Tag Archives: physicians

3 Perspectives on Opioid Crisis in WC

Over the past two decades, there has been a dramatic increase in the use of opioids in workers’ compensation. Opioids are being prescribed for many conditions for which they were not originally intended. Efforts have begun across the U.S. to create opioid treatment guidelines, change medical practice patterns and curb the opioid epidemic. While much has been written recently about the unintended consequences of opioid use, such as how they increase pain sensitivity and level of disability and can lead to addiction, there is little information available about the perspectives of the key players in workers’ compensation on the opioid issue.

Mark Pew, a prominent managed care organization’s spokesman, has said, “Using opioids as a crutch really is the wrong thing. What you need to be focusing on is coping with it and managing it like the vast majority of humanity does with chronic pain or just the fact of getting old.” But what do the injured workers, physicians and claims adjusters say? I conducted confidential interviews with members of each of these groups to get the perspectives of those who so far have had less of a voice in the debate.

Physicians

Physicians must balance their desire to control their patients’ pain against the known drawbacks of opioids. One physician told me, “When I was in medical school 20 years ago, we were told that we were undertreating pain. Pain was named ‘the fifth vital sign’ (along with blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate and temperature), and we were trained to ask patients about their level of pain on a 10-point scale at every visit. At that time, very little was known about the dangers of long-term opioid use. Now, patients with any kind of pain have come to expect to get that narcotics prescription when they see the doctor.”

See also: How to Attack the Opioid Crisis  

Interestingly, in response to the current opioid crisis, delegates at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Medical Association passed a resolution recommending that pain be removed as the fifth vital sign in professional medical standards. Critics, many of them pain management specialists, say the move “will make it even more difficult for pain sufferers to have their pain properly diagnosed and treated.” However, a 2006 study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine concluded that “routinely measuring pain by the fifth vital sign did not increase the quality of pain management.”

Another physician, a medical director at an insurance carrier, said, “When I see the second opioid prescription come through the system, I start reserving for detox.” She meant the second opioid prescription is an indication to her that there is a high likelihood the injured worker is going to become addicted to the opioids.

Claims Adjusters

Claims adjusters have a unique perspective on the direction a workers’ comp claim takes. They usually speak with both the injured worker and the provider and can influence the process to a certain extent. One claims adjuster said, “I’ve been watching the whole opioid crisis unfold for the last 10 years. We see the opioid prescriptions coming through, and we know that many of them are not indicated by the patient’s condition, but we have limited options for preventing problems. It would be nice if we could identify the providers with good prescribing patterns and direct injured workers to those providers.”

Another claims adjuster told me, “In states with drug formularies, where opioids require prior approval, we are seeing much less opioid use on new claims. Our biggest problems are the older claims where the injured workers have been taking opioids for long periods of time. Then we start to see the prescribing of additional drugs just to treat the side effects of the opioids. The worker is already addicted, is not even getting adequate pain relief anymore, and the claim just goes on and on.”

This claims adjuster thought the best approach to the opioid problem would be to have a claims management system that alerted managers every time a new claim had an opioid prescribed. That way, “we could immediately contact the physician and make sure there was an understanding of the opioid treatment guidelines and a plan in place, right from the start, for weaning the injured worker off the drugs at the appropriate time.”

Injured Workers

In the current climate of awareness about the risks and dangers of opioids, injured workers are often caught in the middle. They must balance their desire for pain control against their growing concerns about side effects and long-term adverse effects. One injured worker said, “I know I’m getting less pain relief than I used to from the pills, but I’m reluctant to tell my physician because I’m afraid of having to deal with my pain on my own. I’d rather suffer with the side effects I’m accustomed to than risk being in constant pain again.”

Another injured worker told me, “I went from eight pills a day to being totally opioid-free, but it took two stints in rehab and a whole lot of willpower. It’s a seductive thought, to place your trust regarding pain relief in a pill, but it’s not a long-term solution. The pills have too many disadvantages. Sooner or later you have to get off the pills and take control of your pain using other methods.” This injured worker has achieved an acceptable level of pain relief using over-the-counter medication and by practicing mindfulness.

