Work comp pharmacy – different indeed

The US spent $322 billion on outpatient drugs in 2015 – an 8.1% increase over the year before. (subscription required)

Over the next decade, CMS expects drug spending increases to outpace overall health care inflation by a significant margin at an average annual jump of 6.7%.

Things look remarkably different in the work comp world.

I’ve been surveying workers’ comp payers (insurers, state funds, TPAs, and large employers) for 13 years and the latest data indicates most are seeing a year-over-year decrease in drug spend.  I haven’t finished aggregating the data and checking the details, but this year looks like a continuation of the decreasing drug cost trend we’ve seen over the last several years (past Surveys available here).

More than 2/3rds of payers surveyed reported a drop in drug costs in 2015, and those that saw increases usually cited unique situations as primary drivers for those increases. Conversely, payers with decreases generally attributed their success to the same factors:

  • a strong focus on clinical management 
  • particular attention paid to opioid usage
  • ongoing, concerted effort to drive generic utilization

One other key driver – payers that work closely with PBMs on a variety of programs – retail network penetration, high risk patient identification, peer review, and outlier-prescriber outreach are seeing significantly better results.

I would note that work comp PBMs are spending a lot of money and resources to cut their revenues.  [I am president of CompPharma, a consortium of worker’s comp PBMs]

While there’s no question work comp can learn a lot from group health and other payers, the remarkable success workers comp payers have had in reducing the utilization of opioids shows that Medicaid and group health could and should carefully study what we’ve been doing.

What does this mean for you?

We are making progress, and work comp PBMs are leading the way.


Workers’ comp fast facts

Over the last few years I’ve had quite a few calls and meetings with folks in the investment community  looking to get up to speed on the workers’ comp industry and various aspects thereof.

While the volume of calls ebbs and flows, of late there’s been increasing interest, likely due to the credit market’s interest in OneCall Care Management and other transactions.

So, here are some key datapoints for anyone looking for basic information.

  1. Total workers’ comp premium and equivalents is about $85 billion.  That includes insurance premiums from private carriers and state funds, claims, administrative, and excess insurance costs for self-insureds, governmental programs e.g. FECA, and claims costs for minimum-premium or other “deductible” type insurance plans.
  2. Workers’ comp medical costs will be about $33 billion this year.
  3. That’s about 1.25% of total US medical spend.
  4. Medical costs account for about 60% of claims expense, with indemnity expense accounting for the remainder. (adding administrative costs to claim costs gets you close to total WC premium and equivalents)
  5. Claim frequency has been dropping by about 2-3% per year for more than two decades.  That will almost certainly continue.
  6. Drug costs will account for around 15-17% of that spend, with physical medicine in the same ballpark.
  7. Most states have some sort of medical fee schedule (FS) in place, however there’s MUCH variation among and between the states.  Some only have provider FS, others have provider, drug, facility, DME and other services covered by fee schedules.
  8. Almost all provider fee schedules are based on Medicare.  However, few states directly link their FS to Medicare, so when Medicare’s FS changes, it may – or more likely may not – change that state’s reimbursement.

There’s a lot more here; if you are looking for more information, try the search box on this page – it’s up there to the right.  With about 3000 posts on MCM, chances are pretty good there’s some discussion of pretty much every comp-related topic.

btw, good sources are: – see the workers compensation tab – everything workers’ comp – California-specific – their Annual State of the Line is really good.

Construction labor fraud is screwing everyone

Following up on last week’s post on construction industry’s workers’ comp premium fraud problem, I realized that it’s way more than that.

We’re talking about insurers put at huge risk due to liability for work comp fraud.

Taxpayers footing the bill for medical care when laborers without insurance get hurt AND paying higher taxes because laborers get paid in cash.

Laborers getting screwed out of a reasonable paycheck by labor brokers who force them to take lower pay in untraceable cash.

Honest contractors unable to compete with others who bid based on fraudulent labor practices.

Citizens not getting jobs because labor brokers know they can get undocumented workers to do the same job for a lot less, with zero risk of complaint from those workers.

