Jul
12

Workers’ comp drugs – its NOT about the cost

The reaction to yesterday’s news that pharmacy costs have dropped by over a billion dollars was a bit disappointing – and missed the key takeaway.

That is – we’ve made a ton of progress, and we still have a long way to go.

Instead, some asked “where are the savings going?”, claiming employers and patients aren’t benefiting from the reduced cost.

A Kansas legislator was among those positing that question; perhaps he was unaware that Kansas employer’s premiums dropped 7.6% this year. Kansas’ results mirrored the nation’s and other states:

Of course, there are many other reasons rates and premiums are dropping across the board:

  • a nine-year long economic expansion;
  • a solid job market;
  • continued decline in claim frequency and anecdotal reports of a drop in total claim counts;
  • better control of medical costs; and
  • lots of capacity in the insurance market

are the most significant contributors.

Another critic complained that “the savings are going into insurers’ pockets.” There is some truth to that, as workers’ comp insurer profits remain at near-record levels despite the continued decrease in premiums.

(Re increased benefits for patients, that is a state regulatory issue as indemnity benefits are almost all driven by a formula involving cost-of-living benchmarks)

But the key point is this – work comp has done great work eliminating opioids – and that is wonderful news by any standard.

As CompPharma’s report details, a key driver of the drop in drug costs is lower opioid utilization. That is very good news indeed; fewer patients are getting opioids, and other reports indicate dosages and treatment duration are declining as well. Moreover, the drop in opioid usage in work comp is far greater than the overall decline in drug spend, indicating we are doing a far better job than the rest of the insurance world despite the difficulties inherent in managing drug utilization in comp (no economic levers to influence consumer behavior, few states with pharmacy network direction, widely varying regulatory environments).

For fifteen years I’ve been interviewing the people most responsible for addressing the opioid crisis in work comp. While costs are important, without exception these professionals see their job as improving patient care, reducing the risks and dangers inherent in opioid prescribing, and helping patients recover quickly.

Their relentless focus is leading to healthier patients and lower costs for employers.

We have a very long way to go. While lots of work from lots of people has helped dramatically reduce the initial (or even more problematic second) opioid script, the much tougher challenge is helping long-term opioid patients reduce and end their use of the drug.

Some payers are making solid progress; you can hear from four of them at IAIABC’s annual meeting this fall. I’ll be moderating an intensive review of how these payers are successfully helping patients reduce opioid consumption and get back to being themselves.

What does this mean for you?

Congratulations on making major differences in many patients’ lives. Now the hard work begins. 

 

 

 


Jul
11

A billion dollars and better care

Work comp drug costs have dropped by over a billion dollars over the last eight years.

What’s even better news is this has been driven largely by sharply lower opioid utilization.

The bad news is there are still far too many patients suffering from Opioid Abuse Disorder brought on by massive overprescription of opioids.

Across all 29 workers’ comp payers surveyed by CompPharma, drug costs dropped almost 10 percent last year compared to 2016. (Total US drug costs decreased last year by 2.1 percent)

The results come from our annual Survey of Prescription Drug Management in Workers’ Comp, a project now in its fifteenth year.

Payers cited clinical programs as the primary driver of lower opioid and total drug spend. A key takeaway come from payers’ views of formularies:

many respondents did NOT want to abandon their internal formularies in favor of a one-size-fits-all blanket formulary. These payers noted patients are all different, their needs evolve throughout the course of treatment and recovery, and therefore their pharmacy needs would change as well. While they were in favor of managed (state-mandated) formularies for initial fills, they want flexibility to adapt to the patient’s condition and needs without putting undue burden on the prescriber and pharmacy to comply with prior authorization requirements.

The public version of the Survey Report is available here for download; respondents received a more detailed version of the Report.

As the author of the Survey, I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank the respondents who have provided data and their views and opinions over the last 15 years. Their willingness to share their insights and perspectives has gone a long way to helping improve patient care.

I’d also note that work comp Pharmacy Benefit Managers have been largely responsible for reducing employer’s drug costs and opioid overuse. Another way to put this – PBMs have dramatically reduced their revenues by improving their customers’ and patients results.

 


Jun
21

Why we’re not solving opioid addiction

The reason opioid abuse disorder (OAD) is such a huge problem is because no one’s figured out how to a) fix it while b) making a shipload of money.

Sure, there are “solutions” that address bits and pieces including:

  • urine drug testing identifies patients who aren’t taking prescribed drugs and/or are taking other licit or illicit medications;
  • Medication Assisted Therapy (MAT) can and does help many wean off opioids without going thru withdrawal;
  • inpatient or outpatient detox is essential for some OAD patients;
  • physical therapy and exercise is helpful for many; and
  • cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is essential for many patients.