A third injured worker reported, “I’ve been on opioids for two years now. My doctor keeps refilling the prescription, so I keep taking the pills. I have a lot of side effects, but it’s worth it to keep my pain under control. I don’t want to make any changes in my regimen and risk being in pain again. I find the negative publicity about opioids very scary. I guess someday I’ll quit them, but just not right now.”

In conclusion, injured workers, providers and claims adjusters are all seeking the right way to deal with pain. Injured workers in pain need pain relief, but they also need non-pharmacologic pain management techniques. Most treatment guidelines in workers’ compensation now recommend opioids only for acute, post-surgical pain relief for three to seven days, ideally. They are not recommended for chronic, musculoskeletal pain, e.g., for pain lasting longer than three months. Providers must take responsibility for engaging their injured workers in an active pain-management process. It doesn’t have to be a formal program; it can be an agreement between doctor and patient. Doctors have to be ready for this responsibility if they prescribe opioids; it’s poor practice — and violates the physician’s imperative to “do no harm” — to prescribe something addictive if you are not able to assist the injured worker with the weaning process.

See also: Opioids: A Stumbling Block to WC Outcomes  

For their part, injured workers must accept the necessity of being actively involved in their pain management and buy into not taking pills long-term that are going to result in more harm than good. They should demand that their prescribing physician discuss the medication plan with them, what the adverse effects are and what the weaning process will be like.

Finally, claims adjusters have the responsibility to be on the lookout for opioid prescriptions and to make sure that providers are prescribing them within guidelines. There are technological solutions for this. The best approach to the opioid crisis is a team approach: providers, claims adjusters and injured workers working together to avoid opioid dependence and maximize recovery, restoration of function and lasting relief from pain.

Why Doctors Don’t Trust Insurers

Having health insurance and dependable healthcare is one of the biggest concerns for people all over the world, but, unfortunately, there are many doctors who simply don’t trust the health insurance their patients use. No matter if you currently have health insurance, knowing what your doctor feels about your coverage can give you a deeper insight into just how well (or poorly) insured you truly are.

One of the main reasons physicians don’t trust health insurance providers is because they feel insurance companies prevent them from offering patients the absolute best care. It’s understandable to be upset at the idea of not being able to perform your job to the best of your abilities.

Insurance providers that are considered the most trustworthy include Blue Cross Blue Shield and Cigna, while those deemed the least trustworthy are UnitedHealthcare and Humana. These results stem from a 2015 survey conducted by the ReviveHealth Payor Trust Index, with responses from more than 600 specialists and primary care physicians. One thing to note is that Blue Cross Blue Shield earned a combined trust index rating of about 60 out of 100, which was the highest score but which also leaves an abundance of room for improvement.

The Future of American Health Insurance

The two most important factors physicians cited as influencing their opinions about how health plans help or hurt the quality of care they deliver were the level of coverage and number of claim denials.

Physicians might also soon have to contend with new medical insurance companies made up of two or more of the most difficult companies to deal with, such as through the proposed merger of Anthem and Humana. If the deal goes through, physicians might find health insurance companies to be downright insufferable.

Additional Reasons

Besides having their hands tied, doctors provided the ReviveHealth Payor Trust with several more reasons they distrust health insurance companies. Physicians also don’t believe insurance providers do their best to honor commitments made to policyholders. Nor do they believe that companies advertise themselves accurately or honestly. Respondents to the survey also said insurance providers take advantage of doctors.

If even doctors don’t trust insurance companies, where does that leave their patients? Not only do doctors have a better idea than their patients about how the human body works, doctors also have a better idea about how the health insurance industry works. If you’re considering health insurance plans, or if you’re thinking about switching insurance providers, ask your doctor for recommendations.

Is It Time to End Annual Physicals?

A good story with the headline, “Do Annual Physicals Do More Harm Than Good?”, was posted recently on CCN, written by Nadia Kounang. Click here to read the full article.

This is not a new question about annual physicals. Leading physicians have been asking this question for decades. Yet the public and professional wellness vendors persist in having blind and uninformed faith in what is an expensive and potentially harmful ritual.

Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, an associate professor of healthcare policy and medicine at Harvard Medical School, says, “This specialized visit hasn’t proven anything in terms of staying healthful.”

He further says annual physicals “…make sense in theory, but it hasn’t borne out in reality.”

According to the story, “More doctors are saying the annual physical is unnecessary – and can even be harmful.”

Personally, in my career running benefit plans for large corporations, I’ve seen first-hand numerous people seriously harmed by annual physicals, through false positives on unneeded tests that resulted in medical harm to employees. Plus, such false positives cause stunning and unnecessary anxiety, as in “we-said-you-had-cancer-but-oops-my-bad.”

This is a good time to take a hard look at this ritual and consider if precious health dollars could be used better elsewhere.

If your wellness vendor is recommending annual physicals for your employees, you should drop that vendor ASAP. Period.

Loophole for Doctors on Drug-Dispensing

After 18 states enacted reforms to limit the prices paid to doctors for prescriptions they write and dispense, a new study from the Workers Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) finds that physician-dispensers in Illinois and California discovered a new way to continue charging and to get paid two to three times the price of a drug when compared with pharmacies.

“When prices are reduced by regulation, the regulated parties — in this case physician-dispensers — sometimes find new ways to retain the higher revenues they had prior to the reforms,” said Dr. Richard Victor, WCRI’s executive director. “Although this study uses data from two large states, it raises questions for all states where physician-dispensing prices are regulated.”

The study — Are Physician-Dispensing Reforms Sustainable? — identifies the mechanism that allows doctors in Illinois and California to dispense drugs from their offices at much higher prices when compared with pharmacies. It involves the creation of an opportunity to, once again, assign a much higher average wholesale price (AWP) to a physician-dispensed drug – a practice targeted by the earlier reforms enacted in many states using language limiting reimbursement to a price based on the AWP assigned by the manufacturer of the original drug.

Consider a drug where the most common strengths are 5 milligrams and 10 milligrams. If a new strength, say 7.5 milligrams, comes to market, the manufacturer of that new strength can assign a new AWP. According to the report, the AWP of the new strength was much higher than the 5-milligram and 10-milligram AWPs set by their original manufacturers.

In Illinois, the average prices paid for cyclobenzaprine HCL of 5 and 10 milligrams ranged from $0.99 to $1.74 per pill. Before 2012, 7.5-milligram cyclobenzaprine HCL was rarely seen in the market. The 7.5-milligram product was introduced in 2012, and almost all were dispensed by physicians at an average price of $3.79 per pill in post-reform Illinois. The market share of physician-dispensed cyclobenzaprine HCL of 7.5 milligrams increased from 0% in the third quarter of 2012 to 21% in the first quarter of 2013.

Similarly, in California, before 2012, 7.5-milligram cyclobenzaprine HCL was rarely seen in the market. The average prices paid for 5- and 10-milligram cyclobenzaprine HCL, the two common strengths, ranged from $0.35 to $0.70 per pill. Since the introduction of the 7.5-milligram product in 2012, the market share of physician-dispensed cyclobenzaprine HCL of 7.5 milligrams increased from 0% in the fourth quarter of 2011 to 47% in the first quarter of 2013, when it became the strength of the drug most commonly dispensed by physicians. The average price paid for the new strength was $2.90 to $3.45 per pill.

From these patterns, the study’s authors infer that the shift in strength was unlikely to be driven by new evidence about superior medical practices. Rather, it is likely that financial incentives drove some physicians to choose the strength for their patients. The study cites several reports that provide evidence of behavioral changes in response to price regulations.

For more information about this study, visit http://www.wcrinet.org/result/are_phy_disp_reforms_sustainable_result.html.

The data used for the report came from payers that represented 46% for California and 51% for Illinois. The detailed prescription transaction data were organized by calendar quarter so that, for each quarter, all prescriptions filled for claims with dates of injury within 24 months of the observation quarter were included. On average, for each of the quarters reported, WCRI included 219,572 prescriptions paid for 60,448 claims in California. The same figures were 43,034 prescriptions paid for 12,714 claims in Illinois. The detailed prescription data cover calendar quarters from the first quarter of 2010 though the first quarter of 2013.

