Tag Archives: oxycontin

Opioids: Invading the Workplace

America’s employers are facing a serious drug problem. A 2015 survey of 200 Indiana-based companies conducted by the National Safety Council and the Indiana Attorney General’s Office indicated that a staggering 80% of the state’s employers have had problems with employees abusing prescription opioids such as Vicodin and OxyContin.

“We would expect very similar results in many states,” said Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council. The Illinois-based nonprofit organization focuses on preventing injuries and deaths at work and in the community. “This is not a local problem. This is a national problem, and it’s very important for employers to understand that this is an issue that they need to pay attention to and not put their heads in the sand.”

Prescription painkiller abuse has reached epidemic proportions across the United States. In addition to endangering the health and well-being of millions of employees, opioid abuse is costing employers billions of dollars in absenteeism and lost productivity, and growing evidence suggests that opioid abuse also affects many unemployed individuals.

“Beyond the loss of productivity, prescription drug abuse can cause impairment, injury and may lead employees to bad choices, such as theft and embezzlement from the employer,” said Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller in a news release about the December 2015 study.

See also: How to Attack the Opioid Crisis  

Employers Feel the Pain

On average, opioid misuse costs the U.S. economy $55.7 billion a year, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Employers bear the burden of nearly half of that cost, with an average of $10 billion lost every year from missed work and decreased productivity alone.

Prescription drug abuse has two effects on an employee’s medical costs. First, employees who abuse opioid drugs have significantly higher costs for pharmaceuticals than non-opioid users. Costs for opioid painkillers rose 11.5 percent in 2014, according to pharmacy benefit manager Express Scripts Holding Co. As a result, workers’ compensation claim payers spent an average of $1,583 per injured worker for prescription drugs in 2014.

Furthermore, opioid abusers have significantly higher healthcare costs than non-abusers — $10,627 higher annually — according to a research article in the Journal of Managed Care & Specialty Pharmacy.

The Illusion of Relief

While highly effective in the short term, opioids are also dangerously addictive. This is because opioids produce a sense of pleasure due to their effect on brain regions involved in reward mechanisms. Adding to their danger is the fact that opioids tend to induce tolerance, which means that over time larger and larger doses are needed to achieve the initial effect.

A 2015 Healthentic study on the cost of painkiller abuse borne by U.S. companies found that for pain related to common workplace injuries such as soft-tissue injuries (bruises and musculoskeletal problems that affect muscles, bones and joints), opioids are no more effective at reducing pain than over-the-counter alternatives such as Tylenol, Advil or generic ibuprofen.

Less risky treatments for pain include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, nerve blockers and other medicines including anti-seizure drugs and antidepressants which have pain-relieving properties. Other important options for managing the pain of workplace injuries include physical therapy, massage and acupuncture. It is also vital to treat any concomitant depression in the injured worker, as depression makes pain feel more acute and causes the sufferer to feel hopeless and helpless.

Steps Employers Can Take

Employers have a variety of options to ensure the long-term health of employees while improving productivity and lowering employment costs. The first is to demand adherence to evidence-based prescribing guidelines for pain treatment from all participating providers in their medical, workers’ compensation and occupational health programs. There is technology available now that can alert payers to providers who prescribe according to current treatment guidelines and those who don’t.

Employers also should educate employees about the risks of opioid drug use to help prevent drug misuse. For example, employees should know that a substantial subset of opioid users become addicted with their very first prescription, so care is warranted to ensure that patients with chronic pain know both the advantages and disadvantages of taking opioids right from the start.

Lastly, employers should provide confidential access to treatment for employees who find themselves in a position of opioid dependency. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) or wellness programs should be able to connect employees with effective treatment programs for their opioid use disorder, their depression and whatever else is impeding their ability to full productivity.

See also: The True Face of Opioid Addiction  

The Connection With Unemployment

A new study suggests unemployment also might be one of the factors behind the dramatic rise in opioid use disorder. The paper, published by NBER, finds that as the unemployment rate increases by one percentage point in a given county, the opioid death rate rises by 3.6 percent, and emergency room visits rise by 7 percent.

