On controlling opioid use, work comp leads the way

Outside the workers’ comp world, opioid utilization and costs are increasing significantly, driven by greater use of long-acting opioids.

According to a Prime Therapeutics study of 15 million commercial insurance claims, short-acting opioid prescriptions dropped over a 15-month period, but utilization of all types of long-acting opioids increased.

In contrast, we work comp Neanderthals have been driving down opioid usage for years.

a few data points…

What accounts for the disparity between workers’ comp and group health?

Work comp payers care deeply about outcomes, function, and return to work. Patients taking opioids are much less likely to return to functionality than those on NSAIDs or no drugs at all.

Some payers have dedicated units focused on chronic pain and prescription drug management. Others rely primarily on their PBMs, but almost all insurers and TPAs have been working this issue for years.

PBMs working in the comp sector dedicate a lot of resources to managing opioids. Investments in analytics, PBM – payer interfaces, staff training, clinical guidelines and the like are costly but drive these results.  Staffing – clinicians, pharmacists, data analysts, program managers, highly trained customer service staff – focus on this issue 24/7.

That’s not to say we don’t have a very long way to go; data from CompPharma’s annual survey of prescription drug management in workers’ comp and NCCI indicate spend for controlled substances (mostly opioids) accounts for about 28% of total WC drug spend.

I’m gong to be speaking at this month’s National Heroin and Prescription Drug Abuse Summit on what the real world can learn from workers’ comp.  The main takeaway -despite significant regulatory, economic, and legal barriers inherent in workers’ comp, payers and PBMs have made significant progress.

It’s time for the real world to get on board.

What does this mean for you?

We CAN reduce opioid use – it just takes dedication, resources, and persistence.

Health reform and Work Comp – more data is coming in

The evidence is piling up; ACA is strongly associated with lower work comp premiums. Almost a year ago I attributed improvements in work comp’s medical expense trend to ACA; now, the impact is being seen in improving combined ratios particularly in states that fully adopted ACA’s reforms. (here’s a map of Medicaid-expansion states)

That view is now getting traction outside our little world, with the LA Times covering the issue earlier this week.

Premium decreases are now being seen in Medicaid-expansion states; here are a few examples.

  • Arkansas – 8.4% decrease
  • Michigan – 9.3% decrease in advisory rate
  • Montana – 7.8% decrease in loss costs
  • Nevada – 10.7% decrease in loss costs
  • Oregon – 5.3 % decrease
  • Vermont – 7.9% decrease

(I’ve purposely left out California, which has seen significant rate decreases however other factors beyond ACA are also affecting rates)

Of course, other factors are also in play here, including expanding employment and state-specific reforms. However, when you compare “ACA adopting states” with other states, the overall picture is compelling.

Bill Wilt of Assured Research kindly offered the following observations (more information is available here):

Assured Comment: American Health Care Act (AHCA) Likely Bad for WC Insurers

New 2016 data shows states maximally affected by ObamaCare outperformed WC industry

Newswires are on fire with analysis of the AHCA and its impact on the nation’s medically insured. Advocates point to the CBO’s estimate that it could reduce federal deficits by $337 billion over the ten years 2017-2026. Detractors, and there are many, focus on the CBO’s estimate that some 14 million Americans could lose healthcare coverage by 2021; climbing to 24 million by 2026.

New, 2016 industry data shows that the workers’ compensation loss ratio in states maximally affected by the rollout of the ACA (aka ObamaCare) have begun to outperform states minimally impacted by the ACA (see nearby figure). Our delineation stems from a recent New England Journal study which found that states expanding Medicaid and those introducing state-based exchanges saw the largest increase in the medically insured. In 2016, the WC loss ratios in those 18 states outperformed the 15 minimally impacted states by 440 basis points. The maximally-affected states also outperformed nationwide averages in 2016.

This new data comports with intuition and, increasingly, the anecdotes we pick up from industry sources. The ACA has likely been a contributing factor to the favorable trend in WC loss ratios. The evidence is significant: steadily declining WC loss ratios during the ACA-years, historically low medical inflation and favorable WC loss-reserve development. Most industry experts believe the expansion of the medically insured has resulted in less case shifting and less cost shifting (e.g., fewer fraudulent claims and comorbidities treated under WC).

