Opioids, spines, and dead people

Friend and colleague David Deitz, MD, PhD, was kind enough to provide his perspective on two seemingly-unconnected items in the current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine that are highly relevant for medical providers treating occupational injuries.  Here’s his view:

Deitz – The first is an editorial by Drs. Thomas Frieden and Debra Houry from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reviewing the new CDC opioid prescribing guideline. It’s a concise review of what led the CDC to develop the guideline, as well as a clear statement of what CDC hopes to achieve. The money quote is this one: “We know of no other medication routinely used for a non-fatal condition that kills patients so frequently.”

Included in the same issue is one of a regular series of Images in Clinical Medicine – this one entitled Resolution of Lumbar Disc Herniation without Surgery. You don’t need a medical education of any kind to interpret this one – the pair of MRI images beautifully demonstrates a large disc herniation which resolves over a 5-month period. Nothing surprising to students of low back pain, there is abundant literature demonstrating that the best care for the majority of patients with lumbar disc herniation is conservative – maintaining physical activity as much as possible while waiting for the natural resolution demonstrated again in this case.

While I don’t think the Journal editors intended the irony, it’s sobering to think about how many opioids have been prescribed to injured workers over the last 20 years for this condition, and its (often unnecessary) surgical consequences. One of the most common conditions in WC, and a routinely-prescribed medication with potentially fatal consequences. Hopefully, we’re starting to do better.

Paduda – In a related piece, Michael Van Korff ScD andGary Franklin MD MPH summarize the iatrogenic disaster driven by opioid over-prescribing.  Over the last fifteen years, almost 200,000 prescription opioid overdose deaths have occurred in the US, with most deaths from medically-prescribed opioids.

Doctors prescribed opioids that killed well over a hundred thousand people.

Here’s one

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Today, about 10 million Americans are using doctor-prescribed opioids; somewhere between 10% – 40% may have prescription opioid use disorder – they may well be addicted.

Van Korff and Franklin note that 60% of overdose fatalities were prescribed dosages greater than a 50 mg morphine equivalent.

This despite evidence suggesting “neither high opioid dose nor dose escalation improves patient outcomes.”

The authors suggest three immediate steps we can take:

  1. Avoid ill-advised and unplanned initiation of COT (chronic opioid therapy). Don’t prescribe more than 10 pills initially, check the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program database, educate the patient.
  2. Regulators and legislators need to change policies and regulations to reflect what we KNOW about COT and its inherent dangers.
  3. Considerably enhance population surveillance of opioid prescribing and safety.  The FDA should expand its postmarketing surveillance program for long-acting opioids to patients using short-acting versions.

What should you do about this?

  1. Do NOT allow opioids for “herniated” disks.  (I know, easier said than done…)
  2. Require a pre-auth for ALL acting opioid scripts, and all increases in dosage above 50 mg MED.
  3. Wherever and whenever possible, ensure prescribing docs check PDMPs, educate patients, limit initial scripts, complete an opioid agreement.
  4. Educate patients – for those already on excessive dosages, have your nurses contact the patient to educate them on the potentially fatal risk inherent in long-term use of opioids.

ACA – who’s covered now and why it matters

20 million more Americans are covered today than were pre-ACA.  ACA’s insureds are poorer, more likely to be recent immigrants, and much more likely to be Hispanic than the rest of the country.

And for many, their new coverage is the first time they’ve had the “luxury” of insurance. They aren’t scared when a new pain or malady erupts, moms not terrified when a child wakes up with a fever, dads not losing sleep wondering how to pay the doctor’s bill or buy the insulin.

The disparity in coverage between and among ethnic groups, while still present, is narrowing – although black Americans would be doing much better if many didn’t live in states that have refused to expand Medicaid.

Make no mistake, this is very, very big news.

Beyond the much better life for the newly-insureds, the economic and long-term economic impacts are strongly positive.

Identifying and helping at-risk members is the top priority for health plans, community health centers (serving a large portion of the Medicaid community) and ACOs.  The more these providers are able to reduce the severity of chronic medical conditions, the lower their costs will be.  And the healthier, and more productive, their members will be.  And the more they will produce, and the more taxes they will pay.

ACA’s success will be measured over the long term.  Reducing unpaid ER visits reduces hospitals’ costs.  Preventing amputations and blindness among diabetes patients, cuts treatment costs and increases productivity. Keeping Americans healthier decreases first-year costs for Medicare recipients.

