Tag Archives: prescription

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.
free clinic

What New Delhi’s Free Clinics Can Teach U.S.

Rupandeep Kaur, 20 weeks pregnant, arrived at a medical clinic looking fatigued and ready to collapse. After being asked her name and address, she was taken to see a physician who reviewed her medical history, asked several questions and ordered a series of tests, including blood and urine. These tests revealed that her fetus was healthy but that Kaur had dangerously low hemoglobin and blood pressure levels. The physician, Alka Choudhry, ordered an ambulance to take her to a nearby hospital.

All of this, including the medical tests, happened in 15 minutes at the Peeragarhi Relief Camp in New Delhi, India. The entire process was automated — from check-in, to retrieval of medical records, to testing and analysis and ambulance dispatch. The hospital also received Kaur’s medical records electronically. There was no paperwork filled out, no bills sent to the patient or insurance company, no delay of any kind. Yes, it was all free.

The hospital treated Kaur for mineral and protein deficiencies and released her the same day. Had she not received timely treatment, she may have had a miscarriage or lost her life.

This process was more efficient and advanced than any clinic I have seen in the West. And Kaur wasn’t the only patient; there were at least a dozen other people who received free medical care and prescriptions in the one hour that I spent at Peeragrahi in early March.

The facility, called the “mohalla” (or people’s) clinic, was opened in July 2015 by Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal.  This is the first of 1,000 clinics that he announced would be opened in India’s capital for the millions of people in need. Delhi’s health minister, Satyendar Jain, who came up with the idea for the clinics, told me he believes that not only will they reduce suffering but also overall costs — because people will get timely care and not be a burden on hospital emergency rooms.

The technology that made the instant diagnosis possible at Peeragarhi was a medical device called the Swasthya Slate. This $600 device, the size of a cake tin, performs 33 common medical tests including blood pressure, blood sugar, heart rate, blood haemoglobin, urine protein and glucose. And it tests for diseases such as malaria, dengue, hepatitis, HIV and typhoid. Each test only takes a minute or two, and the device uploads its data to a cloud-based medical-record management system that can be accessed by the patient.

The Swasthya Slate was developed by Kanav Kahol, who was a biomedical engineer and researcher at Arizona State University’s department of biomedical informatics until he became frustrated at the lack of interest by the medical establishment in reducing the cost of diagnostic testing. He worried that billions of people were getting no medical care or substandard care because of the medical industry’s motivation in keeping prices high. In 2011, he returned home to New Delhi to develop a solution.

Swasthya Slate is a mobile kit that empowers front-line health workers with usable technology for prevention diagnosis care and referral of diseases. The Swasthya Slate kit was launched in the state of Jammu and Kashmir by the Ministry of Health in 2014. (Swasthya Slate)

 

Kahol had noted that, despite the similarities between medical devices in their computer displays and circuits, their packaging made them unduly complex and difficult for anyone but highly skilled practitioners to use. They were also incredibly expensive — usually costing tens of thousands of dollars each. He believed he could take the same sensors and microfluidics technologies that the expensive medical devices used and integrate them into an open medical platform. And with off-the-shelf computer tablets, cloud computing and artificial intelligence software, he could simplify the data analysis in a way that minimally trained front-line workers could understand.

By January 2013, Kahol had built the Swasthya Slate and persuaded the state of Jammu and Kashmir, in Northern India, to allow its use in six underserved districts with a population of 2.1 million people. The device is now in use at 498 clinics there. Focusing on reproductive maternal and child health, the system has been used to provide prenatal care to more than 22,000 mothers. Of these, 277 mothers were diagnosed as high-risk and provided timely care. Mothers are getting care in their villages now instead of having to travel to clinics in cities.

A newer version of the Slate, called HealthCube, was tested last month by nine teams of physicians and technology, operations and marketing experts at Peru’s leading hospital, Clinica Internacional. They tested its accuracy against the Western equipment that they use, its durability in emergency room and clinical settings, the ability of minimally trained clinicians to use it in rural settings and its acceptability to patients. Clinica’s general manager, Alvaro Chavez Tori, told me in an email that the tests were highly successful, and “acceptance of the technology was amazingly high.” He sees this technology as a way of helping the millions of people in Peru and the rest of Latin America who lack access to quality diagnostics.

