Tag Archives: John Bobik

Is Change Really Happening So Fast?

Lots of people are saying these days that the insurance industry, after essentially not ever changing, is suddenly moving too fast to follow — for instance, the recent ITL article, “Feeling Like a Keystone Cop.” But in my 37 years in the industry, insurance has evolved continuously.

Insurers have changed from the days where syndicates consisting of individuals provided insurance coverage through the Lloyds market; today, China Re with a majority ownership by China’s ministry of finance, has a syndicate at Lloyds. Today, a large number of insurers are owned by multinational conglomerates.

Other types of evolution include Berkshire Hathaway’s use of insurance premiums as a means of financing its investment interests. Similarly, Fairfax Financial Holdings of Canada uses premiums collected from its insurance companies around the world to finance investment interests.

Financial services groups such as Suncorp Group in Australia now offer insurance through a number of brand names, such as Shannons (classic car insurance), APIA (Australian Pensioners Insurance Agency) and AAMI. Rand Merchant Insurance Holding Group of South Africa offers insurance in Australia under the name of Youi (https://www.youi.com.au).

In addition, some insurance companies, like Progressive, are taking a technology-only approach to offer motor vehicle insurance in Australia without a “brick and mortar” presence. Apart from the option of reporting a claim by phone, all other communications are through email or a web page. With this approach, Progressive in Australia will only attract those who use technology. Here is the link http://www.progressiveonline.com.au/car-insurance.aspx

People talk about Google, Walmart, Amazon and others possibly entering the insurance market — again, this isn’t something new. Brand names have been used by insurers for many decades. Coles, a large supermarket chain in Australia (https://financialservices.coles.com.au/insurance) (similar to a Safeway or Ralphs here in the U.S.), offers various insurance polices to its customers that are underwritten by Insurance Australia Group.

Whether Google, Walmart or Amazon actually decides to underwrite risks, act as channels for insurance or simply provide a means to compare insurer premiums remains to be seen, but, regardless, none of this is new. For example, InsWeb has offered car insurance price comparisons since the mid-1990s. Here is the link: http://www.insweb.com.

One thing that is certain, however, is that the insurance market will continue to be driven by price and service, especially service at the time of a claim. In his 2013 annual report, Warren Buffett made the following comment, “GEICO in 1996 ranked number seven among U.S. auto insurers. Now, GEICO is number two, having recently passed Allstate. The reasons for this amazing growth are simple: low prices and reliable service.”

Over time, risk types change, and insurance coverage follows. Boiler explosion insurance for example, was a major type of insurance through the 1800s and into the mid-1900s. It still exists but is only a very small percentage of the insurance market.

We will see changes to vehicle insurance coverage when driverless vehicles appear on our roads, as mentioned in the recent ITL article titled, “Beginning of the End for Car Insurance.” There are many risk coverage issues for potential exposures with driverless cars. Imagine if a child runs onto the street to retrieve a ball without looking (a common occurrence for those living in the suburbs). With advanced technology built into driverless vehicles, the vehicle would be programmed to make a decision about which action to take in the best interest of all parties (i.e. the child, occupants in the vehicle or nearby vehicles as well as pedestrians): (1) brake but still hit the child or (2) brake and avoid the child but possibly hit another object such as another vehicle or lamppost, injuring the occupants of the vehicles as well as nearby pedestrians.

All this will need to be addressed by laws and road rules when driverless vehicles are introduced, with insurance following on. Premiums and who pays are the least of the insurance complexities involved with driverless vehicles. If a manufacturer is required to obtain insurance coverage or volunteers to obtain insurance coverage, the premium would be factored into the price of the vehicle; otherwise. it would be paid by the owner of the vehicle. Regardless, insurers will receives premiums from one source or the other.

Another evolving insurance coverage relates to a disability occurring from a work-related, motor-vehicle or non-work-related incident. While U.S. jurisdictions ponder whether coverage for a work-related injury or illness should be through a workers’ compensation policy issued by a property/casualty insurer or through the opt-out option (a hot topic in the U.S. at the moment), Europe, Asia and Australia are focusing on what people with a disability can be doing and deciding on how best to achieve this, including funding. In this case, the evolution relates to who will pay the premiums. Will employers continue to pay for work-related injuries, or will individuals buy personal injury coverage to cover their recovery costs, no matter whether associated with a work-related, motor-vehicle or non-work-related incident?