Rather than more people getting injured when jobs are scarce, the authors suspect that the increased use of painkillers is a “physical manifestation of mental health problems that have long been known to rise during periods of economic decline.” Depression and pain go hand-in-hand, in other words: “Not only does depression make people more sensitive to pain,” they note, but also, “opioids have been shown to help relieve depressive symptoms.” Pain, opioids and depression are all interrelated and all must be managed to achieve what both injured workers and payers would regard as success.

One can conclude from all of this evidence that opioid use disorder is increasingly rampant among both employees and those who are unemployed. Opioid misuse now may be a national problem, but the solution needs to start locally. Employers are uniquely positioned to demand accountability from providers and to join with their neighborhood social service agencies and nonprofits focusing on the opioid issue collectively to intervene in and reduce the prevalence of this debilitating 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.

Opioids Are the Opiates of the Masses

One day in 2014, before most people could even spell “opioids” (two “i’s), the CEO of a company named Healthentic asked me to review a white paper based on the output of its new analytics tool. Healthentic’s tool is far more focused on the “80” of the “80-20” rule than competing tools are. So, rather than drowning readers in data, the tool is supposed to help certain figures jump off the pages and lead to action.

As my role in life appears to be the thankless task of finding errors in other people’s work, I was pleasantly surprised that Healthentic called me to plausibility-check the tool early in the process, rather than disseminate it and wait for me to publish “highlights” of my analysis after the fact, as I am wont to do.

As usual, I noticed some highly suspect information. In this case, it was prescriptions for Tramadol, Oxycontin and Hydrocodone. With my usual charm, grace and humility, I said: “These figures can’t possibly be right. This isn’t an NFL team in constant pain. If these figures were correct, it would mean that 40% of their employees filled a prescription for a synthetic opioid in a single year.” We rechecked the figure and the raw data several times. And yet the original statistic refused to bend. It was accurate.

See also: Paging Dr. Evil: The War Over Opioids

Ironically, the particular Healthentic customer profiled in the white paper was obsessed with employee health. Its staff could recite how many employees had high blood pressure or high cholesterol, participated in the “steps challenge” or the “biggest loser contest” or didn’t buckle their seat belts. But opiates and synthetic opioids — the elephant in the room capable of magnitudes more damage to employee health and productivity than any of the wellness vendor siren songs — had been completely overlooked.

In the days that followed, we talked through four possible scenarios and ruled out three:

  1. Employees were being injured due to safety hazards and accidents — but the company’s OSHA reports were clean and, in any event, those prescriptions would have shown up in workers’ compensation, not group benefits;
  2. Certain local doctors were prescribing way too many of these pills — but the prescriptions seemed to be coming from many different doctors;
  3. Employees were reselling their prescription meds — but if that were the case they’d have enough sense not to purchase these pills through the PBM;
  4. A sizable number of employees were at-risk or already addicted to opiates.

It was definitely the last. Little did we know this was the leading edge of the belatedly discovered synthetic opioid epidemic.

Healthentic analysis consistently finds that opioids are some of the most prescribed drugs for all employers. “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning” has become: “Take some Oxy and text me in the morning.” It wasn’t hard for a person with a few dental or medical procedures to have several months’ supply of the drug.

Pain is no laughing matter. It is human nature to ease suffering. But the cost and consequences of treating chronic pain so freely with opioids is shockingly high. Not a week goes by without more national news being made on the topic, such as Prince’s death. Of course it isn’t just famous people who are susceptible. Opioids — synthetically designed cousins of heroin — are so addictive there’s a Super Bowl commercial for another drug to treat constipation from chronic use. Obviously a market has to be quite sizable to merit a Super Bowl ad.

See also: Progress on Opioids — but Now Heroin?

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Pursuing early detection of a large supply of opioids and putting treatment goals in place will help a great deal in avoiding chronic use and addiction. Employers can help to head off chronic use before it turns into addiction. Independent analysis of your data should identify the three key risk factors for this population:

  1. a 45-day or greater supply;
  2. 10 or more prescription refills; or
  3. overlapping synthetic opioid and benzodiazepine prescriptions.

As brokers and employers, you can flag this population to the medical carriers and providers. You yourselves won’t be aware who is at risk, in conformance with the new CDC guidelines.

I emphasize the word “independent” because of how far behind the curve the payers are. One insurance carrier told an employer not to worry about the 150 people Healthentic had tagged for being at risk for chronic opioid use. “We know about these people. They are in our medication compliance program. Most are on palliative care.” That would be an obvious whopper even if these employees had worked at Chernobyl, and a quick analysis confirmed there wasn’t a single palliative care referral in the group.