I interviewed Matt Capece, of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, who’s been all over this issue.  Matt has been talking with insurers, agents, brokers, employers, law enforcement, and the the Feds about this for some time.  While progress is being made, it’s quite clear that this is a huge problem in several key states.

MCM – How do you know this is a problem?

MC – In FLorida, Georgia, Colorado, Oklahoma, Tennessee the vast majority of the industry is affected. When we go onto job sites in Florida, on 8-9 out of 10 sites we hear from carpenters that they are getting paid cash. [emphasis added] Malls, store fit-outs, office renovations, government buildings are all affected.

It’s a big problem in TX, but less so than those other states.In TX there is a base of contractors who are resisting lawless practices

.MCM – What will help slow this down or stop it?

MC – Fraud in the industry is growing. The problem is so large that legislation hasn’t shut it down but has given law enforcement more firepower when a case is found. One of the things that needs to happen is a step up in criminal prosecutions going up the contract chain, and not just stopping at the labor broker. When upper tier contractors start seeing accountability then you’ll see some roll back.

MCM – Are there legislative solutions?

MC – When we talk to legislators about this problem, they don’t know it is that big and are shocked it is that big, then we have to face the other vested interests who want to fight against improving the law or adequately funding law enforcement because they believe it is somehow hurting or over-regulating small businesses.

Good employers, including small businesses, are losing market share and revenue and need protection. Different states have different level of commitment to attacking this. There are very few national construction associations interested in controlling or addressing this issue.

MCM – What’s holding law enforcement back?

MC – When you have law enforcement agencies that aren’t properly funded, when laws are made difficult for them to enforce, when enforcement agents are laid off, when organized labor is weakened, then there are fewer referees on playing field. Bad guys can commit payroll fraud, get away with it, and take over markets.

MCM – What are the top three things that will most help control payroll fraud?

  1. Insurance industry practices need to change from tracking COI’s to underwriting and auditing practices to root our corrupt construction businesses.
  2. Contractors that use labor brokers are putting insurers at increased risk so their premiums should be higher.
  3. The insurance industry needs to join with stakeholders on investigating corrupt contractors and giving federal and state law enforcement agencies adequate tools and resources.
    [emphasis added]

So there you have it.

Corrupt construction firms, aided by crooked agents and brokers, are stealing from taxpayers, insurers, state funds, and workers.  

What does this mean for you?

This is an issue where labor and management can and should work together much more closely. 

Friday catch-up

A short but busy week; here’s a few “highlights”


Big jump in hiring – 287,000 new jobs last month. Even better, the jobless rate has stayed below 5 percent for the last nine months, AND hourly wages increased albeit by a marginal amount AND there are still 5.8 million unfilled jobs as of April.  Here’s one expert’s read:

“This report should ease any fears that a persistent slowdown or recession is coming soon in the U.S.,” said Dean Maki, chief economist at Point72 Asset Management. “The service sector is where the real strength is, with 256,000 hires, but the gains were widespread across sectors.”

But…real median household income is still below where it was ten years ago.

Off-label prescribing run wild

Fentanyl – now infamous for having killed Prince – is the subject of a devastating piece in the NYT detailing the arrest of two pharma marketers for allegedly “financially incentivizing” docs to prescribe Subsys, a fentanyl spray intended for breakthrough cancer pain.  According to Katie Thomas’ article, only 1 percent of Subsys scripts were from oncologists.

Suggestion – ask your PBM to tell you how many Subsys scripts you paid for, and what practitioners were writing them.  NDC codes here.  Thanks to Brian Grant MD of MCN for this one

How the pharma world works

From Drug Channels comes this easy-to-read flow chart showing the drug and dollar flows in the pharmacy market.  Boss Adam Fein is a must-follow for those interested in this business.

Hat Tip to WorkCompWire for the head’s up on the news that Minnesota’s Department of Labor and Industry just published their 2014 system report. A couple of not-obvious takeaways:

Medicare’s physician fee schedule is new and improved – a brief synopsis courtesy of HealthAffairs is here.  Couple of key points:

  • Until 2019, Medicare will give physicians a fee increase of 0.5 percent per year.
  • After 2019, there will be no additional fee increases; providers will have to pick one of two reimbursement methodologies

States adopting the MACRA (new acronym for the fee schedule) for workers’ comp are going to have to figure out what to do after 2019…

Enjoy the weekend – hope we get some rain.  Not used to drought in upstate NY…

We don’t need no stinkin’ science!

