Workers’ comp opioid usage is way down

CompPharma’s latest Survey of Prescription Drug Management in Workers’ Compensation (past reports available for download) has some very welcome news; over the last two years, opioid spend is down by one-third.

Most of that reduction is from improvements in clinical management and changes in prescribing patterns and behavior.

(I’m finishing up this year’s report draft tomorrow…)

Of the 28 respondents to this year’s Survey, 25 had double-digit decreases in annual opioid spend, and six saw drops greater than 25%.

The opioid spend reduction was a big driver of a reduction of 9.8% in total drug costs across all respondents –  the sixth decrease over the last 8 years.

Couple early takeaways:

  • A dozen respondents cited improved/upgraded/expanded clinical management programs as key drivers of the change.
  •  Big decreases in compound drug costs were also noted by several respondents, with most seeing reductions greater than 30%.
  • In response to the question “Where do prescription drug issues rank compared to other medical service issues at your organization?,” drug costs were rated as a 4.1 on a 5 point scale, (more important than other medical service issues).

This last is telling.

After dramatic improvements in opioid utilization, respondents remain quite concerned about the impact of drugs on claim closure, disability duration, and patient safety.

What does this mean for you?

Progress is great, and much remains to be done.




UPDATE – Mitchell will be bought by Stone Point

Stone Point has added yet another firm to its growing portfolio of workers’ comp assets; when the deal closes in a few weeks, Mitchell will join previous acquisitions Genex, AmTrust, and Sedgwick (the latter two have co-investors).

(I mis-read the press release this am – Elliott, a hedge fund with $34 billion under management is EXITING Mitchell.)

One of  – if not the – investment firm(s) with the most experience in the  work comp space, Stone Point’s been busy.  It just completed the acquisition of bill review and case management company Genex.   As I wrote in February when that deal was announced:

“I’d also expect some much bigger acquisitions. I don’t think Stone Point bought Genex to get into the case management and bill review business; these folks have bigger plans.”

Mitchell fits that definition…I’m speculating the price was well more than double Genex’.  KKR bought Mitchell for $1.1 billion a bit over 4.5 years. When Mitchell’s “book” was out about a year ago, word was KKR wanted to double their money.

According to internal sources, Genex and Mitchell will NOT be combined or integrated or even work together. They were pretty adamant about that.

Allow me just a bit of skepticism; private equity (PE) firms don’t often buy companies with similar capabilities and services and leave them alone. That’s inefficient: they own two separate entities – overhead, management, systems, staff, and all – that do the same thing. Especially when those two businesses are aligned as closely in many areas as these two are.

While Mitchell also operates the nation’s third-largest work comp pharmacy benefit manager, and provides a wealth of services to the auto claims industry, Genex’ offerings sort of “fit in” to Mitchell’s portfolio.  Genex’ utilization management, peer review, case management, and related offerings are very similar to Mitchell’s. And, Mitchell provides Genex’ bill review application.

Sources indicate there’s a lot of leverage (debt) on the Genex deal – as there is in pretty much every acquisition – so cost-saving moves and elimination of redundant functions is likely a priority.

It is certainly possibly the two companies will operate completely independently – but I’d be surprised if that lasts very long.

Couple related points.

Mitchell’s Alex Sun and his team are smart and savvy. There’s sort of  a California tech vibe at Mitchell, an impression that is in contrast to the more traditional, operational focus of Genex. There are few people in this business I like or respect more than Genex CEO Peter Madeja; he’s well-regarded and well liked by all, especially by his co-workers.  Point being, there are different cultures here, and this might be a, if not the, reason Stone Point may not want to move some pieces around.

The team that runs Stone Point’s P&C operation is extremely knowledgeable, well-respected and highly regarded for their experience and expertise in the comp industry.

Most of all, they are strategic.

They most certainly have a plan, and the Mitchell acquisition is one part – albeit a very large one – of that plan.

What does this mean for you?

More consolidation in a very mature industry.  If you haven’t figured out where you want to be and how you’re going to get there, get busy.


