Oct
6

Opioids – Deaths up, Sacklers likely to escape justice

Three news items hit the desk, ranging from bad to awful.

More than 73,000 of us died of drug overdoses in the 12 months ending February, 2020. That’s four thousand more deaths than the previous year.

(note graph below is for a slightly different time period)

And it is getting worse.

Preliminary data indicates the death count is up 13% so far this year.

The number of non-fatal overdoses in Vermont tripled this year, with almost 9 out of 10 involving fentanyl.

Meanwhile, the drug dealers directly responsible for much of the horror are about to escape with most of their billions in ill-gotten gains intact.

The drug dealers are the Sacklers, owners of Purdue Pharma. Purdue developed and marketed OxyContin; A recent study,  authored by the Wharton School, Notre Dame, and RAND reported “the introduction and marketing of OxyContin explain a substantial share of overdose deaths over the last two decades.”

This from a New Yorker article:

Behind the scenes, lawyers for Purdue and its owners have been quietly negotiating with Donald Trump’s Justice Department to resolve all the various federal investigations in an overarching settlement, which would likely involve a fine but no charges against individual executives. [emphasis added]

A lawsuit indicated over the last few years, the Sackler family has transferred billions of dollars offshore, effectively protecting those assets from the US justice system. This from the New Yorker:

In a deposition, one of the company’s own experts testified that the Sacklers had removed as much as thirteen billion dollars from Purdue.

The states have asserted in legal filings that the total cost of the opioid crisis exceeds two trillion dollars. Relative to that number, the three billion dollars that the Sacklers are guaranteeing in their offer is miniscule. It is also a small number relative to the fortune that the Sacklers appear likely to retain, which could be three or four times that amount. [emphasis added]

This country has jailed millions of poor people for decades for drug-related crimes; the Trump Administration appears poised to let the white-collar drug dealers most responsible for the opioid crisis walk away with billions of dollars they made addicting America.

What does this mean for you?

The Sacklers should rot in hell, but they will likely live on in unimaginable luxury. We should all be outraged.

 


Sep
25

Friday catch up

Pre-existing conditions, drug development, COVID-related GI problems, and marketing screwups…

First up, pre-existing conditions

Yesterday President Trump issued an executive order affirming “it is the official policy of the United States government to protect patients with pre-existing conditions.”

Well, yeah. It is today, because the ACA/Obamacare – which specifically protects patients with pre-existing conditions – is the law of the land, despite dozens of GOP efforts to overturn it. 

Couple other key issues.

  1. Without legislation signed into law, the Federal government – and the President – can’t enforce a “policy”.
  2. The executive order wasn’t released, so we don’t know what it actually says.
  3. The Trump Administration backs a lawsuit that would overturn the ACA and thereby eliminate pre-existing condition protections. 

What this means – don’t watch what someone says, watch what they do.

For more details on GOP and Democratic healthcare plans, click here.

Super-useful research on healthcare prices paid by private healthplans – kudos to RAND for updating their ongoing analysis. RAND compares prices paid by privately insurers – including work comp – to Medicare, allowing you to compare relative prices for individual facilities.

Thanks to Michael Costello for the link.

One takeaway – HCA hospitals are pretty expensive…(you can find prices for pretty much any hospital on RAND’s map)

Drug development

Pretty much all new drugs developed over the last decade relied on research you – the taxpayer – paid for.

That includes $6.5 billion of taxpayer dollars invested in remdesivir, one of the very few drugs found to be useful in treating COVID19.

COVID19

Alarming piece in JAMA yesterday reported patients with Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome caused by COVID19 are at significantly higher risk for major gastrointestinal problems. Pretty solid science behind the research.

An earlier article highlighted the opioid epidemic during the COVID19 pandemic; there are definite limitations to the research due to small sample size and possible clinician bias. With those provisos, key takeaways include:

Good news – J&J will start Phase 3 trials of its vaccine. Unlike some other vaccines, it is a single shot and can be stored in a refrigerator for up to 3 months (others require two shots and must be stored at ultracold temps).

Marketing malfeasance

And lastly, an excellent article in the Harvard Business Review about marketing in current times.  A critical takeaway – do NOT just talk about social responsibility; DO it. Kudos to Starbucks; after mandating that workers could not wear anything with Black Lives Matter while working, the company realized it screwed up and reversed course.

For the umpteenth time, if you do screw up, apologize fully and without dissembling.  None of these “I’m sorry if anyone is offended” non-apology apologies; from the article:

With “cancel culture” as pervasive as it is, a one-time reaction is as good as letting an issue get ahead of you. Instead, treat apologies or mea culpas as the first steps of an ongoing dialogue designed to bring about thoughtful and meaningful progress.

Here’s hoping the White Sox turn things around in the upcoming series with the Cubs…and your team wins this weekend.