I think we’ve figured out why, in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary, plaintiff attorneys in California continue to argue the work comp system mis-serves a large number of workers’ comp patients.  

Before we delve into this, allow me to stipulate that many applicant attorneys are likely well-intentioned, seeking to do good, and may well believe that a lot of work comp patients are ill-served by the work comp system.  Since they only talk with work comp patients that have complaints, that would not be surprising.  And, a relatively few work comp patients are, indeed, ill-served by the system for a variety of reasons – a bad employer and/or boss, crappy doctor, under-trained and/or over-worked claims adjuster – even a lousy attorney.

That said, it appears their representative organization, the California Applicant Attorneys’ Association, is not conversant with research methodology, processes, or statistics – and that’s why they don’t understand that the work comp system is working pretty well.

I draw this conclusion after reading an article entitled “Calling all Applicants: The Injured Worker Survey” from a July 2016 CAAA publication. In the piece, author Richard Meechan argues:

“Nothing makes sense – up is down and they (the Committee on Health and Safety and Workers’ Compensation, or CHSWC) have graphs and charts to prove it.”  

The “Injured Worker Survey” Mr Meechan refers to will apparently enable the CAAA to:

“see how the system is working for the most seriously injured workers.  That would be workers that were out of work for more than a year, our clients, to be more exact.”

This is because the CAAA apparently doesn’t (want to) believe the myriad research studies published by research organizations about injured worker outcomes and related matters.

If you, dear reader, are puzzled by this, allow me to explain. Careful and valid data analysis by experts examining credible data sets can be, and often is, translated into “graphs and charts” to help the non-statistically-endowed understand what is really going on.

In the article, Meechan states he is skeptical of research finding “95 percent of medical requests were approved and that injured workers were satisfied with their medical treatment.”  That skepticism resulted in the CAAA’s enlistment of three attorneys to help the CAAA committee on Health and Safety figure out how to “respond” to these “tales” (referring to the research presented at CHSWC meetings).

While I could find no evidence that any of the enlistees have an educational or experiential background in statistics, statistical analysis, business analysis, the physical sciences, or operations management (heavy in analytics), one of the three did study economics back in the nineteen-sixties. This isn’t to denigrate the trio, rather to contrast their relatively modest scientific research and statistical analysis credentials with those of folks who actually do research.  Like CWCI. And WCRI. And RAND.

Using SurveyMonkey, the CAAA is conducting their “survey” and will likely publish “results” in an attempt to show the information presented at CHSWC meetings, based on reams of research published after hundreds of hours invested in very sophisticated analytical processes employing highly-refined datasets and tested methodologies vetted by actual, real, live, statisticians with decades of experience and darned impressive credentials in data analysis and everything that goes into it is, well, wrong.  

And CAAA will do this based on responses from an on-line, open access survey with no data validation or proof that you are actually an “Injured Worker” needed.

Hey, you can try it yourself, here.

So here’s where the problem lies.

In the article, Mr Meechan notes that fewer than one percent (33) of the 3700+ survey responses asserted they had been out of work for a year or more. Apparently that is concerning. Mr Meechan asks others to help get the word out, as “one hundred responses is the gold standard for surveys and we are short.”

That single statement demonstrates a complete lack of of even a basic understanding of statistics.  Mr Meechan is apparently confusing statistical validity with an arbitrary “gold standard”.  Further, there’s an assumption that all that is needed is 100 SurveyMonkey responses from respondents who claim to have been injured and out of work for more than a year, and he and his associates will have what they need to refute all that science stuff CHSWC throws up there on the screen.

As anyone who has one day of stats knows, without valid underlying data to start with, the whole exercise is pointless.

More directly, garbage in, garbage out.

And in this case, the underlying data is, indeed, meaningless. A gazillion monkeys could be typing away and deliver lots of “results”. Some whizkid could figure out how to program a bot to fill them out with no human intervention at all.  More prosaically, a bunch of law clerks could earn some extra hours banging away on laptops or iPads completing SurveyMonkey surveys.