Single payer is inevitable.

Some variation of “single payer” healthcare is going to happen, for one simple reason – the current “healthcare system” is going to blow up.

People are  broke, fed up, and angry – and support Medicare for All.

Health insurance is not useful for most of us: many can’t afford the deductibles, and premiums are just stupid expensive.

The people running Washington aren’t interested in or capable of fixing anything, they just want to blow stuff up.

While most think Medicare for all will happen, I lean more towards a standardized “Medicaid for all” option.  Medicaid:

  • allows for a lot of experimentation by states,
  • serves a much broader population,
  • is focused on the biggest problems in healthcare – the disabled, poor, disenfranchised, chronically ill, addicted, and
  • is a lot easier to understand than the alphabet soup of Medicare A, B, C, D etc.

Our last best chance of keeping the “healthcare system” we had was the ACA, a solution rooted in a Heritage Foundation plan that relied on private insurers. When the GOP gutted it, the writing was on the wall.

Here’s a quick summary of steps Republicans took that harmed ACA. (more here; a LOT more here)

  • Removed funding for risk corridors which kept co-ops and other plans alive
  • Didn’t expand Medicaid in 17 states
  • Hobbled ACA marketing efforts in multiple states
  • Sued the Obama Administration to block premium supports

I don’t know when this will happen, I just know that it will.




Let’s call it what it is.

Opioid prescriptions continue to drop, down 22% from 2013 – 2017. That’s great news indeed…but there are still far too many. The press release from the AMA calls for more Medication-Assisted Therapy, expanded treatment and access to that treatment  – all needed.

One statement in the AMA release really bothers me:

Physicians and other stakeholders accept that bold action is needed. We go where the evidence leads us.


Reality is, too many prescribers went where the marketers led them, rarely asking the right questions, accepting at face-value claims of smiling detailers, mindlessly mis-citing “Porter & Jick” as rationale for ever-escalating doses of opioids.

If the AMA’s statement was true, we never would have had the opioid crisis in the first place. We all know NOW that the “research studies”, “evidence”, and “literature” used to get docs to prescribe mountains of pills was incredibly weak, completely mis-characterized, and/or non-existent.

We all make mistakes…in this case prescribers made a monumental one. If the AMA accepted some level of responsibility for the opioid crisis and spent a lot less time lobbying against mandatory Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs and quibbling over dosage levels I’d be a little less angry.

I’ve long pilloried many for their role in the opioid crisis, and many readers have as well. It’s long past time the AMA and their fellow travelers acknowledge the harm they caused – and continue to cause – by NOT “going where the evidence leads them.”

Then, and only then, will they will be a credible part of the solution.

What does this mean for you?

Taking responsibility is rarely easy, often painful, and always needed.


The State Fund is solving opioids

I’ve lauded the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Comp for their great successes reducing opioid usage. But, I’ve heard from many stakeholders that Ohio’s got a unique advantage; BWC is both the regulator AND the payor, so they get to do whatever they think makes sense, and providers, patients, and pharmacies have to do what they’re told.

Fair point.

The implication is this – it’s way harder when you’re:

A) not a monopolistic state fund;

B) you don’t have the power to implement formularies, UR, pre-cert, and other care controls; and

C) you don’t have the full focus and influence of a state’s governor behind you.

Well, the State Fund of California is delivering stellar results without any of the inherent advantages listed above – in a state that is highly litigious, without a formulary (until this year), and where a subset of providers spends every waking hour thinking up new ways to screw the State Fund, insurers, employers, and taxpayers by gaming the system. (CA Gov. Jerry Brown is fully supportive of the State Fund).

(btw love the campaign…)

From 2014 to 2017, the State Fund delivered:

  • A 60% reduction in total opioid prescriptions to injured workers covered by State Fund
  • A 74% reduction in opioid spend
  • Across-the-board Morphine Equivalency Dosage (MED) reductions:
    • 80% percent reduction in the number people above 50 MEDs
    • 83% percent reduction in the number people above 80 MEDs
    • 87% percent reduction in the number people above 120 MEDs

As a result, opioids now represent 16.9% of the State Fund’s total prescriptions, down 31% since 2014.