Employers’ obsession with wellness, and carriers’ unwillingness to run the data, is great for my business, and for Healthentic’s. Unfortunately, it is not so great for employees at risk for opioid addiction. The only good news is that at least they won’t be constipated.

23 Questions on the Use of Narcotics

During my Feb. 23  webinar titled “History of Heroin Use: Impact on Prescription Drug Abuse,” there were a series of questions that I could not address during the Q&A time. In fact, 23 questions. I finally finished my written responses, and One Call Care University is distributing them to the 938 confirmed attendees of the webinar. However, I thought it might be an interesting exercise to make them more broadly available here.

BTW, because of the very positive feedback from attendees, One Call Care University has scheduled another webinar on the same subject on Aug. 25 (obviously with some updated content). I appreciate their support. So, if you missed the Feb. 23 webinar, pencil in Aug. 25 on your calendar.

See Also: Progress on Opioids–but Now Heroin?

Also, in case you didn’t notice, I have written two heroin-related blogposts since February 23 that provide even more context – “Breaking Point: Heroin in America” and “The Heroin Triangle … in My Hometown.”

And now, the 23 questions … and answers. I would appreciate any additional insights you may have, so I can continue to expand my perspective and understanding, so feel free to submit comments.

  1. Will the recent conviction of Dr. Tseng in the overdose death of three patients have an impact on physicians dispensing narcotics? I certainly hope so. It is a very high-profile prosecution and conviction of a physician who was prescribing for the benefit of her pocketbook and not for the patients. As with other high-profile events, this could be used as a launching point for even further prosecution (beyond the continuing investigations that typically result in surrendering MD or DEA licenses). Whether this affects the opinions (and actions) of actual prescribers, only time will tell.
  2. As a workers’ comp adjuster, I received a request for approval of Narcan for an injured worker who is taking morphine medications. It was denied, but what would be the ramifications of approving Narcan to a workers’ comp injured worker? Would there be a chance of getting a death claim if the injured worker died after the Narcan dose? I’d be interested in knowing the rationale for denial – was it deemed unrelated/non-compensable, or were there concerns about its medical efficacy, or was it a concern along the lines of your second question as to the implications or liability? The latter is an interesting question, because by approving Narcan it could be extrapolated that you know the dangers of the drugs for which you’re approving an antidote. On the other hand, if you don’t approve the Narcan, did you not perform the necessary due diligence to ensure the patient didn’t die from an overdose. These are legal questions – I’m not an attorney, so you should probably consult yours – but I could see both respective questions and answers creating issues. Ultimately, the best thing that can be done for the patient/injured worker is to help him taper from the dangerous drugs he’s using to a treatment that does not introduce the possible side-effect of death (i.e., remove the need for Narcan by removing the drugs). As I mentioned on the webinar, we’ve made a mess, and now we have to clean it up. I believe the cleaning up process is going to be a major focus for many years to come.
  3. What can be done about the physicians who are ordering unnecessary narcotics such as hydrocodone and oxycodone and seem to be the majority? It’s upsetting when a patient goes to an urgent care and is given narcotics for simple injuries such as a small laceration to a finger, or a bumped toe – how and why is this happening? Part of the solution is better education for prescribers – they should be informed of all treatment options and focus on those with the least amount of negative side effects that helps the patient (which may mean not giving patients the drugs they think they need). Part of it is better education for the patient – own your healthcare, ask questions and if the side effects are worse than the original malady then do your own research (plenty of free resources on the Internet). Part of it is the pharmacy/pharmacist/PBM – leverage common sense (and automated triggers) to connect the potency of the drugs to the illness/injury being treated. Part of it has to be legislated – mandatory access of PDMPs where real-time access is available, CME for doctors to ensure they know everything they need to about the treatment of pain, investigations by the DEA and state and local enforcement, restrictions on physician dispensing. Ultimately, prescribing behavior needs to change. But putting the responsibility solely on the prescriber is not sufficient.
