholders are stepping up to address the issues and impacts of opioid use by injured workers in varying degrees through a myriad of methods.

Most work-related injuries involve the musculoskeletal system, and doctors increasingly prescribe short- and long-term opioids to address even minor to modest pain despite broad medical recommendations against long-term use. Because of the prevalence of back injuries in the workplace, opioids are increasingly becoming the treatment of choice for what often starts as a short-term treatment, but frequently becomes long-term, with the likelihood of addiction occurring before treatment is completed.

Claims professionals should understand that there are many variations of opioids, including fentanyl; morphine; codeine; hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortab); methadone; oxycodone, (Percocet, OxyContin); hydromorphone (Dilaudid) – each with different levels of potency. For example, fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin. No wonder addiction is so often the result.

Paul Peak, PharmD, assistant vice president of clinical pharmacy at Sedgwick, notes that opioids act on receptors in the brain; therefore, it’s expected that certain changes will occur over time as use continues. Each one of us would realize both opioid dependence (this means withdrawal symptoms occur when the drug is stopped) and opioid tolerance (this means more drug is needed to get the same effect as use continues) if we were to take opioids consistently for weeks or months. In many cases, patients who are prescribed opioids chronically will experience a worsening of pain that is actually caused by the opioids themselves.

Because opioids have these profound effects on our brains, engaging injured workers in their own recovery is a best-claim practice, and it is critical to achieving the best outcomes. This should begin early, and a key part of the process includes encouraging workers to ask their doctors questions when they are being treated with drugs for pain. Some of these questions should include:

  • Is this prescription for pain medicine an opioid?

Doctors should educate patients on what an opioid is and how to use it safely to relieve pain.

  • What are some of the potential adverse effects of opioids?

Opioids can affect breathing and should be used with great caution in patients with respiratory issues. They most often cause moderate to severe constipation. Even short-term use can decrease sleep quality and impair one’s ability while driving.

  • Where can I safely dispose of remaining pills?

To protect others from potential misuse, any excess supply should not be saved for later use. Injured workers should be advised not to give them to friends or family, and to dispose of unused pills appropriately. States often provide disposal options/locations for opioids to reduce the chance of leftovers getting into the hands of unintended users. In addition, CDC guidelines now recommend patients are only given a three-day or seven-day supply of opioids, and some states are now putting laws in place following this recommendation.

  • Am I at risk for abuse?

Providers can use risk assessments to help determine those people at greatest risk for abusing opioids if prescribed. Peak notes that opioids do have some benefit in the acute phase post-injury, say within four to six weeks after injury. However, when improvement doesn’t occur in this time frame, continuing use of opioids is not appropriate, as addiction becomes increasingly assured.

These are among the key questions for treating physicians that injured workers should ask. While engagement is a vital part of patient accountability, physician education is even more critical. Peak explains that more is expected of doctors because they are providing the care. Patients and physicians working together in a close relationship is key.

Injured workers and family members should talk to the treating physician immediately if they see signs of addiction or dependence. There are some possible warning signs of addiction, such as craving the pain pills without pain or when pain is less severe, requesting early refills or stockpiling medication, taking more pills at one time or taking them more often than prescribed, or going to multiple prescribers for opioids or other controlled substances. Early detection can help stop the destructive cycle of addiction before it becomes too powerful to resist. Injured workers can also contact an addiction counseling organization.

A note of caution for all whose accountabilities touch this area of treatment – terminating prescription opioids “cold turkey” can be dangerous and even fatal. Throughout the life of the claim and at the end of the day for injured workers using opioids, the relationship with their doctors will be the primary factor in determining how the treatment will end and the outcome that is achieved.

Strategies for the claims team

So where does all this leave claims professionals who want to see injured workers recover successfully and appropriately from their workplace injuries?

See also: Opioids Are the Opiates of the Masses  

Claims professionals must define a strategy for identifying and then monitoring physician prescribing patterns and the specific use patterns in each case. Some of the tactics that should be considered include:

  • Leveraging pharmacy utilization review services
  • Directing patients to doctors who won’t overprescribe opioids; and those who use prescription drug monitoring programs and tools, which are available in most states
  • Engaging nurse case managers early and regularly; their involvement and intervention can help deter addiction; nurses can advocate for other more clinically appropriate options and advocate for best practices including risk assessments, opioid contracts, pill counts and random drug screens
  • Ensuring that injured workers are getting prescriptions through pharmacy benefit management networks
  • Leveraging fraud and investigative resources that are often useful in uncovering underlying, unrelated patterns of behavior that would indicate a propensity for opioid abuse
  • Considering the cost of opioids versus alternatives; while many alternate treatments are more expensive on the front end, certain drugs may be much more expensive in the long term, especially if they lead to addiction
  • Addressing the opioid issue well before case settlement; as with most longer-term open claims scenarios, those with opioid use will only produce worse outcomes and get more expensive over time without appropriate early interventions

Continued vigilance by claims professionals can enable and facilitate a better result at closure and avoid a lot of potential pain for the injured worker along the recovery path.

auto insurance industry

$60 Billion Elephant in the Room

Research has found that one in four car crashes is caused by phone-related distracted driving. However, a recent LifeSaver study of agents suggests this figure to be a vast understatement. More than 60% of agents responded that half or more of all claims are now related to distracted driving.