In this instance it is indeed possible that some or most of the respondents at some point had an encounter with the work comp system. Or not.

I belabor this point not to embarrass the attorneys, for that is NOT my intent. Rather it is to point out an obvious conclusion:

As reform opponents think that a SurveyMonkey random survey will be more valid than real research studies conducted by experts, we now know why “nothing makes sense” to them.

They don’t have a clue.

They are totally, fundamentally, and blindingly ignorant of even the most rudimentary statistical terms and concepts.


Note – I don’t have a link to the original article.  sorry – ask CAAA for your copy.

Where work comp’s fraud problem REALLY lies

It’s not about the individual claimant who’s working while getting benefits, or the Sunday afternoon injury reported as on-the-job come Monday morning, or the migrating pain.

The construction premium fraud racket may well be a far bigger issue for workers’ comp than the sum of individual claimant problems.  That’s my conclusion after listening to several experts who deal with this issue every day, in every state.

I don’t pretend to understand this at anything other than a very high level, but suffice it to say it is massive.  Moreover, by far the biggest problem is on really big projects – we aren’t talking about the local sub who builds decks and redoes bathrooms.  Bridges, airports, office parks, malls, government buildings – all targets for fraudsters who under-report wages, fail to obtain valid workers’ comp insurance, and rely on horrendously short-staffed enforcement of laws that are often far too permissive.

Here’s how this works.  A contractor or subcontractors contracts with “facilitators” that obtain work comp insurance from agents and provide insurance certificates to labor brokers tasked with finding and paying workers.

The work comp insurance coverage is usually minimal, and is based on false payroll data.

Far too often these labor brokers cash their payments from the facilitator, payments that can run into the tens of thousands of dollars per week (and the facilitator may well get a % of the check as a kickback from the check cashing facility).  The broker may pay the actual workers in cash.

So, the general contractor has the paper that shows they have insurance and their labor costs are low (this is a highly competitive business, and construction contractors usually win or lose business based on their cost of labor).  The facilitator makes money on the front end and back end, the labor broker usually doesn’t pay the workers what they tell the facilitator the costs are, and the check cashing store makes anywhere from a couple percent to near ten percent in fees.

The folks who get screwed by construction work comp premium fraud are diverse – most importantly, it’s the worker.  They get caught up in the scheme when they get hurt, and either there is no workers’ comp insurance at all or the paper trail is, at best, inconclusive as to the worker’s coverage.  Often dumped at the door of the nearest ER, the worker is stuck for the cost of their care, or, more likely, the taxpayer is.

The original work comp insurer gets screwed too, with perhaps thousands of dollars of premiums foregone due to fraudulent reporting while the “insured” is deemed covered by state law.

And ethical contractors find themselves facing a very difficult situation; either lose bids to lower-cost competitors or play the work comp fraud game.

What does this mean for you?

We’re going to dig deeper into this in future posts, because we really need to.


It’s the workers’ comp industry’s fault.

Yep, it’s your fault that the popular press smacks you around, citing a few examples of alleged insurer screwups as proof that you’re all a bunch of cold-hearted, nasty, lazy incompetents motivated only by profit.


When was the last time your company actually talked publicly about the good stuff you do?  The patients you help?  The above-and-beyond service you provided to the paraplegic who needed something expensive and special that you approved so they could get on with their life? The spouse you spent hours on the phone with, explaining how work comp works, when the checks would be there, how you’d make sure her husband would get the care he needed?

The hugely expensive inpatient drug detox to help a long-term opioid user get clean, get her life back, and perhaps return to work?

(update-  the good folks at Midwest Employers are sharing their work on YouTube.) Kudos to MWECC – and here’s hoping a) they do more of this and do more to publicize it and b) others follow suit)

The lengths you went to to prevent a young woman from being subjected to cervical implant surgery, knowing that the outcomes for patients with her condition were universally poor?

The dangerous drug interaction you prevented, despite the screams of protest from the claimant’s physician and/or attorney?

Wait…you never publicly talked about this?  Never once mentioned it, much less actually – God forbid – used this an example of the good work your people do?