  4. How do you view chronic use of Tramadol? Tramadol was added as a Schedule IV drug as of Aug. 18, 2014. Prior to then, it had not been scheduled (i.e. was not a controlled substance). The DEA changed the classification because the long-time arguments were all disproved: that people can’t get addicted, there is no withdrawal process, and there is no possibility of overdose. If it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck and smells like a duck – it’s a duck. More research showed that Tramadol quacked and walked and smelled like a narcotic. That said, it’s less potent and has less serious side effects than Schedule II (e.g. oxycodone, methadone) or Schedule III (e.g. Vicodin, Tylenol with Codeine). Per all EBM guidelines, long-term use of narcotics can be supported if the patient has exhausted all conservative non-pharma and pharma treatment, has adequate pain control and levels of function/quality of life and is on the lowest possible dosage. That obviously leaves open the possibility of long-term use, but the bar is fairly high. Anybody in this position should talk with a doctor.
  5. How do you view long-term use of Flexeril (Benzodiazepine)? Flexeril (cyclobenzaprine) is a muscle relaxant. While it is less dangerous than Soma (carisoprodol), the side effects from any muscle relaxant can be dangerous (check out my favorite website’s assessment). In general, muscle relaxants are not recommended for long-term use, but, as with the above question on Tramadol, use should be based on the effects (positive and negative) to the patient and whether there are treatment options (non-pharma and pharma) that might equally resolve the condition without the dangers. Anybody in this position should talk with a doctor.
  6. What do we tell patients who have chronic back pain, who have failed all conservative treatment and who are unable to obtain strong-enough medication for short-term exacerbations, and their physician will not prescribe any narcotic? What choice do they have but to seek street drugs? This is the tricky part – not restricting access to drugs to the point that people who really need them can’t get them. That is often the concern raised by advocates for opioids. If the patient has not shown signs of abuse (e.g. running out of their 30-day supply in 22 days, doctor/pharmacy shopping, using illicit drugs or non-medical prescription drugs) then the doctor should consider prescribing the lowest possible dosage to resolve the issue, whether it’s chronic pain or momentary exacerbations. That prescription should be accompanied by accountability tools like pill counts and random drug tests and opioid treatment agreements. And it should also be accompanied by counseling to address the psychosocial needs of the patients (e.g. giving them methods to cope with the pain, helping them deal with problematic family situations, providing vocational rehab to provide some work outlet). In my mind, this decision starts and ends with an honest and transparent dialogue between the doctor and patient. If the patient doesn’t feel listened to, or the doctor feels like the patient isn’t being honest, bad decisions can be made. If, after all these controls have been introduced, the doctor still doesn’t feel like narcotics are the answer, then the patient should likely solicit a second opinion. Of course, in workers’ comp, that would process through the payer (carrier, TPA, self-insured) … So the circle of honest and transparent dialogue also needs to include them.
  7. Have you seen correlation for suicide for people taking Xanax and drinking alcohol? The biggest concern in combining Xanax and alcohol is accidental death from side effects such as slowed respiration and heart rates and seizures. Severe depression is another potential side effect, which could certainly lead to a suicide attempt. Suicidal thoughts as a specific side effect are not nearly as common as just going to sleep and never waking up again. My suggestion? Never mix alcohol with any opioid, benzodiazepine or muscle relaxant. Period.
  8. Do you think that decreasing the use of prescription opioids will just push more people to street heroin? It already has. And that is why we have concurrent epidemics of prescription painkiller abuse and heroin. For those who have become dependent or addicted to opioids, they need to be helped by a methodical tapering process to other methods for resolving their pain and non-pharma ways to deal with that pain (e.g. yoga, stretching exercises, an active lifestyle) and psychological treatment (e.g. CBT, establishing coping mechanisms). It is inhumane to remove drugs, especially those with high possibility of abuse and addiction, and not replace them with other mechanisms to treat their physical and psychological pain. Just detoxing or removing access will likely just force patients into finding other methods to self-medicate (heroin or other illicit drugs, alcohol, etc.) So, the answer to this Rubik’s Cube is difficult because only removing supply of opioids could create unintended consequences that could be as bad or even worse than the original problem.