The opportunity is bigger than Latin America, however. When it comes to healthcare, the U.S. has many of the same problems as the developing world. Despite the Affordable Care Act, 33 million Americans ,or 10% of the U.S. population, still lacks health insurance. These people are disproportionately poor, black or Hispanic, and 4.5 million are children. They receive less preventive care and suffer from more serious illness — which are extremely costly to treat. Emergency rooms of hospitals are overwhelmed by uninsured patients seeking basic medical care. And even when they have insurance, families are often bankrupted by medical costs.

It may well be time for America to build mohalla clinics in its cities.

Why Healthcare Costs Bleed Firms Dry

“It is impossible to prove something to someone whose salary depends on believing the opposite.” – Upton Sinclair

Today’s overpriced healthcare system is hurting American businesses and job creation, eating into profitability and, quite frankly, bleeding companies dry. What’s worse, the lack of cost control and price transparency have created a culture of helplessness and even resignation.

But employers have had enough. Many are rising up and demanding change. They want lower costs and better care for their people and will no longer tolerate the status quo.

In 2007, I made it my mission to put an end to overpriced healthcare when my own companies’ healthcare costs were cutting dangerously into the bottom lines. At the time, I operated numerous healthcare clinics throughout the Phoenix metro area. We found our best hourly employees were leaving us for jobs at larger corporations with better health insurance, and we couldn’t attract replacements with the same level of training. Productivity and efficiency plummeted. It was an absolute mess, and I felt like a failed CEO.

But we discovered a secret that no one else seemed to know – or at least nobody seemed to be saying aloud. It’s a secret we uncovered when we started doing something I had never heard of anyone doing: writing our own checks for our employees’ healthcare.

See Also: When a Penalty Is Not a Penalty

It seemed strange that the cost of giving birth at one hospital was $6,000, while the cost at a neighboring hospital was $17,000 – even though the same doctor had attended both births! Strange that an ankle X-ray could cost $1,200 in a hospital emergency room but only $35 at my own clinics. Stranger still that a simple antibiotic could cost $900 at one pharmacy when Walmart sold the exact same drug for only $12.

Those observations helped lead to the secret to not overpaying for healthcare.

Controlling PLACE OF SERVICE is all that really matters

In the vast majority of cases, my employees could receive the right level of care in a setting that provided the same service (with the same or even better quality) at a much lower cost than in another setting.

Of course, sometimes a hospital emergency room visit is absolutely necessary. On occasion, an urgent care is the right option. But qwe saw that many medical expenses were needlessly incurred in hospitals and other expensive settings. MRIs, X-rays, blood tests, specialists consultations and other common procedures were costing my companies five to 20 times more than the exact same services performed across the street in an imaging center, lab or doctor’s office not owned by the hospital.

Why would someone choose to get a $3,600 MRI or $1,200 X-ray at a hospital instead of going to an imaging center across the street for an equally good, $400 MRI or $35 X-ray? Why would anyone get a procedure at one hospital instead of paying 40% less for an identical procedure at another hospital around the corner? It’s not that people don’t care. THEY DO! The answer is that they simply don’t know – and the system is designed so that it is very hard for people to uncover this truth.

It seems crazy, but this sort of thing happens systematically all the time. When employer health plans work well – when prices are transparent and employees are protected and guided away from overpriced services – then common sense prevails and costs stay in check. But if people are part of a health plan that benefits from keeping costs hidden – and most do – business owners and their people simply don’t know they’re being duped.

Why is this is happening? 