A couple more data points then we’ll dig into how they did this.  There were 1458 patients prescribed 120 or more MED in 2014, today there are 186 cases.

Results for those patients prescribed 50 or more MEDs were almost as good; the number of patients declined by more than 80%, from 5000 to 994.

How’d they do this?

There are two primary foci; reduce initial opioid usage, and help long-term patients wean off of opioids; we’ll focus on the latter in this post.

Recall that these results occurred before the new formulary was implemented, so that did not have an affect on these results.

The State Fund’s long-term opioid reduction program begins with the adjuster, who remains involved in the claim throughout the process. The program involves multiple vendors, a variety of approaches, an openness to innovative treatment, and a lot of communication. There is no “canned” approach: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, acupuncture, counseling, physical therapy and exercise programs, and Functional Restoration Programs have all been employed. Medication-assisted therapy, or MAT, has been used in selected cases but for the most part the State Fund is trying to stay away from using opioids to solve opioid problems (my wording, not their’s).

Key to the long-term issue has been using vendors to conduct peer to peer conversations with the prescribing physician(s). According to State Fund Medical Director Dinesh Govindarao MD MPh, this peer-to-peer education of prescribing physicians has been instrumental in the success of the program, as many treating providers don’t have adequate training on pain management and opioid prescribing.

For those patients with significant chronic pain, the State Fund developed a program specifically aimed at helping those patients cope with their condition.  Patients willing to participate were enrolled in this program.

Going forward, the State Fund and Dr Govindarao are working to set up a more defined process to triage patients, one that will have different approaches and process flows for different types of patients. They will be looking at commonalities in patient groups to see if they can flow them through consistent treatment approaches.

What does this mean for you?

You can dramatically reduce long-term opioid usage through a well-designed, carefully-managed, patient-centric approach overseen by a very competent medical director.

And when you do, you can save scores of lives, hundreds of families, and millions of dollars for policyholders and taxpayers.

One last comment – these results were produced by a state entity and state workers focused on doing the right thing, the right way.


When are you going to sue the opioid industry?

States, cities, counties, school districts, and individuals all have sued the opioid industry.  A lot of these have been consolidated in one suit in Federal District Court in Cleveland under what is known as Multidistrict Litigation or MDL. The judge in that case has ordered trials to begin in 2019.

Courts and law enforcement go after penny-ante street dealers, narcos, and their supply chain, and now they are going after guys like this…

This is Arthur Sackler MD of Purdue Pharma, courtesy Wikipedia.

In Cleveland, Judge Polster has ordered the DEA to turn over voluminous records of opioid transactions next week. The records, for a handful of states for 2006 – 2014, will be used to identify what drugs were shipped where by whom.

While hundreds of cases have been consolidated into this one, the Judge, Dan Aaron Polster, has no jurisdiction over many more suits that have been filed independently by individuals, employers, providers, estates, and others.

But the MDL case overseen by Judge Polster is instructive, as he is focused on not only resolving the case, but finding long-term answers to what will certainly be a decades-long struggle to deal with the harm caused by the opioid industry. His intent appears to be to help identify financial resources to help pay for that work.

From the LaCrosse Tribune:

The judge’s ultimate goal is to “dramatically reduce the number of the pills that are out there and make sure that the pills that are out there are being used properly.

“The court observes that the vast oversupply of opioid drugs in the United States has caused a plague on its citizens and their local and State governments. Plaintiffs’ request for the … data, which will allow Plaintiffs to discover how and where the virus grew, is a reasonable step toward defeating the disease,” the judge wrote in an order.

Estimates of the harm already caused and the bills that will come due are in the hundred billion dollar plus range, this for an industry that sold almost $10 billion in opioids in one year, 2015.

So, back to my question.