  9. Why aren’t MDs (particularly pain management specialists) held more accountable for addiction? Isn’t it malpractice? That argument could certainly be made. Doctors, in general, are given great latitude to practice the art of medicine. That latitude has often resulted in great treatment that would have otherwise not been tried – the discovery of penicillin, the transition of minoxidil (Rogaine) from high blood pressure to hair growth, any number of treatments for cancer. But with latitude comes responsibility for bad choices, and once discovered taking an alternate path. At this point, it could not be argued that opioids are very dangerous and overused and that extreme care is needed to ensure that the benefits outweigh the risks. So why do physicians/prescribers, including pain management specialists, often still prescribe when the evidence is clear? And why aren’t they held accountable? We’re seeing increasing accountability by the DEA, state and local law enforcement who are actively pursuing “pill mills” and inappropriate prescribing patterns. We’re seeing increasing accountability from the use of PDMPs and prescribing profiles from PBMs to target high-quantity prescribers. We’re certainly seeing increasing accountability from investigative media who are searching for stories. When will that translate into medical malpractice (defined as “any act or omission by a physician during treatment of a patient that deviates from accepted norms of practice in the medical community and causes an injury to the patient”) is anyone’s guess, but I can see that as a natural consequence over time by patients and their attorneys.
  10. What can be done to report opioid abuse? Each state’s PDMP (prescription drug monitoring program) is a macro way of recognizing abuse and misuse by patients and prescribers — some states have combined data. However, for now, access is limited to prescribers, pharmacists and in some cases law enforcement. So the primary means of identifying abuse and misuse will be the prescriber and family/friends. So how do they report it, and to whom? The first step should be intervening directly with the abuser/misuser to help her recognize, admit and enact changes to stop her substance abuse. That intervention may require involving a professional in substance abuse or mental health. If the abuser will not admit there is a problem, the next step will be determined by the level of abuse, illegality and connectedness. If you know someone who is abusing opioids or other dangerous drugs, and he won’t respond to your private conversations about the issue, then engage with a professional.
  11. If Rx opioids are intended for post-surgical pain and end of life, why do doctors prescribe them for WC back injuries with no end game plan in sight, and why won’t the WC judges  get involved? Why are doctors not held accountable for this problem? As mentioned in an earlier answer, the motivations for prescribing and using outside the on-label uses for these drugs can be varying. As can the accountability. But I think that is changing as doctors become more aware of the epidemic and their role in it. I have seen a generational shift by new doctors who attended medical school, while media including USA Today and CNN have ensured the general population knows we have a problem. The doctors who were in practice or in medical school during the mid-1990s when advocates complained of opioid phobia and under-treatment of pain are coming to a similar conclusion. By no means has there been enough education yet, or conversion of prescribing behaviors, but pressure from the White House to the governor’s house to a mom’s house is certainly creating momentum toward appropriate use. Those of us who serve as educators will continue to be unrelenting in the battle for hearts and minds, but ultimately it comes down to individual decisions by both prescribers and patients to do the right thing.
  12. Do you know if authorities who arrested Tseng confiscated the $5 million she made? I’ve not seen any evidence they did.
  13. Why do people snort pills vs. taking them normally? Drugs like OxyContin and Opana are ER (extended release) and formulated to take effect over a period of 10 to 12 hours. That does not provide the intense and immediate high desired by people addicted to or dependent upon heroin-type euphoria. When pills are crushed and snorted or injected, users bypass the wait associated with the extended release. Abuse deterrent formulations are an important component to help make the high more difficult to obtain. I spoke at a summit on Abuse Deterrence in Alexandria, VA, on March 19, so be watching for a post on what I learned from the speakers prior to my presentation.
  14. Is Demerol similar to or it is also an opioid? Similar to morphine? Demerol (meperidine) is indeed an opioid. Morphine is 10 times more potent than Demerol, however it is NOT recommended for palliative care (i.e. for chronic pain). According to drugs.com, it has 73 major, 701 moderate and seven minor drug interactions along with 16 disease interactions. So it’s a very complicated drug.