The AHCA, in its current form, should have the opposite affect; it seems likely to lead to more WC claims and cost shifting – rising loss ratios. The nearly complete unwinding of the expansion in medically insured could accelerate cost-shifting, in turn putting pressure on WC loss trends and reserve margins. The initial wave of newly uninsured (14 million by 2018 according to the CBO) would result from the repeal of the individual mandate. We don’t have an estimate of the working population in that cohort but presume it’s meaningful. The second wave of newly uninsured (another 10 million) would result from changes in Medicaid enrollment. According to WC experts (link here to one prominent blog) some 81% of Medicaid families have at least one member of their family working. That presents plenty of cost-shifting opportunities.

We’d expect the negative impacts of the AHCA, if rolled out in its current form, would first appear in the states benefitting the most from the Affordable Care Act. Large states including California and New York are among the 18 included in our figure above – contact us for a complete listing.

WC rates across the nation have begun to decline – evidence that WC insurers discount favorable trends into their ratemaking. Regulators will probably have little tolerance for preemptive rate increases based on this evidence, but it will be interesting to see if the pace of rate decreases slow. If not, WC loss ratios will have almost surely found their bottom in 2016.

What does this mean for you?

Repealing ACA will be bad news for work comp premium payers, good news for service entities.

WCRI 2017 – California’s outcomes post reform, and plans for the next round of reform

One last post on last week’s excellent WCRI conference; Alex Swedlow CEO of CWCI provided a brief but information-rich profile of California – an Altered State.

The good news…

  • Medical trend has flattened
  • Fewer spine surgeries
  • Fewer Opioid scripts
  • $1.3 billion in system wide savings

One problem that seems almost specific to California – cumulative trauma claims. These claims are particularly problematic in the LA county area – and are outliers in terms of disability duration, cost, indemnity payments.  Moreover, cumulative injury cost are driven by LA county AND attorney involvement.

Medical treatment costs have been essentially flat for five years – due in large part to adoption of an RBRVS-based fee schedule.

The FBI’s involvement in tracking down miscreants in the spinal surgery industry may have been helpful in reducing overutilization of that much-criticized procedure.

Opioid spend has declined for the 5th consecutive year – kudos to the work comp PBM and payers who’ve done this. There’s also been a 26% decrease in cumulative MED over the first two years of the average claim.

This is very good news.

But, as Alex noted, we’ve only moved from the disastrous to the miserable, as opioid use is still far too high.

Overall, while a reduction of 8 percent in medical trend is welcome news, this happened before in the previous attempt to reform California work comp.  After an initial similar reduction, costs zoomed up, necessitating more reform.  So, while Alex is hopeful that trends are positive, he is wary indeed.

A few more key data points

Loss Adjustment Expense is just about equal to indemnity payments and is the highest across almost any comparison group.  And, this expense load has increased dramatically over the last couple of years. Medical cost containment expenses are a big part of this; the data presented was preliminary and thus can’t be cited yet but suffice it to say that costs account for a huge portion of overall medical expense.

Drugs

Rx spend accounts for 12.4% of medical spend but average expense for first 24 months after a claim is incurred is just under $2000 – this has decreased over the last few years.

A formulary is in the offing and it looks like the go-live date of July 1 2017 will happen. While the intent is to improve care and reduce cost, there will have to be strict enforcement for the hoped-for results to actually become real. One of the key issues unresolved is the formulary doesn’t address the difference in the price per pill of identical drugs – the variation can be wide indeed. This is an area that regulators have been focused on, yet none of the current solutions – change in fee schedule or adoption of a formulary – has addressed.

IMR and UR

Only 4.3 percent of medical care sought by treating providers was modified or denied, refuting claims made by other media outlets that there was wholesale rejection and denial of needed care thru the IMR process. Fortunately 99.4% of compound drug rejections were upheld – and over 90% of opioid denials.