When is the workers’ compensation industry, a group that buys way more than 10% of the opioids sold every year, going to sue the opioid manufacturers and marketers? 

We are waiting…


Everything you need to know about WC managed care regs

Is now available from WCRI with their latest compendium of Cost Containment Initiatives.

The annual report is a must-have for anyone working in the business in any capacity.

A few interesting notes for those not already immersed in the intricacies of comp regs…

  • Only five states don’t have non-facility provider fee schedules.
  • The vast majority of these fee schedules are RBRVS (Medicare) based
  • There is wide variation among the states – a  lot of this variation appears to be based on factors other than logic or reason.
  • Eight states do NOT have fee schedules for drugs; most are AWP-based but several are U&C; California uses Medicaid.
  • While most states have pretty tight inpatient fee schedules, outpatient is a different story. There’s wide variation and many look to be rather…flexible. Same is true – but even more so – for ambulatory surgical centers.
  • The description of employer/employee choice of treating physician is comprehensive and detailed.  Suffice it to say that the old saying “when you’ve seen one state, you’ve seen one state” is accurate indeed.

Kudos to WCRI’s Ramona Tanabe and Karen Rothkin for doing the work to put this together – so we don’t have to!


Taxes, tariffs, trade wars and workers’ comp

There are several potential implications of the latest national policy changes for workers’ comp.

First, if wages and hiring increase due to the tax cuts – as promised by the President – premiums will rise.

So far, that isn’t happening. The vast majority of the windfall is being spent on stock buybacks.  While this is inflating stock prices it isn’t going to have any material effect on wages or hiring, so no joy for work comp.

With the added focus on deporting undocumented workers, industries that demand low-skilled workers for high-stress jobs such as meatpacking are often struggling to find enough workers. Jobs are usually filled with first-generation immigrants – as those jobs always have been.

And many low-skill jobs are going to disappear – including burger-flipping. 

And healthcare administrative jobs.

So, we could well see injuries increase if untrained workers are hired to replace people with long experience in those risky jobs.

Now add the tariffs on steel and aluminum, which will really hurt manufacturers that use those materials, and add transportation to the industries affected by tariffs and NAFTA redos and we may see a reduction in commerce – which will affect employment and wages.

credit – CNN

One industry that’s been hit again is agriculture.  Cash crop farmers, especially soybean producers, are justifiably alarmed by China’s retaliatory tariffs on soybeans and other ag products.  Here in upstate NY, our next door neighbor has hundreds of acres in soybeans; farmers in the midwest are also heavily reliant on soybeans.

So, it is possible hiring will increase, altho the latest numbers aren’t encouraging. Wages could go up, altho again, the most recent data doesn’t show a significant bump.

It may well be more likely that employment and wages take a hit due to trade wars and tariff fights. If that happens, work comp premiums will be affected, but we may see a bump in claims from workers concerned about layoffs.

What does this mean for you?

Watch the reports on trade wars carefully.


Compounds – the stench of corruption

There’s a bill in the US House of Representatives that would greatly expand compounding, drastically reduce the FDA’s ability to oversee compounding, and eliminate many of the desperately-needed controls on this occasionally-deadly and often-abused practice.

Why anyone thinks this is good idea is beyond me, but someone convinced Rep. H Morgan Griffith (R VA) to write a bill and introduce it in Congress, and Rep Henry Cuellar (D TX) and others to co-sponsor Griffith’s bill.

That “someone” may have deep pockets.

Griffith has received over $100,000 in donations from “health professionals” and pharma entities; Cuellar got money too.

Griffith also got more money from the “International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists” than any other candidate for any Federal office.  The IACP has spent millions lobbying Congress to strip the FDA of authority and eliminate controls over compounding.

The IACP and other organizations are seeking to rewrite regulations issued after the New England Compounding disaster, a tragedy that saw hundreds of people sickened and scores killed by contaminated compounded medications. These medications were prepared and shipped by the NECC, a business in Massachusetts that happened to be located right next to a recycling center owned by the same family.