In the evolution of insurance, technology has always played an important role in areas such as deciding which segment of a market companies want to attract, meeting reporting obligations and improving processing efficiencies. In workers’ compensation, a number of U.S. carriers have chosen to outsource many of their claims functions, as I outlined in my last article. Whether this practice continues remains to be seen, but something needs to change in the way the workers’ compensation insurer or its representatives (e.g.. third party payer) handle claims, because clearly what they are doing is not producing the desired outcome for the injured worker or the employer, and no form of state legislature or technology change will address this shortfall.

Products like IBM’s Watson and Saama that are able to use unstructured data in addition to structured data to perform analytics are part of the technology evolution, and there is high probability of success. But we saw something along the same lines during the early 1990s, when all the buzz was about neural networks.

In closing, I don’t feel as if I’m a Keystone Cop when it comes to professional development, either relating to insurance or the technology used now or offered in the future. I also don’t think the major players in the insurance industry (like Berkshire Hathaway, Fairfax, Suncorp and others around the globe) feel they or their personnel are operating like Keystone Cops. If they were, I’m sure their share prices would not be as high as they are.

The ‘CURES’ for Work Comp Claims

When an injured worker submits a claim, it initiates processes aimed at returning the injured worker to gainful and sustainable work at the earliest possible time. In this journey, checkpoints and milestones are the best means to monitor progress. Checkpoints generally relate to visits with a medical practitioner where medical conditions are checked against expectations and, if necessary, treatments are adjusted. Milestones are associated with reaching a goal.

At the first medical appointment, the physician is required to prepare a report for the claims administrator based on a comprehensive medical examination of the injured person, including a review of the medical history. At the same time, the physician can access CURES (Controlled Substance Utilization Review and Evaluation System) to check whether the patient has received any scheduled controlled substances in the prior 12 months. Through this access, the physician can identify an at-risk patient and accordingly establish a treatment plan that considers both medications and adjunctive treatments. Also, if a patient is identified as an addict, he can be referred for rehabilitation and social re-integration. With subsequent medical appointments, the physician can again use CURES to check for any changes to the patient’s scheduled controlled substances usage since his last visit.

The importance of a physician using CURES to check a patient’s use of scheduled controlled substances cannot be overemphasized, especially in workers’ compensation, where a patient may not be forthcoming in sharing comorbidity information because of a lack of trust. Not knowing if a patient is currently taking scheduled controlled substances, the physician could jeopardize the patient by prescribing inappropriate medications.

In addition to the medical profession, CURES is available to Department of Justice investigators and law enforcement agencies to identify persons who visit a number of physicians to obtain supplies of scheduled controlled substances for abuse and diversion (i.e. physician shopping). Pharmacists and numerous regulatory boards from the medical board to the veterinary board also have access to CURES, providing them with the opportunity to monitor the medical profession for aberrant prescribing of scheduled controlled substances.

While states like Florida implemented a PDMP (prescription drug monitoring program) as late as 2011, California has monitored Schedule II controlled substances since 1940 and with the introduction of CURES in 1996 extended its monitoring to include Schedule III and IV controlled substances. Online access to CURES has also been available to the medical profession since 2009. Consequently, California has not experienced the abuse and diversion that Florida has with its “pill mills.”

Access to CURES by claims administrators or their representatives (i.e. third party payers) will not deliver improved quality of care or reduce prescription drug fraud and abuse and will add unnecessary costs through duplication of efforts already being performed by others using CURES. Close monitoring of checkpoints, however, by the claims administrator will provide benefits. Monitoring is accomplished through what is commonly referred to as “encounter data” and includes diagnoses, services performed and medications dispensed along with amounts charged and paid. Diagnoses, medical procedures and pharmaceuticals translated into coding systems such as ICD-10 (International Classification of Disease, 10th revision), HCPCS (HeathCare Common Procedure Coding System) and NDC (National Drug Code) provide excellent opportunities to automate the monitoring of encounter data.