Be well.


Sep
4

Friday catch-up

Lots happened this week – here’s the big stuff.

COVID’s impact on work comp

WCRI is hosting a free webinar on the delivery of medical care and RTW during the pandemic.  Hosted by WCRI CEO John Ruser PhD and Randy Lea MD, the webinar will also include Mark Herbert MD, an infectious disease specialist.

Sign up here for the September 24 event, it kicks off at 2 pm eastern.

Drug prices

No, payers’ drug costs are not dramatically higher. In fact, net costs after rebates and other payments are flat to lower.  That’s one of the key findings from Adam Fein PhD’s analysis of the top PBM’s results. Kudos to Express Scripts, CVS, and Prime Therapeutics for publishing true cost data; one only wishes all PBMs did the same.

Ever wonder where all those new drugs come from?

Well, pat yourself on the back – because you, dear taxpayer, funded most of the initial R&D behind new drug development. Here’s the takeaway:

every new drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the decade from 2010-2019 was associated with basic science funded by the NIH.

The IAIABC’s annual meeting kicks off next week; registration is still open here. Lots will be covered, including a discussion of COVID claims, presumption, fee schedule improvements, and of course EDI.

David Dubrof is PBM myMatrixx’ new Chief Sales Officer. I’ve known David for 20+ years; he is one of the very few “A” players in work comp services sales and a consummate professional. (myMatrixx is an HSA consulting client). David is all in on myMatrixx’ industry-leading push for price transparency.

How’s that budget process going?

Imagine trying to set up a curriculum for an unknown number of students with an unknown level of education. Or meal planning for an unknown group with different dietary requirements that are also unknown.

Well, that’s budgeting 2021. Never has that been so…fraught/uninformed/scary/pointless as it is today. If you need a break from trying desperately to figure out how to justify/rationalize your 2021 forecast and budget, read this.  It’s an excellent discussion of budgeting in a time of huge uncertainty.

Family is coming in this weekend to celebrate our new granddaughter’s arrival – have to say this is much-needed these days; the nastiness and bad news is getting to be a bit much.

Hope your weekend is filled with joy.


Sep
3

Will the FDA keep your family safe?

Would you let your kids/parents/grandparents be injected with a COVID19 vaccine “approved” by the FDA?

The same FDA that lied about treating COVID with blood plasma and hydroxychloroquine?

How about the blood plasma scam? FDA chief Stephen Hahn flat out lied in public, claiming it “saved” 35% of COVID patients. Now the NIH has weighed in, refuting Hahn’s lies.

Now Trump et al want the FDA to issue an Emergency Use Authorization for a vaccine – something that has NEVER been done before, because it is incredibly dangerous.

Remember hydroxychloroquine? Touted as a miracle drug by the President, his Administration and allies, we know it is far more dangerous than helpful. And we knew that when the FDA gave it conditional use approval (that was later revoked).

Fox News on the FDA’s screw up…

Both were touted as solutions to COVID19 – and both claims were proven to be flat out wrong.

Now we have that same FDA telling states to prepare for a vaccine that will be ready in early November. The Centers for Disease Control is also involved.

The Administration is turning the FDA – once the world’s leading scientific authority on drug approval, research, and guidance – into a political machine. Lesser known is that the FDA’s oversight of pharma and food safety has plummeted under Trump.

Without full vetting of a vaccine, we do not know if it will hurt us more than help.

If this was happening under a Hilary Clinton administration I’d be screaming bloody murder.

What does this mean for you?

Elections have consequences. 

 

 


Aug
28

Another whirlwind week is just about over, and with it the summer of 2020.

Here’s important/interesting news that came across my virtual desktop this week.

COVID and Comp

More data on workers’ comp COVID19 claims is coming in; Virginia’s Workers’ Comp Commission has published data; key takeaway is to date, only 8.3% of COVID19 claims reported have resulted in benefit payments. That will certainly increase as claims develop.

More info on state COVID reporting is here – you can watch a recorded webinar on the subject here – Mark Priven and I dive into data from California and Florida and discuss the implications thereof.

Meanwhile, employment took another hit as last week more than a million Americans filed for unemployment. This continues a five-month run of claims at or above the million mark. 14 million of us are still without jobs.

COVID19’s impact on health insurance coverage

Several million people have lost their health insurance due to COVID19-related job losses.  We don’t know the specific number – and it is certainly increasing – but it is likely between 3 and 12 million. (download the report for details).

Another perspective is here.

Most of those folks are lower-income workers and many are minorities; some may be eligible for Medicaid however states that did NOT expand Medicaid such as Texas and Florida will see an increase in uninsured care costs.