What does this mean for you?

Things are getting better in California, but some of the “solutions” offered by regulators are misguided and will actually increase frictional costs. I’m going to dive into this in a post next week.

WCRI – What’s happening with medical?

Hospitals are losing work comp share. You would think that’s good news as non-hospital care is much cheaper.  But that may well be wrong. 

The hospital info was the headline from Carol Telles’ kickoff presentation Friday morning at WCRI’s Annual Conference. Workers’ comp patients are using less inpatient hospital care AND care is moving from hospital facilities to ambulatory surgery centers.

This isn’t specific to work comp.  Care has been moving from inpatient to outpatient to non-hospital facilities for decades.  Way back in the eighties – when I started my career in what was then known as “cost containment” – the big effort was to reduce hospital length of stay and admission rates. Over the last thirty (gulp!) years we’ve seen massive shifts in the location of care, as procedures that once HAD to be done on an inpatient basis – think back surgery – moved to outpatient facilities.

The result – outpatient/ambulatory facility use for all payers grew dramatically over the last 30 years, while inpatient admissions actually decreased over that period. This despite the aging and fattening of America.

For work comp patients, this trend persisted across all states – but this did NOT result in lower cost. In fact while the decrease in inpatient admissions was in the low single digits, costs per admit increased on average 24%. This makes sense. As providers and payers have moved patients to outpatient locations, only the sickest and most risky patients have required inpatient treatment. Unlike ambulatory surgery centers, hospitals have a broad array of emergency and life support resources needed.

Not surprisingly, hospitals are pretty unhappy about this. They are losing healthy, easy, well-insured patients to doctor-owned facilities, but get to keep treating the risky, low-health-status Medicaid and uninsured patients. Over the years, hospitals’ patient population has gotten more expensive to care for and less likely to have good outcomes.

What this means for workers’ comp

To fight back, hospitals are getting much better at revenue maximization.

In English, that means they get as much revenue from vulnerable payers as possible to offset lower reimbursement for unprofitable patients. And you, work comp payer, are about as vulnerable as it gets.

While fee schedules in some states (Maryland for example) generally protect work comp payers, most states’ fee schedules ensure work comp is very lucrative indeed for hospitals.

And no, your PPO isn’t helping.

Work comp PPO discounts may look ok, but the actual cost of treatment has been ballooning in many states. Payers THINK they are doing fine when they see the “savings” below fee schedule, but many aren’t focused on the real problem – how much they are paying.

What can you do about this?

Direct care to providers that deliver the best value, defined as cost divided by quality.

 

 

WCRI – will value based care come to workers’ comp?

Value-based care is growing rapidly in the real world outside workers’ comp.  An excellent session asked if VBC will come to work comp.

Work comp care management today is really fee and utilization management using discounted networks and external vendors.

VBC involves bundled payments and is focused on the patient’s experience and results. Simply put, Value = Quality divided by Cost. That requires evidence based medicine, clinical practice guidelines, measuring outcomes, and monitoring and ensuring use of all these tools.

While VBC is complicated to implement in the real world outside work comp, the additional complexities inherent in work comp make it even more complex.  Dr Page noted there are few active VBC initiatives in workers’ comp.  While several states appear to support pilots, they are few, far between, and there doesn’t seem to be any results available just yet.

Dr Page sees objective measurement of outcomes – from the patient’s perspective – as key to the adoption of VBC in work comp.  She identified a sustained return to work as the desired end point.  While that’s true, as we learned yesterday – and undoubtedly you were well aware of this – there are any number of factors driving RTW that have nothing to do with medical care.  Employee-employer relations, psycho-social issues, the availability of employment are just three.  That being the case, I’m a little skeptical about the utility of RTW as the outcome point.

Other barriers to implementing VBC are

  • the need for accurate, consistent, and comprehensive data;
  • comfort and trust between the parties (alert!),
  • and the inherent complexity of designing payment formulae that consider outliers, risk adjustment, comorbidities, and specific state laws favoring or limiting opportunities to direct patients to use and stay with specific providers.