Never published a case of the month, or sent out a release honoring one of your employees for going above-and-beyond in helping a work comp patient?

Then stop your bitching about ProPublica, NPR, the plaintiff’s bar, and muckraking journalists and bloggers.  Because it’s your fault.

There are a bunch of reasons why insurers, TPAs, and funds don’t do this – all of them short-sighted, ignorant, and indefensible.  Fact is, if you don’t tell your story, others will. And in the work comp industry’s case, those “others” have bludgeoned you near to death with some true, real life examples of major screwups, along with many mis-interpreted, mis-understood, or just plain BS examples of alleged incompetence and/or misconduct.  I’ve spoken with several industry executives, and all decry the silence – their employers’ silence.

We are in an election year, folks.  We are hearing about opt-out, about alternatives to workers’ comp, about a “broken system”, about how poorly you serve “claimants’ (I hate that word).

What does this mean for you?

Worker’s comp isn’t broken.  

But if you don’t get off your butt and show why, it damn sure will be.



Disability – it’s not a “medical” condition

A while back I had the pleasure of interviewing Glenn Pransky MD, M.Occ.H., the director of Liberty Mutual’s Center for Disability Research.  As I noted in a post a few months ago;

Glenn is the Director of Liberty Mutual’s Center for Disability Research; he is an occ med physician and has his Master’s in Occupational Health as well and has authored over a hundred articles, research papers, and book chapters.  That’s all quite impressive; what really struck me is how approachable, genuine, and open Glenn is. [my use of his first name is intentional, Glenn is completely without pretension or ego.]

Here’s the first installment of the interview (note I captured this as accurately as possible however any errors are mine) :

MCM: How has the “condition of disability” evolved over the last 20 years?

GP:  [There’s been an] Increase in the amount of health care treatment where it isn’t so clear that it makes people a lot better, along with growth in Social Security disability. More and more people seem to see themselves as permanently disabled.

Workers are staying in jobs longer because they have no resources to retire.

There are more employees with chronic conditions or who are in poor health; [there’s a] wave of baby boomers who are really unhealthy…less routine exercise in our working population. The Return to Work context of 20 years ago has changed, major shift in chronic musculoskeletal conditions is more prevalent today than it was 20 years ago – we are shifting from acute to more chronic disease state.

[Most recently there has been a] Shift from traditional jobs to non-standard work arrangements, contractors, out of house, gig economy etc. Non-traditional work situations are limited in terms of resources for RTW.  The Upside is there is more focused problem-solving on RTW these days than before

MCM: What “causes” disability?
GP: A lot of factors. It starts with a health condition that limits [the person’s] ability to work. Whether it becomes a work loss is due to other factors; whether there are accommodations available, the treating physician’s focus on disability prevention, and whether there is reassurance that the injured worker’s RTW will be safe and supported.

For everyone who’s disabled according to Social Security there’s someone working full time that means there is more [to the disability] than the health condition. Work is better for people, as prolonged disability is bad for your health. Research indicates that even when controlling for the patient’s medical condition, when working age people are out of work, they become sedentary, depressed, detached, and mortality increases.

There are significant opportunities [to mitigate disability]; early positive contact w the injured worker makes a difference; work accommodations offered for temporary alternate duty reduces TTD days by 30%, supervisor response “how can I help”, how can we accommodate” can make a difference of 20% reduction in TTD…Also having a formal policy and consistent approach to it makes a difference.

For insurers- early contact and problem solving research in Australia shows this reduces TTD days.

MCM: What is the role of medical treatment and treaters in disability; causation, prevention, and mitigation?
GP: Providers that are focused on RTW are better for patients and deliver the best outcomes when they practice EBM and communicate w patients on this; there is good evidence that this improves RTW. There are a series of studies from Bernacki in JOEM – more recent ones from WA COHE program…when patients get medical care that does not have a strong evidence base, disability is prolonged. Opioids are a great example.

More to come from Dr Pransky – my quick takeaway is this:

Disability is NOT a medical condition.  