But many patients require many of these services, while some do fine with one or two.

There is no single silver bullet.

What we aren’t doing is funding community-based treatment facilities and providers. This is essential because OAD is a long-term chronic disease, and patients need follow up and support for years.

The real issue is three-fold – treating OAD usually requires dealing with the patient’s chronic pain as well; OAD is a lifetime disorder; and every patient is different.

The terror of withdrawal coupled with the dread of chronic pain is hugely difficult to overcome. Patients are justifiably terrified of both, and this fear must be addressed throughout the treatment process. This is a long-term process likely involving different treatment modalities delivered by diverse providers.

Some patients respond to MAT, others do not. Some have family support systems, others are pretty much on their own. Some respond to PT and exercise, others are too afraid the effort will trigger a resurgence of pain. And the only way to find out what works for Patient X is to keep trying different approaches, providers, modalities until you find something that works.

No one has cracked the code, come up with a set process, solution or approach that works for most patients. Until someone figures out how to make gazillions fixing people with substance abuse disorder, I don’t expect the nation will make real progress.

That does NOT mean there aren’t real successes happening every day.

California’s State Fund is one of the leaders, delivering remarkable results through a careful, methodical approach.

Here’s the key – OAD can be a lifetime issue. Do not fear this, rather accept it as reality. It’s far easier to throw one’s hands up at the difficulty of it all rather than dig in and get going, but it’s also what led to hundreds of thousands of workers comp patients with OAD.

What does this mean for you?

Those who are in it for the long haul are going to be the difference makers.


Jun
5

BWC Ohio picks a new Pharmacy Benefit Manager

Several weeks ago Ohio’s state work comp fund – the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation – selected a new PBM to replace OptumRx.

This has me thinking more broadly about the vendor-customer relationship and how that’s evolving.

First, buyers are getting smarter. BWC’s former and current pharmacy directors (John Hanna and Nicholas Trego respectively) are not just pharmacists, they have become expert in pricing, auditing PBM transactions, understanding contracting language, and negotiations.

According to WorkCompCentral’s William Rabb, BWC learned it was paying OptumRx millions more than it should have after conducting an audit earlier this year.  Quoting Rabb:

an audit showed that the current PBM, OptumRx, failed to keep drug prices below the maximum allowable cost as required.

The audit is here.

Without getting too deep in the weeds here, allegedly OptumRx was supposed to keep generic drug prices at or below a Maximum Allowable Cost, or MAC. However, the audit indicated OptumRx failed to do that, resulting in BWC paying about $5.7 million more for generics than it should have.

Seems straightforward, but this can be hard to figure out as the list of drugs subject to MAC list pricing is often not disclosed.  That is, the PBM has a “proprietary” MAC list which it does NOT have to share with its customer.

Obviously this makes it hard for the customer to figure out if it is paying what it should.

Second, major issues don’t just pop up out of thin air; its unlikely BWC first expressed concerns a few months ago.

Moving an $84 million pharmacy program – or any big service – is no easy task; there’s a ton of systems programming to be done and tested; patients to be switched from one PBM to the new one; adjusters and case managers to train; financial arrangements to be agreed upon; pharmacies and employers to educate; and myriad other tasks.

Payers do NOT make changes unless they have no other choice due to the switching cost, potential business and patient care disruption, and internal stress involved in moving to a new PBM (or any other service type).

Service providers need to ensure that their senior managers and front-line staff understand their customer’s situation, concerns, needs, and plans.  Equally important, senior management must empower their client-facing staff, giving those staff the ability to fix problems, highlight issues, and marshal resources needed to meet clients’ needs. (I’d note that Optum’s work comp PBM recently brought Kaye Lewis back on board to run account management; Kaye is universally well-regarded and one of the best in the business; I had mistakenly said Kaye was working with OptumRx which focuses on the broader health marketplace. I regret the error. )

Third, vendors need to own up to and deliver on their commitments to all involved.  Quibbling over contractual terms, arguing over this clause or that, or word-stretching to avoid doing what the customer or the customer’s advocates need done reflects short-term, myopic thinking.

Sure, you may be “right”, but you’ll win that battle and lose the war.

What does this mean for you?

These days customers are harder and harder to come by, so when you get one, make darn sure you keep them. Listen, anticipate, deliver, and be flexible.

And most of all, meet their needs.