It’s downright scary to think about the injuries, property damage and loss of life that results from distracted driving.

If our survey bears out on a national scale, the full cost could be north of $60 billion a year. And, of course, this cost is passed on to drivers in the form of increased premiums. In fact, we’re already seeing some major insurers (GEICOAllstate and Zurich) publicly conceding that they are feeling the pain from this fast-growing epidemic.

Assuming the annual cost to insurance companies ranges from $30 billion (if one in four accidents stems from phone-related distracted driving) to $60 billion (using the numbers from our research), a mere 10% reduction in distracted driving accidents would save insurance carriers and their customers several billion dollars annually, in addition to saving lives and drastically reducing injuries.

The infographic below highlights the cost of distracted driving to the insurance industry. It also offers some insight into the minds of insurance agents receiving these claims, as well as the habits of today’s distracted drivers. Take a look and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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Progress on Opioids — but Now Heroin?

You’ve probably noticed recent reports, within the workers’ comp pharmacy benefits manager (PBM) industry and elsewhere, that prescription opioid use and overdoses are on the decline. It is a long journey, and we cannot yet see the destination, but progress is being made. One of the goals has been to make it more difficult to secure clinically inappropriate prescription opioids through legitimate (physician, dentist) and illegitimate (pill mills, street sales) means. Abuse deterrent formulations have also helped, creating a hassle factor for those who want to abuse them. The increase in focus on the subject in the media and government has made it more top-of-mind. Although even one death or the creation of one addict is too many, and we have lots of cleanup to do today on the damage already done to individuals and communities, the trends are heartening.

However, for every intended consequence, there are also unpredictable unintended consequences. And one of those that I’ve been following for some time, that two recent clinical studies have codified as accurate, is the dramatic increase in the abuse and misuse of heroin. A good amount of that increase is theorized to be coming from those who may have become addicted or highly dependent upon the euphoric effect or dulling of the pain from opioids. Because today’s heroin is “pharma quality” and less expensive than opioids on the street, heroin has become the primary alternative choice. If you think this is a recent issue, this USA Today article titled “OxyContin a gateway to heroin for upper-income addicts” was my initial warning, on June 28, 2013.

The reasons for this switch are multiple and complicated. An excellent article on this issue was published in the June 2015 edition of “Pain Medicine News.”

Three quotes that struck me the most:

  • “Fewer than 20% of chronic pain patients benefit from opioids.”
  • “The prolific normalization of opioid use for chronic pain within primary care has seeded the epidemic of heroin addiction.”
  • “We are going to see the biggest explosion of heroin addiction ever in the next five years.”

Obviously, heroin is an illegal drug and therefore cannot be tracked or managed within a PBM. But everyone needs to be watching. While heroin use may not be a “workers’ comp problem,” it is a societal problem, which ultimately always rebounds as an issue for everyone (and everything) else.

The CDC just published (or at least publicized on Twitter) a “Vital Signs” report specifically on the subject. This should be required reading for everyone concerned with the epidemic of substance abuse in the U.S. Note that I said “substance abuse,” because as has been clearly stated the issue is not specific to prescription drugs or heroin or cocaine or alcohol binge drinking — it is a cultural issue of people either wanting to have a good time or just to check out from life or pain. According to this CDC report, more than 8,200 people died from heroin overdoses in 2013. When you add that to the more than 175,000 people who have died from prescription drug overdoses since 1999, the people affected is staggering. Not just those who lost their lives, but friends and family left behind and communities (and, in some cases, employers) dealing with the aftermath.

While there is a treasure trove of information included in the CDC’s report, the most important point for me (given my focus since 2003) was the advice to states:

  • Address the strongest risk factor for heroin addiction: addiction to prescription opioid painkillers

If you still don’t believe that opioid use and the abuse of heroin (and other drugs) are related, you just aren’t paying attention. Or you don’t want to connect the dots. I will let the CDC prove my point …

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The use of heroin is no respecter of income level, age, gender, education or geographic location. However, the CDC did outline those most at risk for use:

  • People who are addicted to prescription opioid painkillers
  • People who are addicted to cocaine
  • People without insurance or enrolled in Medicaid
  • Non-Hispanic whites
  • Males
  • People who are addicted to marijuana and alcohol
  • People living in a large metropolitan area
  • 18- to 25-year-olds

Do yourself a favor. Take 10 minutes and read the report from the CDC. It will only be wasted time if the information does not influence you to action.