Have claims administrators been able to implement technology solutions to automate the monitoring of encounter data and achieve outstanding results? Over the past two decades, many claims administrators have opted to outsource the management and control of critically important functions such as utilization review, medical bill review and pharmacy monitoring. Many of the outsource organizations only focus on that part of the encounter data that directly applies to their function — for example, pharmacy benefit managers only monitor the pharmacy. But using all the encounter data can promote a vibrant synergy very capable of achieving outstanding outcomes and results for the injured worker.

Losing control of encounter data eliminates the claims administrator’s ability to establish and monitor adherence to best evidence-based practices. When physicians have not adhered to their proposed treatment plans, opportunities to trigger yellow and red flags for investigation are lost.

Claims administrators who have automated the monitoring of their encounter data can assist states in reducing abuse and diversion by monitoring the quantities of medications being dispensed in a progressive or step therapy pain management plan, for example, and encouraging unused supplies to be returned to the physician at the next appointment. This can be achieved at no additional cost to the claims administrator and reduces the quantities of unused or unneeded prescription medications in circulation, which has been the focus of the DEA’s (U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency) “take back” initiatives. To date, the DEA has collected in excess of 1,400 tons of unused medications, which could otherwise have found their way into the illicit drug market.

For as long as the U.S. remains the biggest licit and illicit drug market in the world, claims administrators will remain challenged to deliver on their workers’ compensation claims handling obligations.

With a changing workforce, claims administrators will need to move more and more toward a biopsychosocial approach to managing medical conditions. They must provide quality care at the lowest possible cost, which can only be achieved through the fine analytics of consolidated encounter data.

Capturing encounter data through the claims administrator’s processes and fine analytics will consistently yield the best claims outcomes, from earlier return-to-work to lower costs associated with medical treatment through to automated overseeing of a claim, including provider performance monitoring and evaluation. All of these are the essence of superior workers’ compensation claims management.

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.

Are MPNs Hindering Quality Care?

Have medical provider networks (MPNs) lived up to expectations of improving access to quality of care while reducing medical costs? Recent accusations raised against Janak K. Mehtani, M.D. (“Mehtani”) before the Medical Board of California, Department of Consumer Affairs, would suggest not. (Specific details relating to case # 02 2012224474, effective Jan. 13, 2015, are available on the Medical Board of California website, under the option “Verify a License.” At time of writing, a hearing had not been held, and the case status description states, “The physician has not had a hearing or been found guilty of any charges.”

Following the investigation of a lodged complaint relating to this case, the executive director of the Medical Board of California raised the following accusations (1) gross negligence, (2) repeated negligent acts, (3) prescribing dangerous drugs without appropriate examination or medical indication, (4) failure to maintain adequate and accurate medical records and (5) general unprofessional conduct.

These accusations relate to three workers’ compensation claims for services provided between 2008 and 2013. Two claims were identified as belonging to State Compensation Insurance Fund (“SCIF”) (patients JC and RW) while the insurer for the third claim, involving a non-English-speaking 47-year-old female with a history of hypertension and chronic pain (patient GC), was not identified.

This article reviews the claims administrators’ implementation of MPNs with reference to patient GC in the Mehtani case.

Insurers promote their MPNs as being quality medical providers who have undergone extensive credentialing before selection, with continuing quality assurance control of their services. Yet a random sample of insurers’ MPN lookup facilities showed Mehtani — a psychiatrist with a practice Sacramento — being currently available to provide treatment, even though there are very serious accusations currently lodged against him. There is no warning, link or reference to the medical board website to alert an injured employee or the employer.

Information shown on claims administrators’ MPN websites to assist an employee in selecting a provider or medical specialty, such as a psychiatrist, is limited to basic contact details, such as address, phone number, distance from a specified location (such as city or Zip code), gender and language. In the case of Mehtani, there is inconsistency in the list of languages spoken; some MPNs list Hindi and Punjabi, while others include Spanish. Does providing only minimal information limit the opportunity for correctly “matching” the patient (i.e., injured employee) to the medical provider, potentially compromising the physician-patient relationship?

Additional information in psychiatry would provide better opportunities for matching patient with psychiatrist. Sub-specialties such as psychosomatic medicine, addiction medicine or administrative psychiatry play key roles in the selection process. So do special interests such as psychopharmacology and pain management and additional training in psychoanalysis at institutes such as the American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA). Rapport between the psychiatrist and patient is of paramount importance and is assisted further when matching is based on race, ethnicity and cultural groups.