Jun
4

Drug rebates, technology, and what’s next

Two years ago, brand drug manufacturers paid out $127 billion in rebates and other discounts and fees.

That, dear reader, is a ship-load of dollars, and shows just how distorted brand-drug pricing has become.  Huge increases jack up list prices and in many instances consumers’ costs, while those fees flow to payers, PBMs, and other entities in the pharma distribution.

Most consumers’ costs are based on the total price of the drugs they buy, not the net price after rebates etc. As a result, consumers may be paying an inflated price while their insurer gets the rebate dollars. I’d note that in some benefit plans consumers do receive a share of the rebates in the form of discounted drugs or lower up-front costs. Two big PBMs indicate they give about 90% of rebate dollars to their clients. 

Who hopefully pass those dollars along to their members.

Evidently, rebate contractual terms can be opaque, confusing, and subject to misinterpretation, a rather scary possibility given the billions at stake.

I recently spoke with the CEO of a company that’s deep into the rebate management process. Quantivus uses technology to help payers and pharma track all those clauses, heretofores, and whereas-es in rebate contracts to be sure the right dollars are paid for the right drugs to the right entities.

Quantivus’ solution helps stakeholders standardize terms and definitions, allowing them to ensure that they are comparing apples to apples when considering rival drugs – or rival payers. It does other stuff as well, and the company is working on a related service that will tie the negotiated contract to operational systems, helping to standardize reporting of rebate financials for manufacturers and payers.

It’s interesting in a couple of geeky ways; evidently these contracts are so complex and convoluted that they can be mis-interpreted or misunderstood, potentially costing the pharma company or its customer millions. Which there are plenty of.

It’s also interesting in that CEO Lisa Bair and her team have figured out a software solution to a problem that seems to get more complicated and more financially important by the minute.

If I was an attorney focused on rebate contracts, I’d be just a bit concerned that I could be replaced by Bair’s technology.

 

 

 


May
31

Thursday catch-up

Lots going on out there – here’s what you may have missed…

Opioids

The awful people at Purdue Pharma knew damn well their opioids were being misused, repeatedly denied it, and kept pushing their pills on doctors and patients. They lied to investigators, manipulated data, and are directly responsible for today’s opioid disaster. This from Barry Meier’s piece:

credit NYTimes

But the Feds aren’t blameless; in 2007 the US Justice Department allowed Purdue officials and the company to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges.

Think of that – misdemeanor charges for those most responsible for the opioid epidemic. Street corner drug dealers go to jail for years, and these fat cat execs with their lavish lifestyles and fancy lawyers pay a small fine.

I cannot put into words how much I hate these bastards, and how furious we all should be about a Justice Department that let them get away with it..

Breathe…

WCRI is hosting a webinar on the impact of opioids on disability duration on Thursday June 21 at 1pm eastern. Bogdan Savych PhD will address the following questions:

  • Do opioid prescriptions increase duration of temporary disability benefits?
  • Do longer-term opioid prescriptions increase duration of temporary disability benefits?
  • What role do local prescribing patterns play in determining whether injured workers received opioid prescriptions?

The study examines the effect of opioid prescriptions on the duration of temporary disability benefits among workers with work-related low back injuries using data from 28 states, for injuries between 2008 and 2013.

Register here…free for WCRI members, a nominal fee for others.

If you’re wondering why Congress isn’t doing more to attack the opioid crisis – and it isn’t doing much at all – blame the lobbyists, including those working for the AMA, the seventh highest lobbying spender in 2017, with $21.5 million spent.

The AMA is fighting 3-day opioid script limits, mandatory use of Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs, and mandatory opioid education for prescribers.

WTF??!!!

Twisting words to blame the victim

Poor people are less healthy than people who aren’t poor. That’s because their diets aren’t as good, they have poor access to care, their lives are far more stressful, substance abuse is more prevalent, and they are more often victims of crime.

These factors have long been known as “social determinants of health”, the idea that just being poor means moms, kids, dads are going to be less healthy than you and me.

The “work for Medicaid” crowd is attempting to steal the term “social determinants” by using it to claim that forcing people to work for Medicaid is good for them.

That’s just not true. In fact, forcing Medicaid recipients to go thru a maze of paperwork and administrative hurdles to prove they can’t work  – and if that recipient messes up the paperwork, fails to submit it on time, or isn’t able to accurately document their disability,

BOOM! they lose Medicaid coverage.

And they get sicker, and we end up paying for their care in the ER.