Despite the good news, there are two ongoing, knotty, closely-related and so-far unsolved issues. First, premiums in some areas are still too high to be “affordable”. Notably, that’s particularly true in non-Medicaid expansion states, but they’ll come along eventually (although far too late for many of their poorer residents, who will suffer needlessly while pols demagogue).

Second, many plans come with high deductibles, making routine care still problematic for poorer members.

Both will be addressed by health plans fighting for members – their survival, growth, and profitability demands it.

It won’t be tomorrow, and it won’t be pretty; remember we are fixing a broken industry that accounts for almost a fifth of our GDP. Networks will narrow, vertically-integrated delivery systems will get way more efficient, new models will emerge, and the health care system of 2021 will look a lot different than the one we have today.

Tomorrow, a deeper dive into who’s covered now and an examination of the potential impact on workers’ comp.

 

The impact of provider consolidation

Hospitals, health care systems, large multi-specialty groups – all are getting bigger by buying each other, merging, or snapping up smaller hospitals and physician practices. Providers smart/fortunate enough to be inside these mega-systems enjoy pricing power, strong brand recognition, and the negotiating leverage that goes with that.

Deal sizes are getting exponentially larger; a study by Deloitte indicates the average deal was $42 million in 2007.  Six years later, the average transaction was more than 4 times larger. Two were over $4 billion, and that was way back in 2013.

Last year, 940 transactions closed at a total value of $175 billion.  And it’s not just the mega-mergers that are influencing care delivery and pricing.  Small, “under-the-radar” deals are proliferating as those on the outside increasingly scramble for the crumbs.  Providers unable to join the big plans are pursuing out-of-network services, servicing smaller insurers, and trying to figure out how to remain viable.

Chicago is one such market; already quite consolidated, two of the largest systems, with over 6000 medical providers between them, are fighting to merge despite the Feds’ efforts to keep them apart. These mergers are increasingly coming under scrutiny from both federal and state regulators, as evidence suggests costs in “consolidated” regions are higher than in non-consolidated areas.

Meanwhile, DuPage Medical Group hasn’t been sitting by, closing 16 transactions that doubled it in size to 500 doctors. According to the NYTimes, “many of its acquisitions barely register — eight specialists last month, two small physician groups in February, a handful of doctors joining at a time. But it has been enough that DuPage now has ambitions of going national. Late last year, it teamed up with a private investment firm to provide it with $250 million for its goal.”

This is common everywhere; from Boise to St Louis to Boston to North Carolina providers are joining together, shifting the map or providers from one of thousands of tiny dots of ink to ever-growing Rorschach blotches.

What does this all mean for work comp?

Work comp is a tiny but very profitable line of business – so networks have limited bargaining power.

Prices are considerably higher in highly-consolidated regions; payers that don’t have contracts with the mega-systems must rely on non-contractual ways to address prices and utilization. This is particularly true in the South.

Where your patients get their care matters; a visit to a hospital-based provider costs about twice what the same visit to a privately-employed physician. Employer direction, soft-channelling, and variations thereof are key.

Tracking prices is key; make sure your internal analysts and external vendors are on top of the latest information on service prices.

Most importantly, factor outcomes into your evaluations.  Often the lower cost provider also delivers better outcomes; less use of opioids, better surgical results, faster return to functionality.

This last is key; price is easy to track and report. Outcomes are not.  Yes it’s hard; and yes it’s vital.

 

 

Obamacare – Round Two

Elections have consequences, none more so than this one. With the GOP headed for potentially historic losses in the Senate and House – and another four years of a Democratic-controlled White House and administration, policy makers are working on what some are calling “Obamacare, Round Two.”

That’s the quick takeaway from conversations with several leading Administration officials earlier this week in Atlanta.

After eight years of mostly-failed attempts by the GOP to de-fund, repeal and obstruct the PPACA, the anger at these “obstructionists” is being channeled into both legislative and regulatory initiatives designed to increase coverage, dramatically reduce consumer costs, and expand regulatory authority over states and private insurers alike.

And, in what appears to be more than just an afterthought, fundamentally change occupational medical coverage for many employers by shifting it to Exchange-based plans.