So, while VBC has a lot of promise, my sense is we aren’t going to see any widespread use for a very long time.

Dr David Deitz noted that one challenge is the lack of ability for or interest among orthopedic surgeons in sharing risk around RTW may be a significant obstacle to surgical bundles.

What does this mean for you?

VBC is an idea whose time has come in the real world, and likely won’t ever come in workers’ comp.

WCRI – worker outcomes – it’s blindingly obvious

Now on to the real stuff – deep research into issues of interest only to we real work comp geeks.

Dr Bogdan Savych started off this brief and information-stuffed session.

Across 15 states, 14 percent of workers with lost time injuries didn’t have a substantial and persistent return to work (this is PRELIMINARY and subject to change) – why?  what drives this?

Among the biggest drivers – workers who strongly agreed that they were afraid of being fired or laid off had “worse outcomes.”  As over a quarter of workers fell into that category, that’s a big issue. There are both literal interpretations of this – perhaps the worker was justified in fearing a layoff and broad interpretations of this – perhaps the work environment was low trust.  These workers were also more likely to hire an attorney.

Takeaway – the employee’s work environment, and interpretation of that environment, is a major driver of “permanent disability.”  So, think less about medical issues, and much more about these “other” drivers.

Glenn Pransky of Liberty Mutual was next up.  Dr Pransky is one of the industry’s leading researchers on disability issues (kudos to Liberty for continuing to support the Center for Disability Research and similar efforts.

Glenn noted that one driver was the patient’s communications with the payer.  Workers were sometimes thrown off by negative language used by the claims adjuster in the initial encounter or call.  If they feel their needs aren’t being taken into account or they are being treated unfairly they are more likely

The top return to work coordination skill – communications. That’s the result of research conducted in Canada about a decade ago, research that is very likely true today. In fact, Glenn and others conducted a study a few years back that evaluated the impact of improving the initial contact with the case manager, focusing the patient on problem solving and not using words like “claimant, investigation, liability, etc.

What’s interesting here is this is – in large part – old news, yet we still need to hear this.

More importantly, to paraphrase the previous White House, we need to STOP doing stupid stuff.

Clearly we KNOW this language, the style of communication, the employee’s workplace satisfaction are critically important to disability. Yet far too often we still talk to patients not as people but as “claimants”, and treat patients as legal claims, not as people.

Takeaway – treat patients as you would want to be treated.

WCRI – Congressional perspectives

Boston’s always beautiful in March – some days are even more beautiful than others. No better place for the annual gathering of the work comp geeks – myself included aka the WCRI Annual Issues & Research Conference.

The kickoff session featured two former denizens of Capitol Hill opining on the impact of the election on healthcare, labor, and work comp. Former Rep Henry Waxman (D CA) and former Sen Tom Coburn (R OK) took to the podium for a moderated discussion and audience Q&A.

WCRI CEO John Ruser started off asking about the Executive Orders issued by President Trump, specifically the drop 2 regulations for every one adopted. Waxman spoke briefly about the complexities, but focused on the lack of consensus among Republicans on healthcare reform and noted that, due to this lack of consensus, they are looking to the President for leadership.  But the President is not providing leadership on healthcare, so we’ve got a hot potato situation.

Coburn attributed problems to a lazy Congress passing large numbers of bills written by departmental Secretaries; elected officials aren’t developing the legislation but rather using language handed to them. He also believes Congress has abdicated and/or lost much of its rightful place as an equal player among the three branches of government.

ACA

Ruser led off with a hypothetical question about what parts of ACA should be kept if the law is repealed and replaced.  This was the wrong question, as it deals with a – in my view – highly unlikely hypothetical. Instead, the question should have been “what’s going to happen with ACA? Will it be repealed? What will pass if anything?”

Waxman doesn’t believe ACA will be repealed.  In contrast, Coburn thinks that all we have to do is publish prices for health services and outcomes and people will go to those providers with the best prices and outcomes.  I don’t know what planet he lives on, but parents with sick kids, individuals with mental health issues, or children of ailing and incompetent parents are never going to be able to make appropriate “Market based” decisions.  Oh, and insurers are never going to insure people with pre-existing conditions – and they’ll look to cancel policies for those who have the temerity to get sick.