Congratulations to myMatrixx and new Chief Sales Officer David Dubrof; David is one of the very few “A” players in work comp services sales; myMatrixx will benefit greatly from his sales leadership. David and his colleagues are equally fortunate; payers have consistently rated myMatrixx the top workers’ comp PBM. (myMatrixx is a client)

NCCI published a report on the impact of fee schedule changes on outpatient facility costs.  Good to see this rapidly-rising cost driver getting attention.

Implications

  1. Fewer jobs = lower payroll = lower work comp premiums
  2. Things are tough and getting tougher for lower-wage workers, which are disproportionally people of color.
  3. More uninsured = more need for facilities to get $$ from those who are insured.

Aug
26

BWC’s dividends and drug costs

Last week Ohio’s Bureau of Workers’ Compensation announced it will consider $1.5 billion in dividends to policyholders.

This comes on the heels of a similar payout in April;

$1.35 billion went to private employers and $184 million went to local government taxing districts, such as counties, cities, townships, and school districts.

Together, the two dividend payments amount to a refund of all premiums paid by employers in 2018 and 2019.

The Bureau’s very strong financial results were attributed to excellent investment performance, a continued decline in claim counts, and “prudent fiscal management.”

A significant piece of this “prudent fiscal management” was the audit of BWC’s pharmacy program, an audit that led to the State Attorney General suing BWC’s PBM OptumRx. Subsequently AG Dave Yost accused OptumRx of overcharging “the state on 57% of 2.3 million claims between January 2014 and September 2018.” [it is important to note that BWC’s prior PBM was acquired by Optum and operated under a separate business unit]

The suit was later amended to reflect Yost’s allegation that overcharges exceeded $16 million.

BWC switched PBMs two years ago.

BWC’s drug costs have dropped significantly over the last couple of years; while a decline in claim frequency undoubtedly contributed to that drop, it is safe to say that prices paid for drugs helped slash pharmacy expenses.

And that has helped fund the huge dividend checks BWC’s customers are getting.

What does this mean for you?

Do you know you are paying only what you should? 

How can you prove that to your policyholders and customers?


Aug
25

Lies, Damn lies, and Statistics – the Blood Plasma debacle

Sunday President Trump, HHS Secretary Alex Azar and FDA Commissioner Dr Stephen Hahn said the use of blood plasma had reduced COVID19 deaths by 35%.

Trump said it was a “tremendous” number.

Azar said:

“We saw about a 35 percent better survival in the patients who benefited most from the treatment, which were patients under 80 who were not on artificial respiration…I don’t want you to gloss over this number…We dream in drug development of something like a 35% mortality reduction. This is a major advance in the treatment of patients.”

Hahn said

“a 35 percent improvement in survival is a pretty substantial clinical benefit. What that means is — and if the data continue to pan out — 100 people who are sick with covid-19, 35 would have been saved because of the administration of plasma.”

This is not “stretching the truth”, or over-generalizing, or taking something out of context.  It is total bullshit.

A REAL FDA scientist – whose name was redacted from an FDA memo, was a LOT less enthusiastic, writing the study data:

 “support the conclusion that [convalescent plasma] to treat hospitalized patients with COVID-19 meets the ‘may be effective’ criteria for issuance of an EUA. [emphasis added; EUA = emergency use authorization, which allows use of a treatment before it goes thru the entire approval process]

There is no basis or source for the 35% figure; it appears to have been derived from a very small group of patients treated at the Mayo Clinic.

Note the emphasis on “appears”; that statistic was NOT in the Mayo Clinic’s 31 page report;

  • nor was it in a memo authored by FDA scientists,
  • nor was it in the FDA’s letter authorizing use of blood plasma on an emergency basis to treat COVID19,
  • Nor could it have been credibly derived from the actual study report.
  • Nor did one of the principal study authors have any idea where the 35% figure came from.

If anything, it looks like Azar, Hahn, and President Trump cherry-picked data by only looking at results from a very select and very small subset of a subset of patients; those:

  • less than 80 years old;
  • not on a ventilator; that
  • received plasma within 3 days of diagnosis, and
  • received plasma with high levels of antibodies.

But wait, you say, that’s still good news!

Okay,

Here’s what the study actually found as reported by the NYTimes:

among the larger group of more than 35,000 patients, when plasma was given within three day of diagnosis, the death rate was about 22 percent, compared with 27 percent when it was given four or more days after diagnosis.

Hahn later corrected his statement – but only after an official FDA spokesperson perpetuated the fraud…

I get we all want to find a cure, and a vaccine, and we want this long global nightmare to end. We want the dying to stop, the suffering to end, the pain to go away, life to return. But our only hope is rigorous, robust, careful and thorough science.

Not political grandstanding, not abuse of a vitally important Federal Agency, not outright lying. We’ve been down this path before, and it didn’t turn out well.  Remember hydroxychloroquine?

Does it appear blood plasma from patients that have recovered from COVID19 may be beneficial? Yes. Is it likely it will help some patients? Well, there’s some evidence it may help some patients.