  1. Hospitals with the greatest market share negotiate much higher reimbursement rates from insurance companies. A December 2015 study by researchers from Yale, University of Pennsylvania and Carnegie Mellon University analyzed billions of hospital clams paid by commercial insurance companies to hospitals. The study concluded that costs at hospital systems with significant market share were as much as 12 times higher than other, smaller hospitals – with no difference in quality. It was an important and revealing study, yet it failed to evaluate the even bigger differences in price for routine procedures performed at a hospital vs. outside a hospital – procedures that never needed to be done in a hospital in the first place. These price differentials and subsequent overpayments are even more shocking and have the biggest impact on overall healthcare cost.
  2. Hospitals are “buying” doctors so they can fill beds and price excessively. Even though hospitals lose approximately $165,000 each year for every primary care doctor and about $300,000 for each specialist they hire, this strategy has proven effective; it increases market share and allows hospital systems to negotiate higher prices with insurers. What’s more, these doctors are obligated to refer their patients for services or specialty care in an exorbitantly overpriced hospital setting. Of course, emergency procedures are occasionally necessary, and of course hospital infrastructure costs are always higher and will need to be taken into account when assessing fair pricing. But when millions of dollars are used to market elective services that are arbitrarily priced much higher than what is fair – well, this just shouldn’t feel right to the unknowing business owner and employee. After all, they trust the healthcare system to guide and care for them.
  3. Urgent care centers are now owned by hospitals. It’s no surprise, then, that urgent cares are owned by hospitals, providing a perfect entry point for funneling services and profitable patients to hospitals and the doctors who are employed by those hospitals. Following this same line of thinking, urgent cares also help hospital systems gain market share, negotiate higher rates and “mine” the sickest people from among those patients.
  4. There are huge price differentials in prescription drugs. This problem is rampant in the healthcare industry, even extending to runaway prices in common prescriptions. The costs of medications vary dramatically depending on the pharmacy, the insurer and the way the doctor writes the prescription. The cost of a simple generic antibiotic can range from $12 at a grocery store to more than $50 at a widely known national pharmacy – and to more than $900 for the brand name that legally gets substituted when the pharmacy chooses. You might think the answer is obvious – just stop overpaying – but many people simply aren’t aware of the pricing tricks.
  5. High-deductible health plans partner with hospital systems. Often, such plans require that services be performed exclusively at a particular hospital’s health centers or affiliated urgent cares, imaging centers, doctor’s offices, etc. In other words, the hospital system that has negotiated higher rates with insurers now requires health plan participants to use their overpriced services. They say they have negotiated lower prices, but we see that costs are much lower when a patient pays cash outside the hospital.

In the case of high-deductible plans, it’s employees who get stuck with much of the bill. The premiums are cheaper upfront, but employees and their families are charged for services until their deductibles are met, often paying inflated prices for procedures performed in a hospital or affiliated setting. When they can’t afford to pay the deductible, employees often direct their frustration at their employers for providing this sort of coverage. And, sadly, many low-wage people will decide to forgo needed care.

See Also: Why Healthcare Costs Soar (Part 6)

What if brokers could help their small business clients by providing the negotiated fee schedule with the hospital system employees will be required to use? Or at least educate them about the dangers of using hospital facilities for services that could be performed outside a hospital? This is especially important for people with high deductibles.

Though it’s not common to request the price list – and insurance companies won’t grant the request – it’s certainly common sense. Shouldn’t employees understand the costs before choosing a doctor or facility? Simply providing the fee schedule would at least give them and their doctors a fighting chance to make care decisions based on both quality and value.

Increased transparency in an industry of hidden costs and unexpected medical bills would be a powerful step toward saying “NO” to the overcharging that the biggest healthcare facilities get away with every day.

The Importance of Data

Educating and guiding employees to the best places for service will have a huge impact on moving the cost needle. And, using data to identify the sickest employees and understand where they are getting their healthcare services is a great multiplier that brokers can use to help their business clients achieve more cost savings.

If an insurance company will not agree, in writing, that all of the company’s data belongs to the business owner – regardless of whether they’re certain to renew – the business owner should walk away.

Most traditional insurance companies will tell business owners they can’t give them this data because of privacy laws or HIPAA. The real reason is that they don’t want their clients to share the data with competing insurers and potentially lower their healthcare costs. In reality, business owners can own their data. Nothing in the law says otherwise. (Employers should never directly look at employees’ personal health information. This is just common sense.)

We encourage business owners to push harder and challenge the status quo way of thinking. We want them to demand cost transparency so they can control their own costs and still take great care of their people. Owning their employees’ data will enable the employer and their broker to negotiate fair pricing and educate their people about place of service more effectively. Brokers who rise to this challenge will find great opportunities to grow their business and create undying loyalty among their clients.

Status quo healthcare costs are bloated with unnecessary administration, waste and overpricing, but businesses and brokers who understand how to choose the right place of service can save money and easily fund healthcare. The worst thing we can do is pay more.

pill

The PBM vs. the Drug Manufacturer

In today’s American healthcare system, employers can’t order Lipitor directly from Pfizer fortheir employees. Instead, employers and employees are forced to buy drugs through a middleman, the pharmacy benefits manager (PBM).

Fingers have long been pointed in both directions to blame the other for the high cost of prescription drugs. The PBMs blame the drug manufacturers, and the drug manufacturers blame the PBMs, not unlike two children arguing on the playground.

Eli Lilly, one of the world’s largest drug manufacturers, recently claimed that the average price increase on Humalog, its injectable insulin used to treat diabetes, has only been a modest 1% to 2% annually over the last five years. Tim Walbert, the CEO of small drug manufacturer Horizon Pharmaceuticals, said in a recent interview, that he expects the company’s actual price increases to be 4% or less over the next year.