This isn’t an economic decision folks, it’s your daughter or son.

Coburn promoted a bill that is under consideration – Burr Hatch Upton.  He believes this bill will be similar to what comes out of Congress.  Details on this here.

He also said there was no attempt by Democrats to involve the GOP in ACA – a statement that is patently false.

Cost shifting

Waxman responded to Ruser’s question about the potential for healthcare changes on case or cost shifting to work comp.  He talked about Medicaid changes that may well reduce enrollment in Medicaid – didn’t speak to workers comp.  Not surprising as he isn’t a work comp guy.

Coburn is a practicing physician, he discussed unfunded liabilities, asserting $105 trillion in future unfunded liability for medicare medicaid etc, noting that we are hurting Millennials as they will have to pay for this.  This is somewhat interesting as he voted against requiring the feds to negotiate pricing for drugs for Medicare.

Unfortunately these two gentlemen weren’t really equipped to address the question – no fault of their own as this is an esoteric topic.

Federal oversight of work comp

Waxman doesn’t see the new Administration moving to increase federal oversight of workers comp, as there’s been no indication from the nominee or administration about this.  that and there are too many other issues re far more important.  Coburn agreed with Waxman and cited lack of Constitutional support for federal involvement in workers comp.

Coburn discussed the expansion of the definition of disability under SSDI, and the subsequent increase in beneficiaries.  He sees SSDI as a social safety net.  All the data supports his case that SSDI enrollment has increased and there are now 25 million Americans are on ssdi – a number that isn’t right.  The actual figure is 4.8% of the population – or 15 million people.

An audience member asked if the Grand Bargain is being dismantled.  Coburn noted that there’s no requirement that SSDI factor in the cause of the disability; SSDI is responsible for disability regardless of the cause.  He said the real question is should work comp cover the entire cost of the disability?  

That’s an excellent question – I believe the answer has been, and still is, yes.

 

 

 

Employment’s effect on hypertension

Could hypertension be an occupational disease?

That’s the question addressed in an excellent article in HealthAffairs.

The short answer is there are many factors that contribute to or mitigate risk for hypertension, however the physical and psychological hazards associated with the worksite do correlate with hypertension risk.

Specifically, psychological demands such as how often one is required to work fast  and without errors are correlated with blood pressure while more freedom for workers to make independent decisions is associated with lower blood pressure.

The research looked at about 14,000 Alcoa blue-collar workers over a 16-year period and included surveys as well as medical billing data.  While other external factors are indeed important, the researchers concluded:

workplace environmental exposures may as a whole contribute substantially to hypertension among US blue-collar workers. We found evidence for this across multiple exposures in the categories of psychological hazards and the plant social environment.

Note that this study resulted from a partnership between a very large employer and researchers.  I’d hazard a guess that a study involving less paternalistic employers would show stronger correlations with greater impact.

What does this mean for you?

Employers have long known the worksite is a factor in employee health and productivity; this research clearly indicates hypertension could be characterized as an occupational disease specifically associated with employment.

Note – HealthAffairs has been doing really good work of late on workplace health and exposures.  Put their site on your reading list.

Work comp – the latest on back injury and treatment thereof

Back claims account for around a quarter of all workers’ comp claims.  They are also among the toughest to handle; what appears to be a simple strain at first report may end up a long-term, permanent disability claim.

Three recent studies on back pain, the treatment thereof, and how treatment varies from place to place are well worth your consideration.

Here’s the quick summary of each – followed by what it means for work comp patients, providers, and payers.

First up, a comprehensive study of management of nonspecific back pain treatment options will begin shortly, funded by the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI).

The Comparison of Surgical and Nonsurgical Options for Management of Chronic Nonspecific Low Back Pain will assess outcomes for patients receiving surgery (lumbar fusion) vs non-surgical treatment. This is a randomized control trial, so the results will be instructive indeed for work comp regulators, payers, and providers.