Is it a universal cure?

Highly unlikely.

What does this mean for you?

Science matters. Dig deep, ask hard questions, and don’t believe the headlines until you do your homework.

 


Jul
24

Friday catch-up

COVID and client work has kept me way too busy this week – hope to be back to more frequent posting soon. Meanwhile, here’s what I missed…

Workers’ comp drug trends

myMatrixx released its annual Drug Trends Report. Key findings include:

  • 6.1% drop in drug spend for myMatrixx clients
  • 10.7% drop in opioid spend
  • over five years, clients’ opioid spend dropped 45%
  • Lyrica’s brand patent expired; within 4 weeks over 90% of patients had been switched to a less-costly generic

(myMatrixx is an HSA consulting client)

Workers’ comp pharmacy regulations – WCRI’s national inventory

Is available for purchase here. This is a must-have for any and all workers’ comp payers. Info on medical marijuana, opioid prescribing limits, drug testing, and pricing is all there.

Presumption

Pretty solid summary of presumption changes provided by the Premium Reduction blog; some good reporting on numbers of claims in FL, CO and CA as well.

Medical pricing lookup

Medata has a pretty cool medical service pricing lookup tool that’s useful for consumers, adjusters, and employers. It includes pricing for group health, auto, and workers’ comp.

COVID’s impact

Thanks to Risk & Insurance’s Courtney DuChene for her reporting on our survey of COVID”s impact on workers’ comp.

Finally, this…

And, one day, perhaps this…


Jul
9

myMatrixx released it’s annual Drug Trend Report yesterday; there’s a lot of good news – and a few trends that bear close attention.

The good stuff (lots more in the report itself)

  • drug costs per patient decreased by 2.4% despite a 1.9% increase in utilization
  • opioid cost per patient continued to drop, this time by 10.7%
  • comparing claims incurred in 2019 to those incurred in 2016 or earlier:
    • 45% fewer patients were prescribed opioids
    • the average days supply dropped by 2/3rds, from 28 to 9
    • the average morphine equivalent dose dropped by 40%

Stuff that demands your attention.

Many payers are working hard to close older claims. For claims older than about 8 years, pharmacy costs account for almost half of medical expenses. Obviously, ensuring the drugs prescribed and dispensed to long-term patients are still appropriate and are helping the patient recover is the first step in developing a plan to resolve these old – and very expensive – claims.

Specialty meds are becoming increasingly common – and increasingly costly, accounting for 8.8% of drug costs.

The bad stuff

Physician dispensers are the worst. They suck money out of employers and taxpayers, justifying their rampant profiteering by lying about maintaining patient access and improving care. 

Their latest scam is topicals. One out of every eight physician dispensed meds is a topical, but one out of every three dollars you pay for physician dispensed drugs is for a topical.

chart used by permission

One – methyl salicylate cream 25% – is available at retail pharmacies for about five bucks. Physician dispensers are getting $345.

I’ll save you the math – you are paying 69 times more than you should.

There’s a lot more detail in myMatrixx’ report – you can download it here.

What does this mean for you?

While payers and PBMs have made remarkable progress addressing opioids and controlling costs, much remains to be done:

  • keep the focus on long-term opioid patients
  • aggressively attack physician dispensing
  • if you don’t have a specialty med program, you’d best get one set up.(myMatrixx is an HSA consulting client)

Jun
4

COVID and pharmacy benefit management – an update

COVID19 is having an impact on work comp payers’ pharmacy programs – but this isn’t due to treatments for the disease itself.

That’s largely because there are no medications that have been shown to be safe and effective in treating COVID19 in credible clinical trials.  As a result, there’s little consistency in how payers are approaching medications intended to treat COVID and the symptoms thereof.

Some are approving hydroxychloroquine without a prior authorization (PA) while others require a PA for initial and refills. As the surveys were completed before the latest news that hydroxychloroquine research found less-than-promising clinical results for patients exposed to the virus, it is possible more payers will require at least a PA for future prescriptions. (Other research that reported specific health risks recently came under fire from multiple sources.)

None of the respondents mentioned remdesivir, a brand antiviral that has shown some promise (based on limited clinical trials). This may well change if and when additional trials are completed and the results are satisfactory.

What is consistent is payers’ moves to loosen other prior auth requirements to allow refills for other medications for longer periods and earlier than usual.

Home delivery has also ramped up appreciably, with many retail outlets offering delivery in an effort to keep customers tied to their local store as opposed to using the PBM’s mail order pharmacy.

What does this mean for you?

Unfortunately, we don’t yet have any medications that have been proven to be safe and effective in preventing COVID19 or moderating COVID19’s effects.

Read studies carefully, and get your clinical experts to weigh in on coverage decisions. Science matters.