PBMs, on the other hand, portray the drug manufacturers as greedy price gougers that fail to keep prescriptions costs under control. Anthem, one of the nation’s largest health insurers, works hard to convince its employer clients to leverage the buying process by joining Anthem’s negotiated PBM program with Express Scripts Inc. (ESI) instead of negotiating a direct deal with a PBM. This month, however, Anthem came out swinging, accusing its partner ESI of more than $3 billion in overcharges – all of which were passed along and paid by clients.

Who should the employers believe is at fault? Employers are aware of their prescription benefit bills. They clearly see that costs are escalating at an unprecedented rate. What can they do about the problem? How can they succeed if a buyer as large as Anthem failed for its thousands of employer clients?

Today’s healthcare market only permits employers to buy the employee drugs from two different platforms. They can choose to buy through a PBM partnership (Anthem partnered with ESI) or a large benefits broker’s partnership with a PBM. Secondly, they can choose to work with a consultant for high-level advice and contract directly with a PBM.

Regardless, the employer always gambles that it knows more about the PBM’s 120-page contract, pricing calculations and methodology than Anthem apparently did. It is a monumental sign of the times that Anthem publicly blamed ESI for its failure to contract effectively with the company, leading to overcharges for its clients.

Our healthcare system today is broken by design – not necessity – and virtually everyone in the chain lacks the incentive to fix it. In fact, people are financially motivated to maintain the status quo. Until drugs can be purchased directly from the manufacturers for a direct discounted price, employers are trapped in our national prescription benefit system.

Novel Controls on Physician Dispensing

As you know, I’m not a fan of physician dispensing. In limited cases, there can be benefits from patient compliance and convenience and from immediate treatment. However, my opinion is that in most cases physician dispensing creates a motivation to continue prescribing (because revenue to the physician is at stake) and causes patient safety issues (by bypassing the people who really understand drugs — pharmacists and pharmacies — and possibly not taking into account drug interactions).

On top of that, physician dispensing can increase lost time by an injured worker, as documented in a study of Illinois. When evaluating the differences between physician-dispensed and non-physician-dispensed medications, the study found:

  • For physician-dispensed, non-narcotic drugs — medical costs ▲ 39%, indemnity costs ▲ 27%, lost-time days34%, average total claim ▲ 31%, # of prescriptions = 2.99
  • For physician-dispensed narcotic drugs — medical costs ▲ 78%, indemnity costs ▲ 57%, lost-time days ▲ 85%, average total claim ▲ 64%, # of prescriptions = 3.20

Several states have tried to combat inappropriate physician-dispensing over the past few years, using fee schedule and rules and even felonies as countermeasures. Some efforts have been successful, while others have just created a continuing cat-and-mouse game for repackagers and physicians vs. payers.

Well, effective Jan. 1, 2016, Nevada instituted its own type of reform, specific to workers’ comp. The bill does not appear to be ambiguous or up for interpretation. The bill (SB 231) was signed by the governor on May 27, 2015, but the intended (and unintended) ripple effects started last Friday. Read the entire act here. To highlight:

  • Section 1.1.a – A “provider of healthcare” can only provide an initial 15-day supply of Schedule II or III controlled substances to an injured worker. Note that this excludes pharmacists and hospitals, both reasonable carve-outs. Any subsequent such controlled substances must be dispensed by a pharmacy. Excellent.
  • Section 1.1.b – The “provider of healthcare” dispenser must include the original manufacturer’s national drug code (NDC) on bills and reports. Good. This doesn’t necessarily fix the issue of repackagers becoming “manufacturers” of unique (previously unnecessary) dosages and inflating prices, but …
  • Section 1.1.c – A repackaged drug must not be used. Booyah.
  • Section 1.1.d – For outpatient care, a non-prescription drug will not be reimbursable. Excellent.

While not all dangerous or clinically inappropriate drugs are Schedule II or III, these new rules should certainly make a dent in direct dispensing of those that are. This bill does not outlaw physician dispensing, but it does remove revenue motivation so a “provider of healthcare” will focus on the most clinically appropriate care (which may not be a drug). Working as a team, the “provider of healthcare” and the pharmacist should determine what, if any, drugs are clinically appropriate for the injured worker/patient.

It will be interesting to see how the repackaging industry responds. For an example of the state of the industry in Nevada, check out this website. (Nine uses of the word “revenue” on the repackager’s home page. Hmmmm.)

If you operate in Nevada, keep your eyes and ears open. And if you see reactions, please let us all know!