Specific focus is on requiring state expansion of Medicaid and “re-funding” the Co-Operative health plans that had billions stripped away last year by GOP Senators, resulting in the bankruptcy of many. This last is the subject of some internal debate, with two alternative approaches emerging as alternative solutions.

One is to fully fund current Co-Op plans while allocating additional funds to new start-ups in those areas where Co-Ops disappeared due to the funding elimination. While this would likely require additional allocation of some $10-$12 billion over five years, policy makers note that this is just returning dollars that should have been allocated according to the original PPACA. Notably, there’s already furious resistance from the big private payers as the legislation would require cross-subsidization from plans generating better-than-expected financial returns.

While the Big Three don’t like the “Zombie Co-Op” idea (they thought the idea, along with most of the plans, was dismembered, dead, and buried), they absolutely hate the alternative – a Public Option. Despite that animosity, the health plans’ huge lobbying power is likely to run up against the political reality that is the Democratic Party’s efforts to win back Congress AND keep the White House blue.

Back when PPACA was taking form, liberal Democrats in the Senate pushed very hard for a public option in each market area, claiming that the market power of the huge health plans could only be countered with a governmental plan.  As there was a considerable effort by the Dems to get at least one Republican backer (Susan Collins of ME was courted long and hard), the public option went nowhere. Unhappy with the Co-Ops offered as an alternative, liberals are also pointing out the political reality of their electorate.

Simply put, to ensure Sanders supporters turn out in the general election (forecast to be a Clinton-Trump contest), Clinton’s advisers are pushing her hard to release a “platform plank” requiring a “Medicare for All” option in every state. Clinton’s strategists are leaving no stone unturned in their effort to shift the millennials’ support from Sanders to presumptive nominee Clinton; they see this as great politics both nationally and in the contested House and Senate races as well.

As a sidelight (to some, but hugely consequential to many), it appears there’s a strong move to include coverage for occupational injuries and illnesses in “ClintonCare”. Health nerds (yes that’s me too) will recall that Ms Clinton’s stillborn healthcare reform plan incorporated workers’ comp in Title X.

The furor over opt-out, recent OSHA reports, and public scrutiny of some bad actors – along with a very favorable political environment – have made several key policy advisers revive this once-dead concept, while adding on disability coverage thru an expanded Social Security function.

Where all this leads is anyone’s guess, but the politicians involved strongly believe ClintonCare will be a very powerful tool to unite the somewhat-split party while driving GOP Congressional candidates closer to presumptive nominee Trump.

What does this mean for you?

May we live in interesting times…

Rx Drug Abuse Summit – key takeaways

I’ll keep this short.  Heading home from Atlanta and an incredibly disturbing Rx Drug Abuse Summit.  A few key takeaways.

  • The increase in the prescription opioid death toll is terrifying.  These are drugs ONLY AVAILABLE WITH A DOCTOR’S PRESCRIPTION.
  • cdc-us-overdose-deaths-2014_jr-2
  • Heroin is getting even worse – driven largely by the rampant over-prescribing of opioids.  75% of heroin users started with prescription opioids.cdc-us-overdose-deaths-2014_jr-5
  • We are making progress.  Lots of different approaches, very passionate people, truly impressive effort by the Feds.
  • There’s disagreement around the margins, but not with the central issue – opioid abuse is an unmitigated disaster.

The net is this.  There are far, far too many docs writing way more opioid scripts than they should.  Tens of thousands of people are dying, families are destroyed, kids left without parents.

You want to talk about treating pain?  

How about the pain of kids without parents, moms without daughters, sisters without brothers, communities without hope.

Who is treating their pain?

and who is causing it?

Obama, Pew, Landers and Paduda

Headed to Atlanta for Operation Unite’s fifth Rx Drug Abuse Summit, an event I’ve been privileged to participate in every year (this year Mark Pew of Prium, Michelle Landers of KEMI, and I are going to discuss formularies in work comp, an issue near and dear to my heart).

This year, President Obama is also speaking.

Think about that.

The leader of the free world is taking a day to fly down, talk, and fly back.  It’s not like the guy has nothing else on his plate – the Middle East, Apple v FBI, global warming, Congress, SCOTUS nomination of Merrick Garland, Pakistan, Iranian cyber attacks, China, trade policy…

and yet Pres. Obama a) decides to go to Atlanta; b) does the prep work necessary to speak on a panel about opioid policy, the FDA, drug approvals, law enforcement, heroin, treatment v incarceration; c) make the trip with all that entails; and d) speak on the panel.