While a review identified 120 psychiatrists located within two miles of the central business district of Sacramento (CBD), a random selection of insurers’ MPNs identified only one psychiatrist, in this case Mehtani, as being within 200 miles of the CBD. Can this list be considered adequate for the employee to choose a psychiatrist, let alone attempt to “best match” a patient to a psychiatrist?

Some researchers suggest that, in patients with chronic pain, a psychiatrist may be the person best qualified to distinguish between medical comorbidity and concomitant somatic complaints and that the patients require careful multidisciplinary treatment, in which psychiatry can play an important role. Patient GC experienced a number of work-related injuries commencing in 2003 and was first seen by Mehtani in 2008, after experiencing depression and anxiety for two to three years. In line with a multidisciplinary treatment plan, Mehtani referred patient GC out for pain management and to a therapist for cognitive behavior management. Mehtani was to manage medications and provide supportive psychotherapy once a month for 12 months.

But who was responsible for approving and selecting the providers’ Pain management providers are generally listed on MPN lists, but a random selection of MPNs found that cognitive behavior therapists and others providing cognitive behavior therapy, such as psychologists, mental health nurses and psychiatrists, were either not listed or not identified as providing cognitive behavior therapy. This lack further demonstrates the limitations of MPNs in selecting medical providers.

In the multidisciplinary or multidimensional approach to addressing chronic pain, an interdisciplinary approach is also required to maximize a psychiatrist’s role in the treatment plan, where all parties involved work in a coordinated fashion. The overall responsibility of ensuring the multidisciplinary team adheres to a common objective rests with the claims administrator. In the case of patient GC, the claims administrator should have been responsible for all the activities performed by the psychiatrist (Mehtani), the pain management provider, the therapist providing cognitive behavior therapy, the primary treating physician and the pharmacist in cases where medications were being dispensed by an insurer’s pharmacy network or a pharmacy was linked to an insurer’s pharmacy benefit manager (PBM). Pharmacists and pharmacies can be held accountable for failing to identify and verify red flags that may appear when a prescription is presented. In the Mehtani case, the issue of prescribed medications is being raised in the accusations.

Documentation required by psychiatrists has been an issue of contention for some time, with many psychiatrists believing that they do not need to perform the same level of documentation generally required for “physiology-based medicine.” Lack of documentation has also been raised in the Mehtani case.

Quality assurance controls for providers can be accomplished in many ways, including automation. Technology is available to monitor diagnoses (DSM-5, ICD-9 and ICD-10), treatments rendered (CPT codes) and pharmaceuticals dispensed through the National Drug Code (NDC) to track treatment and recovery progress, as well as monitor each provider’s contribution to the objectives set by the claims administrator.

Patient GC had 40 visits for “medical psychoanalysis” with Mehtani between 2010 and 2013. All visits would have been invoiced by Mehtani and would have required documentation before payment was made. As lack of documentation was mentioned in the accusation document for all three patients, how was the claims administrator monitoring treatment progress and determining payment for services rendered over the period that Mehtani treated patient GC and the others?

The current health status of all three patients and whether they have returned to normality has not been stated in the accusation document. Patient GC was first injured in 2003, patient JC was injured in 1989, and no injury date was recorded for patient RW. Regardless of the outcome of the Mehtani hearing, could the injured employees file a tort claim against the insurer as to lack of quality care provided by their MPNs? Could a tort claim be filed by the employer against the insurer with regard to lack of controls to vet and verify costs associated with providing medical treatments by their MPNs? Although tort claims by the employee against the employer are not permitted under the workers’ compensation agreement, the insurer and claims administrator are not direct parties to this agreement.

The question remains unanswered, of whether current workers’ compensation medical treatment practices based on group health managed care programs, such as MPNs, are diametrically opposed to the workers’ compensation ethos of “return to work” where “utmost good faith” between interested parties is the aspiration. This article however, suggests that they most probably are diametrically opposed.

For a more detailed outline of the processes and procedures claims administrators can utilize to manage and monitor their medical providers, refer to the article titled, “Treating Pain Pharmacologically,” available from the website managingdisability.com under the Dialogue tab.

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.