  15. What do you recommend someone take with a chronic illness that is not life-threatening? There are many people who take, appropriately, prescription drugs to manage chronic conditions like diabetes, hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis and a variety of other ailments – and without those drugs, their health (and often their life expectancy) would be compromised. Chronic pain, physical or psychological, is real. And unique to each individual, both in the pain itself and the ability to manage it. Which means the treatment is often unique for that specific individual, and therefore the road map can be filled with trial and error. In some cases, chronic pain can be appropriately managed by prescription drugs. But likely that isn’t the only method for management, and in some cases prescription drugs create more issues (i.e. side effects) than they solve. Finding a pain management clinician who believes in the BioPsychoSocial model and thinks drugs are used only after all conservative options are exhausted is key. Following is a list of alternative treatments that is at least a starting point: Physical – An active lifestyle; seven to eight hours of sleep each night; Proper nutrition and weight management; Alternative treatments like acupuncture, massage therapy, yoga; Reducing or removinge alcohol consumption; Smoking cessation. Psychological – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to adjust attitudes about pain; Develop coping mechanisms through methods like deep breathing, meditation, biofeedback; Dealing with the anxiety or depression that often comes with chronic pain; Developing a support system of family and friends; Decreasing avoidance by enhancing the “fight” attitude; Reducing stress. For further reading, two good articles can be found at http://www.webmd.com/pain-management/guide/11-tips-for-living-with-chronic-pain and http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/576064
  16. How long does a person need to be on methadone for weaning? That varies on the person, the complexity and scope of the drug regimen being weaned and any co-morbidities that might complicate the process. One clinical resource I’ve read says a patient with significant risks can be tapered in a closely monitored environment over seven to 14 days, but typically it’s a slow process of 5% to 10% declination every one to two weeks (so how long it takes depends upon the starting dosage).
  17. Many providers order opioids in workers’ comp and are not willing to budge in discontinuing/weaning these medications. What recommendations do you have to assist in this process? In some cases, opioids are appropriate, so don’t automatically assume all opioids (and the corresponding drugs/classifications to address side effects) are inappropriate. If the opioids are creating more harm than good (based on levels of activity, quality of life, number/severity of side effects, subjective assessment of pain), and if evidence-based medicine indicates there are other treatment options that should be tried, that information should be relayed to the prescriber. If the prescriber will not talk to anyone, or does not accept the evidence of a better way, then the goal would be to either compel the prescriber to change the drug regimen or to change to a different provider. The path for that is different for each jurisdiction and often includes utilization review, independent medical exam (IME), forcing a provider change, a legal challenge, reporting the provider to the state’s medical association or discussion directly with the injured worker. First, every effort should be made to present objective, clinical evidence in a collegial manner to the prescriber to help him see things differently. If, given the evidence and the chance to review, the prescriber still refuses to listen or change then there is ample evidence of your due diligence that will demonstrate your desire to do the right thing for the injured worker.
  18. I have been informed that once a person is on meth he always goes back. People are never able to get off it. Is that true? If not, do you know the statistics for successful results? There are circumstances where somebody could successfully detox and stay off meth, but it is so addictive that the odds are high they will relapse or die. I found a statistic that 93% of those in rehab for meth addiction relapse, and the national rate of recovery is 16% to 0%. This article provides a good overview: http://luxury.rehabs.com/crystal-meth-addiction/recovery-statistics/.
  19. Is Hep C a germ that develops or is it an actual virus passed by dirty needles? Hepatitis C is a “virus (a type of germ) that causes liver disease.” From my study of opioids and heroin, it’s clear that Hep C can be a direct result of heroin use because of shared needles. “Dirty needles” typically means ones that have been contaminated by bacteria or blood residue from previous user(s) of that needle, and that can certainly be a method for addicts who are scrounging for resources (like needles) to continue their habit. Dirty needles are one reason why communities may have a “clean needle” program. Which is an interesting conversation – does providing clean needles encourage heroin use, or is it a helpful precaution? For more information, this can be a helpful resource: http://health.williams.edu/keephealthy/general-health-concerns/hepatitis-c/.