While I’m pumped he decided to make the trip, I’m equal parts disheartened that the President of the United States has to do this.  Moreover, there’s a really impressive list of speakers; Governors, Congresspeople, the US Surgeon General, head of the FDA, Senators, head of the DEA, the CDC Director…

Those of us who’ve been up to our eyeballs in the crisis for a decade are gratified indeed to see the level of attention focused on the issue, and sad beyond measure that this has risen to the level that the President is devoting this amount of time to opioids.

What does this mean for you?

I’d suggest we focus on the positive here, as the negative is just emotionally crushing.

Gov. Baker gets it right on opioids, we got it wrong on crack

On opioids, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker (R) has been in the forefront, working with the Democratic-led legislature on intelligent, comprehensive legislation designed to save lives, assign accountability, and reduce costs. The passage and adoption of HB4056 shows what can be done – and what should be done – by every state.

Yet there’s something unsettling about this – for me and for many others.  More on that in a minute.

Friend and colleague David Deitz MD, also a member of the Mass Healthcare Services Board, was involved in this process; here’s his take:

Gov. Baker and his administration have shown real leadership in addressing this issue, and it’s important to note that other groups within the Commonwealth, notably the Department of Industrial Accidents and the Massachusetts Medical Society, have also acted in concert to address problematic opioid prescribing.  The MA Healthcare Services Boards’ guidelines have been updated to reflect the new legislation so there are no inconsistencies.  Much work remains to be done, but this is a good step forward that puts important protections in place for injured workers, in particular.”

Key components of the bill include:

  • a seven-day limit on first-time opioid prescriptions,
  • new efforts to evaluate patients within 24 hours after an overdose,
  • addiction screening for middle and high school students.
  • requires doctors to check a state Prescription Monitoring Program each time they prescribe an addictive opioid to prevent someone from getting prescriptions from multiple doctors;
  • incorporates education about opioid addiction into high school sports training; and
  • establishes a drug stewardship program to dispose of unneeded drugs.

The other 49 states would do well to consider similar legislation.

What bothers me about my/our focus on opioids is that the victims of opioids are generally white, with many middle-class.  Did we – me, you, the powers-that-be, legislators, governors – handle this differently than the crack or “pre-opioid” heroin crisis?

Yes.  And that’s just wrong.

Back when crack and heroin were predominantly a poor and minority issue, it was a crime problem.  Policing, criminal prosecutions and jail time were the approach.  Just contrast the sentencing guidelines passed by Congress and signed into law in the eighties with the legislation pending before Congress today. Crack sentences were 100 times longer than those for powder cocaine.  Today, the bills are all about naloxone, buprenorphine, and addiction treatment, brought to our attention by weeping elected officials.  Back then, it was quite a bit different.

Now that it’s affecting a wealthier and whiter population, the solution is education, prevention, compassion, a disease model of addiction.  Abusers are victims, not criminals.

What does this mean for you?

There are lessons to be learned here, some of them uncomfortable indeed.

 

What’s happened to work comp regulation?

In response to my post on payers shifting medical management strategy decision-making from experts to non-experts, a long-time friend and colleague provided his perspective. With forty years in roles ranging from regulator to compliance consultant to operations exec for payers, states, vendors and employers, he has a depth of knowledge that demands your respect and attention.

Here’s his view [with my edits for clarity]

Over the last several years states have continued to outsource their medical management policy development and implementation. 

Initially this was in the area of treatment guidelines, which seemed logical because states could not afford the staff to develop they type of canonical studies necessary to develop treatment guidelines.  That evolved into the medical fee schedule arena, first as states shifted to Medicare-based fee schedules, with regulators adjusting reimbursement up because of the nature of workers compensation. Over time, many outsourced this to a third party vendor because the state no longer had the resources to develop, update, distribute, and manage fee schedules and the schedules’ associated rules.

This all centers around the budget restraints that states are currently experiencing. 

While most of the administrative agencies are funded by a premium or dedicated tax, legislators tend to ignore that reality and/or fail to make that distinction in reviewing budget requests. [Whether it is the new-found “Cut Taxes!’ orthodoxy or just ignorance, the effect is the same] Across the board, budget requests are denied if additional resources are requested.  More troubling, state agencies are frequently required to down size staffs because of budget short falls [due to declining tax revenues].  All agencies pay the same price; an X percent reduction in the agency budget, and year after year this takes a toll. 