HOWEVER, a decade ago a very similar study was conducted which indicated similar outcomes for surgical and non-surgical patients – but this result was not deemed conclusive because lots of patients who were put in the “surgery” group chose not to have surgery and vice versa.

Implications for work comp – a valid study will greatly help regulators determine the approval process and standards for back surgery.

Whether or not you get back surgery appears to depend more on where you live than what your symptoms are.  That’s the conclusion from a recent Dartmouth analysis of Medicare data.  The other major takeaway –  – despite the lack of credible evidence that surgery produces better outcomes.

maps below are from Dartmouth Diffusion project.

Notice how surgery rates didn’t move much at all in New England, but dramatically increased in the southeast and Rocky Mountain regions.

If you want to know why, there’s this from the NYTimes article: “physician beliefs about the benefits of surgery were associated with surgical variations.”

Implications for work comp – Regulators, use NATIONAL guidelines, and don’t rely on local providers to drive your guideline selection.

Supporting this research is this – drugs don’t seem to help resolve back pain any quicker. A guideline was just released by the American College of Physicians advocating non-pharmaceutical approaches for treatment of back pain.

Implications for work comp – I’d be repeating myself…

Four questions for WCRI’s Dr John Ruser

I (virtually) sat down with WCRI CEO John Ruser PhD last week to catch up on his first year at the Institute and get a preview of next month’s WCRI Conference. (Registration is here)

MCM – Talk about the last year and WCRI’s accomplishments.

Dr Ruser – We are working to maintain and build on the momentum Rick [Victor, former CEO] created – a rigorous approach to our research agenda, addressing a series of issues in workers’ compensation. One we are focused on is the worker outcome surveys. This can add considerable value to the industry; it addresses access to care, satisfaction with care, Return to Work, Return to Functionality, and earning history post-injury.

We are excited about what’s coming up. We want to provide information in a more readily accessible fashion. We will be launching a new website; the current one is functional but it’s time to refresh. We will go live soon with a site that is visually appealing; the new website allows us to experiment with a blog and video and provides more readily accessible content that is easier to search.

MCM – Can you expand on that [making information more accessible]?

Dr Ruser – Our work is very scholarly; it is hard to digest sometimes, so we are focusing on producing new products to reach a broader set of stakeholders that aren’t researchers. These will be written in layman’s terms that are more approachable.

MCM – The annual conference is set – what are you most looking forward to?

Dr Ruser – The theme is Persistent Challenges and New Opportunities: Using Research to Accelerate the Dialogue. There have been lots of challenges and questioning of workers’ comp over the last few years. Is workers’ comp fulfilling its obligation to injured workers? We will address some of those issues, as well as discuss what the election means for healthcare in general, labor regulations and workers’ comp. We’ve invited veteran politicians and other experts to talk about what they see down the road.

We’ve been talking about opioids for years. Are we making progress, defined as reducing new pts and reducing duration? Our people have looked at this and we see lots of variation across states, but in many states there have been fairly dramatic declines in opioid dispensing (pharmacy and physician) even back in 2014.

We will also be focusing on alternatives to opioids, a variety of solutions to control pain aside from opioids – excited about this – research on marijuana and pain and biochemistry of that. Apart from sharing our latest opioid research, we will have a panel that talks about about a variety of different approaches, including mindfulness, and we have some policymakers will discuss medical marijuana and complexities involved [in dealing with marijuana].

There is a session on grand bargain and we are really excited about it.  Among the speakers are Dr. David Michaels now at GWU, who was behind record keeping changes and is the former head of OSHA is there, Northeastern’s Prof. Emily Spieler, Dr. David Deitz, and former AIA Workers’ Compensation executive Bruce Wood.

MCM – What’s been the biggest surprise in your first year?

Ruser – [The] amount of support and respect that WCRI gets from the industry and our broad base of stakeholders, the recognition of the value and independence of our work, [we are] filling a void, [stakeholders have been] very supportive in general. Some disagree, but when they do they are respectful due to WCRI’s reputation.