  20. What is your take on nurse-monitored injection sites, and have they been found to decrease community outbreaks of disease? What have been some of the community concerns related to these sites? This is a trend I’ve read about, not only in the U.S. (Indiana’s response to the Hepatitis C outbreak because of heroin abuse is a needle exchange program via Senate Enrolled Act 461) but abroad (Canada, Portugal, Netherlands). The programs are often called “injection rooms” or “safe havens” or “needle exchanges,” sometimes even coming with outright legalization or decriminalization of drugs like heroin. Concerns are whether providing these options legitimizes use and therefore enables the addicts. Obviously, the preference would be to help people rid themselves of addiction and corresponding behavior. As far as results, studies in Portugal indicate decriminalization has not affected drug usage but has dramatically decreased drug-related pathologies like STD and Hep C and HIV. For more information about that, please read https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drug_policy_of_Portugal.
  21. So what is the generally correct progression or step down in using an opioid after surgery? What would be a “pre-red flag”? Step therapy is going to be directly related to the level of pain associated with the effects of the surgery or injury. In some cases, that could be one to two days with a rapid de-escalation (e.g. Percocet to Tramadol to Ibuprofen). In other cases, where the trauma is significant or followed by painful physical therapy, step therapy could be two to three weeks or even months. Not only is the titration related to the severity of the pain, but so is the tolerance to pain or the side effects by the patient (e.g. the constipation is enough for the patient to want something different). Following are some “pre-red flags” that you might consider: Did the provider prescribe an unusually high days’ supply or quantity (e.g. a 30-day supply or 60 pills)? Did the patient run out of supply before the next office visit? Is there no evidence in the provider’s notes that a discussion occurred with the patient on the tapering process (i.e. articulating the exit strategy)? Was there a tapering attempted, but the patient did not respond well? Instead of tapering down (e.g. 20mg to 10mg, Percocet to Tramadol) is the potency increasing (Percocet to OxyContin)? Is it clear that the patient is not moving toward therapy and activity per expectations? In other words, “pre-red flags” are going to be gleaned from the provider’s notes during and post-surgery and prescribing patterns.
  22. Have you seen Suboxone prescribed as a painkiller vs. a manner by which to wean off heroin? What are your thoughts on Suboxone? The FDA is very clear in its labeling – “SUBOXONE sublingual film is a partial-opioid agonist indicated for treatment of opioid dependence.” Therefore, use of Suboxone for pain is considered off-label. Typically, the FDA approves uses (on-label) where the manufacturer can clearly document the benefits of use for a specific condition, so being considered off-label means the evidence was either not clear or not presented. There are many drugs prescribed off-label (the FDA allows off-label use, only restricting manufacturers from advertising or advocating off-label use), and Suboxone certainly qualifies. For all of the labeling details, go to http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cder/drugsatfda. Interestingly, Butrans is another buprenorphine formulation that has been approved “for the management of pain severe enough to require daily, around-the-clock, long-term opioid treatment and for which alternative treatment options are inadequate.” There are some benefits to both in their built-in abuse deterrence mechanisms. While they’re not 100% airtight, they do put enough obstacles in place to make abuse more difficult (although Suboxone is highly abused in prisons). The concern I’ve heard from payers is that these drugs do not facilitate the tapering of opioids, so they are just added to the overall drug regimen, and they are much more expensive than many of the generic opioids, so reconciliation of therapeutic value vs. financial value is troublesome. Unfortunately, abuse deterrent mechanisms are not as widely available for generics as for name brands My personal opinion is there are less expensive treatment options than Suboxone, so it should be reserved for exceptions.
  23. Do you believe that legislation will be written in the near future that will penalize health providers if they exceed recommended narcotic treatment guidelines? Public policy is not only something based on evidence but also on politics. There certainly are enough treatment guidelines available from a variety of sources that indicate thresholds and areas of concern that would highlight abuse while protecting access to patients who receive benefits. Unfortunately, many of those guidelines don’t come with the necessary mandates or penalties for non-adherence. There are powerful lobbyists employed to maintain the status quo. At some point, I think the evidence of death and destruction from our prescription drug abuse epidemic will overwhelm the lobbyists and public policy will not only create mandates but also stronger enforcement mechanisms. The momentum is clearly on the side of more oversight. And it would not surprise me if personal injury lawyers start issuing more lawsuits and medical malpractice to rid the medical practice of the bad actors. Until then, it’s up to the DEA and state/local law enforcement to find and prosecute inappropriate prescribers, to provide help to substance abusers and to educate everybody of the dangers.