The result is states outsource functions that were traditionally handled internally. Lately there’s been an increasing need for medical management policy development [physician dispensing, formularies, evidence-based clinical guidelines, network adequacy are just some of the areas]. Those states that have sought to meet this need have often had to shift the costs to the payer community, commonly in the form of licensing fees.  Costs have increased but budgets for the states have not, sort of a taxation with out representation. 

Many states have lost key staff with their historical experience and medical knowledge, thereby forcing the regulated to get their answers from the litigation process rather than guidance from the state as to the intent and meaning of the regulations adopted. 

Inevitably, carriers and employers are facing rising costs in administering a workers’ compensation claims.   More to the point, Increases in unallocated loss adjustment expense are harder to recover via rate increase requests than direct loss claim costs i.e. indemnity, medical etc.

In rate hearings attended early in my career I repeatedly observed Commissioners acknowledge direct loss costs but not allow for the full amount of increase tied to unallocated loss adjustment expenses. (the other area that commissioners attacked was trending assumptions that the carriers made.)  Since unallocated loss adjustment expenses are a fixed amount and the carriers are unable to recover those costs through rate adjustments at a pace that is equal to the actual increase in those costs, the carriers are forced to find ways to cut unallocated loss adjustment costs

Here’s the key takeaway.

There are two ways to do this: bundle all medical management into a package and low ball the prices paid to vendors.  Or, in the case where the carrier has retained reputable medical management staff, simply eliminate the department and all of the high-dollar qualified staff and outsource to vendors, adding the expense to claims costs. 

True you may get a work comp program that does not do a good job of reducing lost costs but that is really not a bother as loss cost increases are the easiest to recover.  This will mean higher rates to employers but it will gain profitability for the carriers and keep their shareholders happy. 

My take – What does this mean for you?

Before you complain about taxes or government inefficiency or “incompetence”, you’d do well to actually think about cause-and-effect.

The Opioid Pendulum Swings

The CDC guidelines are out, and that’s a very, very good thing.

Yes, there’s an apparently-reasonable argument that the guidelines’ basis is not sufficiently evidence-based to stand up to the most rigorous standards.  There are two reasons that argument fails.

First, opioid advocates, manufacturers, and most prescribers did not worry about “evidence” when pills by the bucketful were prescribed and dispensed to anyone who presented with a sore back.  For advocates to caterwaul about science, evidence, and a lack of randomized controlled trials lasting more than 12 months is unfair at best.

Second, opioids kill more than 24,000 people a year – likely a lot more.  Mothers, daughters, sons, brothers, fathers are dying every day, causing destitution, devastated families, and disaster for communities. The time for half-measures is long past.

I understand this may lead to a few folks who ostensibly “need” opioids not getting their pills quickly or in the volume they desire.

Ask yourself this – how does this “need” stack up against the deaths, ruined communities, and parent-less children caused by rampant overuse of opioids?

I’d imagine the parents, siblings, and friends of those killed by opioids would be only too happy to wait a while or take another drug or try exercise or…

 

The Bern, the Buffoon, and healthcare

Well, I never thought I’d be writing about the healthcare plans of Bernie Sanders (!!) and Donald Trump (double !!) as the leading candidates for president.

And I won’t write about Trump – partially because he has no coherent plan and mostly because he is an insufferable egomaniac who will never become president.

Bernie’s single payer plan is, well, a pipe dream.  He wants to drastically raise taxes on high earners and others to pay for a no-deductible, no-copay health insurance plan. There are about a gazillion reasons Bernie’s plan is just nonsense, to wit:

  • it is completely unaffordable,
  • would require every insurance, pharma, health care, and provider group to blow up their business and start from scratch,
  • overrule every state, local, and federal, law and regulation about health care, every union labor agreement, every insurance policy and regulation, and it is
  • completely impractical and impossible to implement.

Other than that…

Please don’t take this as a slam against Bernie.  I love the guy – his passion, his views on big business (well, most of them), his railing against corrupt government-business relations and advocacy for the middle class are long overdue and very welcome.

For a more erudite take on the Sanders plan, read Charles Gaba.