Tag Archives: xanax

The Next Opioid Epidemic: Fentanyl

Fentanyl has been in the news:

In 2014, it began being reported on the U.S. East Coast that heroin was being laced with fentanyl, creating a combination that is “untenably addictive.”

The Sacramento Bee reported in April that 51 overdoses, including 11 deaths, had been reported thus far in the Sacramento area in 2016; toxicologists tied eight of the deaths directly to fentanyl (watch the short video in the article that describes “death as collateral damage” to the drug dealers interested in market dominance).

Later in April, the L.A. Times reported the issue had migrated to the San Francisco area, where fentanyl pills made to look like Norco were a primary culprit.

The chief health officer in British Columbia proclaimed a Canadian public health emergency because of more than 200 overdose deaths during the first three months of 2016; a large portion of them involved “greenish pills purporting to be OxyContin 80 mg tablets.”

In June, it was confirmed that Prince died from an accidental overdose of fentanyl, unbelievable because he was an outspoken advocate of clean living (from having a “swear jar” to not consuming alcohol)

One of the common threads throughout these stories is China’s involvement. The Wall Street Journal published a front-page article on June 23 titled “China’s Role in U.S. Opioid Crisis.” The opening paragraph sets the stage:

Last spring, Chinese customs agents seized 70 kilograms of the narcotics fentanyl and acetyl fentanyl hidden in a cargo container for Mexico. The synthetic opium-like drugs were so potent that six of the agents became ill after handling them. One fell into a coma.

The article goes on to describe how fentanyl often is disguised as hydrocodone and Xanax on the black market — dangerous drugs by themselves but not nearly as potent or fatal as fentanyl. Because China does not regulate fentanyl or analogs used to create fentanyl, there is a significant financial incentive for the drug dealers — $810 of materials can create 25 grams of fentanyl and yield as much as $800,000 in pills sold on the black market.

See also: Opioids Are the Opiates of the Masses

According to the Canadian Globe’s expose on the issue (an excellent look at the black market), accessing fentanyl can be as easy as “Sign up for an account, choose a method of payment, and receive the package in three to four business days.” Reinforcing the financial model: “A kilogram ordered over the internet – an amount equal in weight to a medium-sized cantaloupe – sells on the street in Calgary for $20 million, making it a drug dealer’s dream.”

So, fentanyl is a problem. It’s 25 to 50 times more potent than morphine. It’s highly addictive. It’s available fairly easily on the black market. And it is prescribed by doctors. Way too often.

Approved by the FDA and on script pads supplied by the DEA, its federal legitimacy adds to the lack of stigma associated with use. Which is one reason why I think Prince could rationalize his use. A doctor likely prescribed it for his chronic pain — and other patients fall into that same trap (with fentanyl and other dangerous prescription drugs).

According to the FDA’s own warnings (as reported on drugs.com):

Because of the risks of addiction, abuse and misuse with opioids, even at recommended doses, and because of the greater risks of overdose and death with extended-release opioid formulations, reserve Fentanyl Transdermal system for use in patients for whom alternative treatment options (e.g., non-opioid analgesics or immediate-release opioids) are ineffective, not tolerated or would be otherwise inadequate to provide sufficient management of pain.

See also: How to Help Reverse the Opioid Epidemic  

In my opinion, fentanyl should be used to help people die with dignity during end-of-life care. Period. It’s that dangerous. And yet we see it being prescribed, used and paid for.

Month. After. Month.

If you are prescribing fentanyl: Why?

If you are being prescribed fentanyl: Why?

If you are paying for someone’s fentanyl: Why?

Too many people are overdosing and dying not to ask a simple question: Why?

Next Tsunami of Work Comp Payments

2009 was a milestone in workers’ comp. In that year, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) formally announced that it would review future prescription drug treatment in Workers’ Compensation Medicare Set-Aside (WCMSA) proposals based on “appropriate medical treatment as defined by the treating physician.” While the U.S. culture and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had already noticed the prescription drug epidemic, this new requirement more clearly highlighted high-cost drug regimens that were doing more clinical harm than good.

Yes, the monthly drug costs were already known to be expensive. Yes, reserves often had to be raised annually. But until the workers’ comp industry had to follow explicit rules to calculate the lifetime cost associated with continued inappropriate polypharmacy regimens, the problems hadn’t really registered.

The new requirement dramatically changed the ability to settle and close a claim, so addressing the overuse and misuse of prescription drugs, primarily related to non-malignant chronic pain, became a white hot priority. The financial exposure highlighted by the WCMSA was a tsunami that changed the contours of the claims shoreline.

Well, another milestone has been achieved for workers’ comp. I have been talking about it, as well, over the past three years, because I could see the riptide indicators of the next tsunami to hit. And now the surge is about to hit the shore.

This next workers’ comp tsunami? Death benefits that will be paid because of drug overdoses.

This has already been affirmed in a handful of states, among them Pennsylvania (James Heffernan), Tennessee (Charles Kilburn) and Washington (Brian Shirley). Death benefits have been denied in other states, including Connecticut (Anthony Sapko) and Ohio (John Parker). I’m sure this is not a complete list. The list shows how individual circumstances and jurisdictional rules can drive different decisions, but what is not up for debate is whether payers face an issue concerning injured workers dying from an overdose (intentional or unintentional) of prescription drugs paid for by workers’ comp.