Work comp pharmacy – early results of 2016 Survey

I’m up to my eyeballs in the 13th (!!) Annual Survey of Prescription Drug Management in Workers’ Compensation; the response from payers willing to devote time to the project has been gratifying indeed.

Previous Survey reports are available here; note these are the Public versions; respondents get a much more detailed and comprehensive version.

A bit of background first.  I conduct these surveys telephonically, speaking to the individual at the insurer/self-insured employer/state fund/TPA/trust who is directly responsible for the pharmacy program. In addition to asking their opinions and views, we get data on a variety of key metrics including:

  • drug spend for 2015 and 2014
  • opioid spend for 2015
  • compound drug volume
  • generic fill and efficiency rates
  • mail order usage

A few early findings.

  1. Pharmacy continues to be seen as more important than other medical ost areas, primarily due to the “downstream” effects of opioids on claim duration, return to work, and related pharmacy spend.
  2. Most respondents are seeing a decline in drug spend.  This is a bit of a surprise, as national research suggests drug costs are going up.  A possible explanation is that (most of) these payers are pretty sophisticated, have been working diligently on pharmacy issues for years, and most (but certainly not all) have employed a variety of programs to reduce unnecessary use of potentially dangerous drugs.
  3. The percentage of spend that goes to opioids varies greatly, from around 21% to over 50%.  Some of this is due to regional or state differences, but much is not. Much more to dig into here.
  4. Mail order continues to be woefully under-used, with most respondents reporting penetration rates in the low single digits.  Argh.
  5. Compound drugs are seen as highly problematic and payers have a wide variety of programs/efforts/mechanisms in place to address compounds.

Much more to come; when the Survey Report is done I’ll post a link.

Enjoy the weekend!


Monday catch-up

Summer’s arrived in upstate New York – and boy do we appreciate it. While I was watching all the trees turn green, I missed reporting on a bunch of stuff last week.

So better late than never, here it is.

P&C industry outlook

Let’s start with the macro stuff.  A couple weeks back, Fitch published a piece wherein they opined the P&C industry is in for a tough time this year. After several years of stellar performance, Fitch expects prices to decrease as competitors battle for market share. Here’s how they put it:

Renewal rates are flat or declining for most commercial market segments following a hardened market from 2011-2014. The price competition comes from underwriting success and market capacity expansion from earnings accumulation. As price competition intensifies however, this will likely be a drag on premium growth, according to Fitch. Commercial lines written premium volume grew by only 1.8 percent in 2015.

For work comp, Fitch identified prescription drug costs and continued low interest rates as problematic; the first increases costs while the second reduces investment income.


The number of opioid scripts in the US actually declined last year. And that was the third year in a row. That’s the best news we’ve heard in quite a while. Since 2012 – the peak year for opioid script volume – the number of scripts has dropped by 12% – 18% (depending on the data source).  

In case you’re interested, prescription opioids accounted for about $10 billion in total spend in 2015. Workers comp accounted for around 14% of that, a rather striking figure when you consider total work comp medical spend accounts for 1.4% of overall US medical spend.

Yup, work comp uses about ten times more opioids than other payers.

And how the bad news; the drop in scripts hasn’t been accompanied by a decrease in the death count, which stands at 28,000 for 2014.

California Workers’ Comp

Well, at least it hasn’t gotten any worse.  That’s my take on the just-released CWCI study on the UR/IMR process for Q1 2016.

  • IMR volume is about the same as last year at 160,000 determination letters per year;
  • the overall IMR uphold rate is the same as last year at 89%;
  • Rx drug requests still account for nearly half of all disputed medical service requests submitted for IMR (and 40% of the Rx drug IMRs are requests for opioids or compound meds);
  • and a small number of docs still account for the majority of the disputed  service request that undergo IMR (the top 10% of medical providers accounted for more than ¾ of the IMR service requests).  

My take – the IMR process is preventing people who don’t need opioids from getting scripts for opioids.  That’s a very, very good thing.  Yet the same docs keep prescribing this crap to patients knowing full well these requests will be rejected.

I’m very much looking forward to hearing all those “injured worker advocates” heaping praise upon the system for protecting their clients’ health and wellbeing, and that of their kids as well.

I’ll personally nominate each of them for a Comp Laude Award.