(This is relevant because ventilation systems were one of the problems identified by investigators looking into the causes of contamination in NECC’s products.)

The regulations were issued to implement a law passed by Congress in response to a Congressional inquiry into the disaster.

From wikipedia:

In a congressional hearing the FDA Commissioner was asked why regulators at the FDA and the Massachusetts Board of Pharmacy did not take action against the pharmacy years earlier. The legislators were told that the agency was obligated to defer to Massachusetts authorities, who had more direct oversight over pharmacies.

Yet Griffith’s bill would overturn many of the desperately-needed controls now in place:

The bill exempts from interstate distribution limits the dispensing of a compounded drug from the facility where it is compounded to a patient or health facility.

The scope of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspections of compounding pharmacies is limited to pertinent equipment, materials, containers, and labeling, which is the same scope as inspections of pharmacies. (Currently, the scope of inspections of compounding pharmacies is the same scope as inspections of drug manufacturers.)

The bill eliminates the requirement for compounding pharmacies to register with the FDA as drug manufacturers.

As a side note, we’re seeing a dramatic decrease in compounds in workers’ comp, driven by payers’ refusal to pay outrageous charges for “medications” with no proven efficacy. In our annual Survey of Prescription Drug Management in Work Comp, respondents are reporting they paid for far fewer compounds last year than the year before.

That decrease could reverse if Griffith’s bill is passed, and we could well see a return to the days of poorly-regulated profit mills masquerading as compounding pharmacies.

What does this mean for you?

Elections have consequences, and campaign finance laws are killing us.


Brian Downs – one of work comp’s best

Brian Downs runs claims and medical management for the Work Comp Trust of Connecticut. He’s the best claims exec you’ve never heard of.

The Trust serves the healthcare industry in Connecticut with both insurance and administrative services. It may be the best-run payer in the nation; with very strong financial results, results which would be the envy of any payer, big or small, a complete and total focus on claims handling excellence, and provider relationships that are core to the Trust’s success.

Those financial results are driven by management’s single-minded focus on it’s customers and patients. Everything revolves around what’s best for policyholders and patients; preventing injuries and illnesses, and delivering the best possible medical care to patients drives the company.

I’ve never heard Brian or CEO Diane Ritucci talk about discounts or savings; those metrics just doesn’t exist. This in a state with among the highest provider fee schedules in the nation.

I met Brian over a decade ago when I was asked to audit the Trust’s medical management program. The more I learned, the more impressed I was. For a small insurer with few resources working in one small state, the Trust was remarkably effective.

The audit found a claims culture focused entirely on outcomes. A medical management approach rooted in partnering with the right providers, with a proprietary network of constantly-evaluated physicians. Results that would be the envy of any payer, large or small.

  • Combined ratio hovering around 90% for years
  • A large and growing fund balance
  • Consistent record of premium returns amounting to about 10% of premiums this year

Before anyone starts saying how easy it is for a small payer working in one state, let’s talk resources.

This payer’s IT budget is a tiny fraction of the big boys’. The staff is equally small, with many folks wearing multiple hats. It competes in a market that’s home to many other payers, ranging from the Hartford and the Travelers to Sedgwick and other trusts. It serves a market – healthcare – with high frequency and occasionally high severity.

Yet despite these challenges, the Trust is nimble, focused, and innovative. Brian meets regularly with individual physicians, groups of docs, employers and other stakeholders. He’s out and about listening and learning, while letting those providers know what the Trust expects of them. The Trust invests heavily in customer outreach, product innovation, network refinement, and staff education.

Brian is the epitome of an effective leader and manager. He has no ego, is constantly looking for ways to get better, to deliver more, to innovate. I’ve never heard Brian sound satisfied or content, he’s always asking, questioning, pushing to improve. Quiet and unassuming, engaged and calm, you’d be hard-pressed to pick him out of a crowd.

I’m lucky indeed to count him as a friend and colleague, and the Trust’s customers have benefited greatly from his competence and professionalism.

Brian Downs is one of work comp’s best.