The game-changer could be a new decision in California, South Coast Framing v. WCAB. The full Supreme Court decision can be found here, and a good article that gives additional context can be found on WorkCompCentral (requires a subscription).

To summarize, Brandon Clark died on July 20, 2009. The autopsy reported his death “is best attributed to the combined toxic effects of the four sedating drugs detected in his blood with associated early pneumonia.” Elavil, Neurontin and Vicodin were being prescribed by his workers’ comp physician, while Xanax and Ambien were prescribed by his personal doctor. Of that list, the four sedating drugs are Elavil, Vicodin, Xanax and Ambien — obviously a mixture of workers’ comp and “personal” drugs.

The qualified medical evaluator (QME) doctor ascribed the overdose to the additive effect of Xanax and Ambien and not the workers’ comp drugs. However, he allowed that Elavil and Vicodin could have contributed (the deposition quotes on pages three and four remind me of a Monty Python skit, as he tried inartfully to not provide apportionment). So … what is the strength of causality between the industrial injury and death? Tort is much more precise in its understanding — cause, in fact, and proximate cause. Workers’ comp (which is no-fault) is not tort, and neither is its definition of causality — contributing cause of the injury.

Did Clark misuse or overuse the drugs through willful misconduct? Possibly. Should one of his physicians have recognized the additive sedative effects from the combination of drugs and done something different? Probably. Was Clark trying to address continued legitimate pain that originated with his workplace injury? Likely. Is this a tragedy? Definitely.

So the decision came down to whether the workers’ comp drugs (Elavil and Vicodin) could have been part of why Clark died.

The Court of Appeal concluded that Elavil only “played a role” and was not a “significant” or “material factor.” The Supreme Court found the evidence to be substantial that Elavil and Vicodin, to some degree, contributed to his death. Therefore, they awarded death benefits to Clark’s wife and three children.

What does this mean? At least in California, it means that the bar of establishing causality (did workers’ comp drugs somehow contribute) is not as high as you might have expected. There is no further debate because this is a Supreme Court decision. Does that mean more death benefits are to come in California? In a highly litigious state where representation is commonplace. And prescription drug use for chronic pain is an overwhelming problem. Hmmm …. My “magic eight ball” is in for maintenance, but my educated guess (I am not an attorney) would be yes.

What about other states? Well, every state has different rules and case history, but because trends often start in California, and the Supreme Court was articulate in its decision-making process, it’s possible this causes a re-examination by all parties. The fact that some states already have established case law to grant death benefits could be a compounding effect. Therefore, it’s a definite maybe.

This may be an isolated case that has no repercussions in California or elsewhere. On the other hand … Consider this your RED FLAG warning for the riptide that precedes the tsunami. And you thought paying for drugs was expensive!

Redefining Detox in Workers’ Comp

When most people in workers’ compensation hear the term “detox” they think of chemical detox, the process of removing or reducing the prescription drugs patients are taking to deal with their pain. Indeed, injured workers on drug regimens with questionable clinical efficacy (low function, low quality of life) need to go through a process to lower the dosage and number of drugs they’re taking or eradicate them entirely. Chemical detox can be very complicated; a benzodiazepine like Valium or Xanax can take as long as 18 months to wean and should typically be the final drug weaned because of how this category of drugs complicates the medication regimen and causes side effects. Methodone or Suboxone might be added to help facilitate the weaning, but they come with their own issues — significant clinical complications for Methodone and becoming a long-term maintenance drug for Suboxone.

However, if you think of detox only as a chemical weaning process, you can miss the most important component in affecting permanent change: the psychosocial aspect. Removing dangerous drugs without any plan for addressing how claimants can physically and mentally cope with their pain can lead to relapse.

Folks in the functional restoration field say that 75% of patients remain off 75% of their original drugs after 12 months if they are involved in a best-practices clinic. I’ve researched this issue over the past two years, visiting many detox and functional restoration programs. Functional restoration and detox facilities are not created equally, and not all physicians are knowledgeable or proficient in weaning.

I am absolutely convinced that best practices involve an interdisciplinary treatment approach. If you do not have a team composed of a licensed MD/DO to manage the medical and addiction issues, a licensed physical therapist to increase function, flexibility and stamina and a licensed psychologist to address psychosocial issues, the injured worker won’t make all the behavioral and mental changes required to stay off inappropriate drugs.

Work comp is deathly afraid of a psych-compensable diagnosis because it can open doors well beyond vocational, but we cannot ignore what happens in a patient’s conscious and subconscious mind. If you ignore the psychology behind addiction and dependency and neglect to address things like low self-esteem, catastrophizing and perceived injustice, the patient isn’t likely to truly and permanently change. Two to three months after being discharged as clean, the patient is likely to resume old habits of overusing or abusing prescription drugs. Relapse may also occur if the patient fails to learn non-pharmacological pain-coping skills like yoga, Pilates, stretching and other physical exercise.

It is tempting to try to close a claim upon receipt of a clean discharge from a detox facility. After all, the drug regimen will look as good then as it ever will, and it would be naïve to think that isn’t a driver in some cases. But if the goal is to truly restore claimants to as close to pre-injury condition as possible for the long term, do your homework on those conducting the weaning and take into consideration the body-mind connection.