And the data shows folks who HAVE Medicaid are better able to find work! From the HealthAffairs piece:

illness and disability are among the primary reasons working-age adults are not employed and this problem is exacerbated when people lack access to the health coverage they need get care for their health problems. Enrollment in health coverage has been shown to be a significant factor in helping individuals find jobs, with over 75 percent of unemployed Medicaid enrollees in Ohio reporting that gaining access to health coverage made their job search easier.

Oh, and at least one state’s policies is blatantly racist.

There’s more, but I have to get to work.

 


May
17

Opioids, marijuana, pain, and workers’ comp

NCCI’s Raji Chadarevian discussed opioid utilization, price, and cost at NCCI’s AIS 2018.

6 percent of opioid medications used in workers’ comp is for treating opioid use disorder; methadone and suboxone are the drugs of choice.

The older the claim is, the more opioids are prescribed. For 15 year old claims, about 2.5 oxycodone pills were prescribed per day. As a result, claims that are more than 10 years old accounted for more than 50% of all oxycodone pills. And, the top 10% of users consumed 79% of pills.

Those heavy users also get a lot of other medications to help them deal with side effects of opioids (and other conditions). These users get about 7 non-opioid scripts for every 10 opioid scripts.  These drugs include gabapentin, benzos, and muscle relaxants.  Fortunately, Raji reported that there’s been a change over time as prescribers have shifted to non-benzo anticonvulsants and made other changes to reduce health risks.

Raji handed the mic off to Dr David Deitz (good friend and colleague). Dr Deitz gave a trenchant and informative description of marijuana, noting that way more is not known about marijuana’s (and its included compounds’) effects on humans than we do know. Some of the effects are reduced anxiety, reduced inflammation, euphoria, appetite stimulation and others you may have experienced yourself.

Dr Deitz then reviewed the state of the science on cannabis – there is substantial evidence of benefit for the treatment of chronic pain and the treatment of nausea due to chemotherapy.  Moderate benefit for anxiety, sleep loss, and appetite/weight loss due to HIV/AIDS has been found.

Evidently there are a lot of restrictions on research into marijuana by the FDA – some seem nonsensical.  These restrictions are screwing up research, and perhaps leading to wrong conclusions.

For work comp, cannabis may be useful as an adjunct, or secondary treatment for:

  • Chronic pain
  • Anxiety
  • Spasticity related to spinal cord injuries

Couple other key points.

Opioid mortality and the use of opioids for Medicare and Medicaid patients both declined in states with legalized use of marijuana.

58% of voters support legalization of marijuana, and 70% oppose enforcement of federal laws in states that have legalized marijuana.

The net – we don’t know much about cannabis, but we do know it absolutely helps in certain conditions, and most folks want it legalized.


May
4

Fast facts about work comp pharmacy

We’re pushing to finish CompPharma’s Annual Survey of Prescription Drug Management in Workers’ Comp next week. After cleaning up the data, we’ve got final figures.

Quick takeaway – we workers comp types are doing a MUCH better job controlling drug usage than the rest of the world  – and MUCH MUCH better controlling opioids.

Here are a few key data points:

  • Total drug spend was down almost 10 percent last year; drug costs are down 22 percent over the last six years
  • In contrast, other payers’ spend dropped 2.1%.
  • Opioid spend decreased by a third over the last two years.
  • Other payers’ opioid spend dropped by less than half that – 14.9%.

While decreases in opioid spend have been dramatic, payers are still extremely concerned about opioid consumption – especially among long-term patients.

There’s a widespread and deep concern among respondents (29 payers of all types) that we’re a long way from figuring out how to help long-term opioid users reduce/eliminate their drug consumption.

This year we dug deep into that issue, and one key takeaway is the current regulatory focus on formularies and utilization review is focusing on a problem – initial prescriptions of opioids – that, while not solved, is much better controlled.

Where payers, patients, prescribers, and PBMs need regulatory help is with chronic opioid patients. Respondents had a raft of suggestions…

  • mandatory urine drug testing done by labs not affiliated with the prescribing physician
  • prescriber documentation of improvements in pain and functionality required before continuing dosing
  • allow payers to reimburse for opioid recovery services while eliminating responsibility for non-opioid related psychological issues

What does this mean for you?

Work comp isn’t known as an innovative or progressive – yet here you are, well in front of other payers and work comp regulators.

Well done.


Apr
30

Workers’ comp opioid usage is way down

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

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

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

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

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

Couple early takeaways:

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

This last is telling.

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

What does this mean for you?

Progress is great, and much remains to be done.

 

 


Apr
23

Let’s call it what it is.

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

One statement in the AMA release really bothers me:

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

Bullshit.

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

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

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

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

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

What does this mean for you?

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