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What we nerds love…

is research that helps us understand why things are the way they are.

And while we rarely get to make out with supermodels like the guy in the SuperBowl ad (word is it took 45 takes to get it “right” (good for him!!),

Bar Rafaeli and…

we do get pretty excited about great research.  Which makes today a pretty good day.  Two studies were released – one from Washington on back surgery outcomes and complications and the other from CWCI discussing the use and cost of compound medications in worker’s comp.

First, Gary Franklin MD and colleagues published a study in the February edition of Health Services Research on the safety of lumbar fusion, an all-too-common procedure in workers’ comp.  Here’s my non-clinical take on the key findings.

  1. Outcomes  – defined for this study as complications within 90 days of a fusion – for workers’ comp patients were not nearly as bad as I thought they’d be. Surprisingly, they were somewhat better than the average!
  2. However – and it’s a BIG “however”, that may be due in part to the Washington state fund (L&I)’s tough stance on authorizing fusions.  In turn, that was based on priori research that indicated fusions had generally poor outcomes.  So, L&I’s numbers for outcomes may have been better because they do a good job of winnowing out those claimants more likely to have poor outcomes.
Pretty cool, eh? Gotta love the power of the monopolistic carrier.
Well, here’s some not-so-cool news.
Eileen Auen, CEO of PMSI and Alex Swedlow and his colleagues at CWCI have co-authored a study examining the cost and trends associated with compound medications in California. (disclosure – both are friends and I was a reviewer of the draft report)
And the results are about as appealing as Ms Rafaeli’s ad-mate.
For the blissfully-unaware, compound medications are concoctions of various real and pseudo-medications fabricated by parties evidently more interested in sucking money out of employers and taxpayers than healing patients.  There is precious little evidence supporting the use of these medications for the kinds of conditions suffered by workers’ comp claimants; nonetheless they are inordinately popular among a subset of providers.
California instituted controls on the use of compound meds 1/1/2012, the thinking being these “controls”would reduce compounds in comp.
The good news is compounds dropped from 3.1 percent to 2 percent of scripts.
The bad news is while there were fewer compounds dispensed, the cost of each went up over 68 percent, so compounds’ share of drug costs increased from 11.6 percent to 12.6 percent.
That’s right – fewer compounds cost more money.
How’d that happen?
Well, compound prescribers and dispensers quickly figured out how to game the “controls” by adding more ingredients and more of each ingredient to each compound.  
There it is, another example of unintended consequences.
What does this mean for you?
Unscrupulous providers will quickly figure out how to game regulations/controls that are not well-developed and carefully considered. Better to do something right than to do it quickly.

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Joe Paduda is the principal of Health Strategy Associates



A national consulting firm specializing in managed care for workers’ compensation, group health and auto, and health care cost containment. We serve insurers, employers and health care providers.



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