Understanding the Challenges in Narcotic Management

At a cost of more than $1.4 billion annually, narcotics and opioids have rapidly become one of the highest-cost therapeutic categories for workers’ compensation injuries.* They are also among the most difficult to manage. No employer wants to have injured workers in undue pain or discomfort – and narcotics do alleviate pain. However, there are serious issues to consider with regard to prescription abuse and misuse, especially for opioids such as Oxycontin and Vicodin.

How can employers help injured workers while ensuring appropriate use of narcotics and reducing unnecessary costs? Comprehensive, clinically based narcotic management programs can help.

Over the past 10 years, opioids, a type of narcotic, have become more commonly used to treat chronic to severe pain associated with workers’ compensation injuries. Known by the generic names of morphine or codeine, and now more frequently by the brand names Oxycontin and Vicodin, opioids are powerful pain relievers.

However, many of these medications were initially intended for end-stage cancer, not for common workplace injuries. While there is likely some benefit in some cases for the use of such medications to treat workers’ compensation injuries, clinicians note that those benefits are typically seen by just a small percentage of patients. There is little evidence to support their long-term or widespread use in standard workers’ compensation injuries. In fact, a study reported by the American Insurance Association found that only a minority of workers with back injuries improved their level of pain (26%) and function (16%) with the use of opioids.** What’s more, there is a high risk for abuse, dependency, and overutilization with this classification of drugs. Indeed, the strongest predictor of long-term opioid use was when it was prescribed within the first 90 days post-injury; that means that every prescription – especially the first one – must be scrutinized to ensure appropriate utilization and optimal benefit. Employers are also concerned about the cost of narcotics. While narcotic use is concentrated among a small percentage of claimants, per-claim costs for narcotics have increased more than 50% over the past decade

Key statistics

  • From 1997 to 2007, the milligram per person use of prescription opioids in the U.S. increased from 74 milligrams to 369 milligrams – that’s an increase of 400%.
  • In 2000, retail pharmacies dispensed 174 million prescriptions for opioids; by 2009, 257 million prescriptions were dispensed – an increase of more than 40%.
  • Opioid overdoses, once almost always because of heroin use, are now increasing because of abuse of prescription painkillers.

White House Office of National Drug Control Policy

Managing narcotics is not about removing viable medications for mitigating pain from the therapies available to providers – it is about ensuring the best possible medications for workers’ compensation injuries are used.

As a result, claims examiners should be trained to look for red flags, such as:

  • Higher-than-normal physician dispensing.
  • Lower-than-average generic dispensing.
  • Higher-than-average prescribing of opioids such as Fentanyl Citrate.

But prescribing medications is a complex issue – reports and percentages alone don’t tell the whole story. So, it’s crucial to look beyond simple prescribing reports to uncover additional information that could indicate why prescribers’ patterns are outside the norm. For example, use of amphetamines could indicate that a patient has a traumatic brain injury, where such medications are a standard treatment protocol.

Drugs that are not suitable for the injury type and the age of the claim need to be identified at the point-of-sale, so claims examiners or nurses are alerted before a prescription that is outside the formulary is filled at the retail pharmacy and can intercede with drug management, if needed. This is particularly useful in the acute injury stage to eliminate early narcotic use where it is not appropriate. If a narcotic is prescribed, the injured worker’s entire medical history needs to be reviewed, using both in-network and out-of-network transactions and non-occupational associated medications to evaluate actual medication use and ensure appropriate utilization.

Follow-up appointments should be required, and only a few days of treatment should be authorized initially. This helps determine whether the medication has improved pain control and function.

Another critical step to managing narcotics is to thoroughly educate employees as to the benefits, dangers, and alternatives for narcotics. The education should include:

  • Training the injured workers about their medication, adverse side effects, and alternative medication options.
  • Required screenings for risk of addiction or abuse (history of drug or alcohol abuse, or regular use of sedatives).
  • Opioid use agreement/contract with urine drug screenings and avoidance of other sources for medication, such as emergency rooms.

A number of factors should trigger a review:

  • Narcotic-class medications for the treatment of pain (Oxycontin, Demerol, etc.).
  • Use of multiple medications excessively or from multiple therapeutic classes.
  • Using medications not typical for the treatment of workers’ compensation injuries.
  • High-cost medications.
  • Receiving high doses of morphine equivalents daily for treatment of chronic pain.
  • Using three or more narcotic analgesics.
  • Receiving duplicate therapy with NSAIDs, muscle relaxants or sedatives.
  • Using both sedatives and stimulants concurrently.
  • Using compounded medications instead of commercially available products.

* “Narcotics in Workers Compensation,” NCCI Research Brief, Dec. 2009

** http://www.aiadc.org/AIAdotNET/docHandler.aspx?DocID=351901