 

Winning the War Against Opioid Addiction and Abuse

As we move forward with winning the war against opioid addiction, it can sometimes be challenging to read the daily headlines and stay positive, especially around the holidays. A December article titled “Drug Abusers May be Injuring Pets to Get Pain Killers” shared how police officers and community leaders informed the Ohio attorney general’s office that people have been abusing drugs rightfully prescribed to pets. The US News HealthDay story titled “Secure Your Prescription Drugs When Hosting Holiday Parties” warned readers about the importance of securing prescription drugs in a safe location before guests arrive. When stories deteriorate to addicts intentionally harming their dogs and to people worrying about holiday guests raiding medicine cabinets, rock bottom isn’t far away.

However, 2013 positioned us well for achieving improved results during 2014. Some of last year’s positive developments include:

1.   State law changes establishing clearer standards of care, reporting and tracking of controlled narcotics, bans on abused narcotics, etc.

2.   State and federal agencies aggressively prosecuting individuals who prescribe opioids illegally or  operate “pill mills,” revoking registrations of some pharmacies and compelling healthcare providers and pharmacies to surrender or forfeit their medical licenses to state medical/pharmacy boards

3.   Physician-led education efforts like the Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing

4.   Medical boards actively addressing the inappropriate and illegal dispensing of drugs

5.   Heightened awareness of the neonatal abstinence syndrome crisis in the U.S.

6.   Workers’ compensation insurers leveraging advanced analytics, physician education efforts, evidence-based pain diagnoses and utilization reviews to reduce injured worker reliance on addictive prescription drugs

7.   The Food and Drug Administration’s Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy

8.   The issuance of the October 2013 Trust for America’s Health report titled “Prescription Drug Abuse: Strategies to Stop the Epidemic”

9.   Continuing prosecution and sentencing of healthcare providers

10. Efforts by national medical organizations

The first eight developments were addressed in the authors’ first quarter 2013 Physician Insurer magazine article titled “The Opioid Abuse Epidemic, Turning the Tide” and our Dec. 2, 2013 Property Casualty 360 Claims Magazine article titled “10 Strategies to Combat the Rx Abuse Epidemic – An Insurers Perspective.”

This article will expand on the last two developments and share some thoughts on what may be in our future when it comes to winning the war on opioid addiction and abuse.

Prosecution and sentencing of healthcare providers

2013 was marked by the successful prosecution and sentencing of healthcare professionals involved in various forms of prescription drug diversion. Arguably the most notable of these was the 39-year prison sentence given to David Kwiatkowski, the former New Hampshire hospital technician who caused dozens of people to become infected with hepatitis C when he injected himself with pain killers using syringes that were then used on patients. Kwiatkowski admitted in August to stealing the drugs and leaving used syringes for hospital use for years, despite knowing he was infected with hepatitis C. His case drew national attention to the problem of prescription drug diversion among healthcare workers; caused a number of institutions to finally take a fresh look at their human resource policies and systems being used to detect diversion; and, has, we hope, sent a strong message of deterrence to all healthcare drug diverters — it is only a matter of time before you get caught!

Efforts by national medical organizations (NMOs)

On an extremely positive note, we are beginning to see NMOs join the fight to help stem the opioid epidemic. On Dec. 10, 2013, the American College of Physicians released a position paper titled “Prescription Drug Abuse: A Policy Position Paper From the American College of Physicians.” The goal of the paper was to provide physicians and policy-makers with 10 recommendations to address the significant human and financial costs related to prescription drug abuse. The recommendations include support for additional education, a national prescription drug monitoring program, establishment of evidence-based nonbinding guidelines regarding recommended maximum dosage and duration of therapy, consideration of patient-provider treatment agreements and the passage of legislation by all 50 states permitting electronic prescription for controlled substances.

In turn, in January 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Committee on Drugs and Section on Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine issued a report titled “Recognition and Management of Iatrogenically Induced Opioid Dependence and Withdrawal in Children.” The clinical report recommended guidelines for prescribers to follow when weaning children from opioids. As noted by lead author Jeffrey Galinkin, MD, “[t]he key reason the AAP was keen to publish this paper and go forward with this guideline is that people are unaware that patients can get drug-specific withdrawal symptoms from opioids as early as five days to a week after having been on an opioid chronically.”

This recommendation was immediately followed by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Jan. 10, 2014, Federal Register Volume 79, Number 7 publication of proposed rules revising the Medicare Advantage (MA) regulations and prescription drug benefit program (Part D) regulations to help combat fraud and abuse in these programs. The proposed rules include requiring prescribers of Part D drugs to enroll in Medicare, a feature that CMS believes will help ensure that Part D drugs are prescribed only by qualified individuals. As reported by Medscape Medical News, CMS is also seeking the authority to revoke a physician’s or eligible professional’s Medicare enrollment if:

• CMS determines that he or she has a pattern or practice of prescribing Part D drugs that is abusive and represents a threat to the health and safety of Medicare beneficiaries or otherwise fails to meet Medicare requirements; or

• His or her Drug Enforcement Administration certificate of registration is suspended or revoked; or

• The applicable licensing or administrative body for any state in which a physician or eligible professional practices has suspended or revoked the physician or eligible professional’s ability to prescribe drugs.

Furthermore, CMS proposes employing data analysis to identify prescribers and pharmacies that may be engaged in fraudulent or abusive activities. In Table 14 of Federal Register Volume 79, Number 7, CMS’ Office of the Actuary estimates the savings to the federal government from implementing its proposed provisions will be $83 million in calendar year 2015, $132 million in 2016, $171 million in 2017, $364 million in 2018 and $589 million in 2019.

Source: CMS

Innovation in our future

In addition to the above efforts, companies continue to innovate and research new ways to address historical challenges.

Vatex Explorations is building a real-time individual-dose monitoring system called Divert-X to reduce drug trafficking, misuse and addictions that result from routine medical care. Divert-X monitors a patient’s individual doses through the electronic transmission of data identifying the time of dose access, location and other measures. The analysis of the data in real time helps physicians and pharmacists identify drug-taking behaviors that fall outside of norms, allowing early intervention before misuse or addiction set in.

In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration approved an ingestible sensor that can be used to track real time data about your pill consumptions habits. The sensor, developed by Proteus Digital Health, was first approved for use in Europe before coming to the U.S. The ingestible sensor is part of the digital health feedback system, which includes a wearable sensor and secure app and is largely focused on serving the transplant population and patients with chronic illnesses. The authors could envision a day when the system could help in the battle against opioid addiction.

Insurance companies are doing a better job of leveraging advanced analytics to understand their opioid-exposed population and the prescribing habits of the physicians treating their injured workers. Through the review of medical bills (e.g., date and types of service and payment, ICD-9 diagnosis codes, CPT-4 procedure codes, etc.) and pharmacy data (e.g., bill frequency,  aggressive refills, NDC drug codes, quantity used, generic vs. brand, supply days, use of prescriber, pharmacy name, etc.), insurance companies can identify usage and treatment patterns that fall outside of expectations using cluster analyses, association rules, anomaly detection and network “link” analyses.

Law enforcement continues to push the envelope in finding innovative ways to combat drug diversion. Take, for example, the strategy developed in consultation with the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators and Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics to curb false reporting of the loss or theft of prescription drugs in Stillwater. According to a police spokesman, most physicians in Stillwater require patients to obtain a police report before they will write a replacement prescription for lost or stolen medications. This requirement resulted in an increase in the number of police reports filed, but a new problem emerged. How could anyone determine whether those police reports were legitimate? In response, the Stillwater police department created a database to record the names of any individual who reported the loss or theft of a prescription drug. The department now requires the individual to take a polygraph test before it will accept any subsequent report of a lost or stolen prescription drug. Fail that polygraph, and criminal prosecution may follow. Query: If this strategy were employed nationwide, would the medicine cabinet at home be guarded more closely?

Conclusion

There is no doubt we have come a long way in the battle against opioid addiction in a relatively short time. Although there is a lot of road left to travel, 2014 is well-positioned to carry forward the effective efforts from last year. Given the innovative spirit of the U.S. and passion of everyone involved in winning this fight, a better long-term solution could be just around the corner.