Opioid Paradox: The Drugs Can Cause Pain
Research suggests that the long-term use of opioid pain medications can paradoxically induce or worsen chronic pain instead of relieving it.
It is one more reason to cheer recent report findings that the nationwide rate of opioid consumption may no longer be trending upward, although it has not decreased significantly.
By now, everyone in the workers’ comp industry should know that opioid pain killers are associated with longer claims durations, addiction, and overdose deaths.
But there is also a growing body of research on a phenomena called opioid-induced hyperalgesia that is associated with the long-term use of the pain medications. Marcos A. Iglesias, M.D., medical director for Midwest Employers Casualty Co., discussed this recently at the Risk and Insurance Management Society Inc.’s annual conference.
“A lot of claimants who are on high doses of opiods are still in a lot of pain. A big reason for that is the opioids. Once they are weaned off the opioids, they feel much better and their pain will actually decrease. So ironically, one of the ways to help their pain is to take away their painkiller.” — Marcos A. Iglesias
The condition is also called “paradoxical hyperalgesia” because a patient may experience more pain resulting from their opioid treatment rather than a decrease in pain. The phenomena can encourage dangerous dose escalation as doctors struggle to control a patient’s chronic pain.
It can also be difficult to distinguish whether a patient continues to experience chronic pain because of an increasing dose tolerance or because of opioid-induced hyperalgesia, according to literature on the topic.
The literature also states that opioid-induced hyperalgesia can worsen with increased opioid doses.
Dr. Iglesias said that opioid-induced hyperalgesia is another reason to stop providing the pain medications to certain patients.
“A lot of claimants who are on high doses of opiods are still in a lot of pain,” he said. “A big reason for that is the opioids. Once they are weaned off the opioids, they feel much better and their pain will actually decrease. So ironically, one of the ways to help their pain is to take away their painkiller.”
The good news, though, is that recent workers’ comp drug trend reports produced by pharmacy benefit managers show decreases in the amount of opioids prescribed to workers’ comp claimants.
St. Louis, Mo.-based Express Scripts, for instance, released its 2013 Workers’ Compensation Drug Trend Report in April. The report states that the “per-user-per-year” utilization of opioids decreased 3 percent from 2012 to 2013. Express Scripts attributed the decline to government, payer, and pharmacy benefit manager attention to opioid consumption.
Similarly, a 2014 Workers’ Compensation Drug Trend Report released in April by Westerville, Ohio-based Progressive Medical Inc. and PMSI states that 62.1 percent of injured workers prescribed medications in 2013 used opioids. That was down from 64.2 percent during the prior year.
The decrease is a “true success,” considering opioid consumption had been increasing during past years, said Robert Hall, M.D. and medical director for Progressive Medical and PMSI. But increased accountability and awareness on the part of prescribes as well as improvement in medical quality have helped counter the problem, he added.
“Based on where things were headed [and] what we were seeing across the country, definitely the [growth] trend being stopped and taken in a different direction is a positive,” Dr. Hall said.
Yet the trend in opioid consumption can also be viewed as not having changed much.
Cambridge, Mass.-based Workers Compensation Research Institute recently looked at long-term opioid use in 25 states and compared the 2008/2010 time period to 2010/2012. It found a decrease within 2 percent in most of the states studied, but concluded that change amounted to “little reduction in the prevalence of longer-term opioid use.”
Wal-Mart’s Workers’ Compensation Litigation Strategy
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. benchmarks attorney performance as part of its workers’ compensation-litigation strategy.
The “outcomes-based” approach to litigation management the employer embarked on relies on claims data analysis and metrics to consolidate the number of workers’ comp attorney firms it hires, while forming tighter relations with a smaller number of lawyers it partners with, speakers told the Risk and Insurance Management Society Inc.’s annual conference held April 27-30 in Denver.
“The very first thing that you need to have a good litigation strategy is to have a strong partnership with your attorneys,” said Janice Van Allen, director, risk management at Wal-Mart in Rogers, Ark.
Litigated claims are among the most complex and costly workers’ comp files employers face as the claims age and grow, said Misty Price, director of analytics at Westlake Village, Calif.-based law firm Adelson, Testan, Brundo, Novell, & Jimenez.
“They become the tail that wags the dog,” she said.
Typically, however, workers’ comp litigation is managed one claim at a time by adjusters working without an overall litigation strategy, Price said. That slows claim resolution and impedes workers’ comp program performance, she added.
“A lot of us feel like our hands are tied because the TPA sometimes decides who the attorneys are or we have carriers [who say] we have to pick from [a certain] panel. But as the employer, as the client, you really do have an opportunity to drive that and determine what firms you want to have as part of your program.” – - Janice Van Allen, Wal-Mart director, risk management.
Adjusters generally select lawyers to litigate a case based on their relations with specific attorneys. Meanwhile, employers often do not receive direct attorney feedback on a case’s progress, despite practices such as holding employer and adjuster claims reviews, Price said.
An outcomes-based litigation strategy, in contrast, relies on a multivariate analysis using an employer’s claims data. Metrics are used to benchmark attorney performance and align specific lawyers with cases, depending on claim facts and knowledge about an attorney’s skill sets and experience.
“What I can tell you [after] spending a lot of time modeling data is that a claimant attorney [selected for a case] tells you a whole lot about where that claim is going,” Price said.
Employers should take charge of selecting attorneys to partner with even though third party administrators or insurers often assume that responsibility, Van Allen said.
“A lot of us feel like our hands are tied because the TPA sometimes decides who the attorneys are or we have carriers [who say] we have to pick from [a certain] panel,” she explained. “But as the employer, as the client, you really do have an opportunity to drive that and determine what firms you want to have as part of your program.”
As part of its overall litigation strategy Wal-Mart has consolidated the number of attorney firms it works with nationwide. In California alone, for example, the retailer reduced the number from more than 20 to three “of our solid firms,” Van Allen said.
The consolidation efforts required considerable work including deciding whether the employer should leave open files with the attorneys that had been working them or transfer them to a vetted firm.
“We looked at each file individually, but for the most part we did move them,” Van Allen said. “In doing that we have seen huge results over the last few years, improving our litigation, lowering the number of files we have currently in litigation.”
Other aspects of Wal-Mart’s strategy include avoiding litigation by taking care of its employees with quality care early on. But for litigated cases, knowing a law firm’s practices, such as their case load and lawyer compensation arrangements, is vital, Van Allen said.
Wal-Mart has also found success in requiring its selected law firms in large states such as California and Florida to cooperate with each other in a “one team approach.”
“They are all representing us, we are the client,” Van Allen said. “We want to make sure it doesn’t matter which firm we are going to that they have the same philosophy, the same strategy and understand what our expectations are and we are working toward the same common goal.”
3 + 3: Theory of Risk
Anthony Valsamakis doesn’t just practice risk management, he wrote a book about it. And he doesn’t just consult with quants, he is one.
“Risk management has been in my blood for so long that I have to stop myself, otherwise I could go into a two-hour monologue,” said Valsamakis, whose career in the discipline goes back almost 35 years, to his first job with the Standard General Insurance Company.
In 1990, the London-based chairman of the Eikos Group received a doctorate in Business Economics. In 1992, “The Theory & Principles of Risk Management” was published, with Valsamakis the principal author, and is now in its 4th edition.
Valsamakis worked first with a carrier, then as a commodities broker, before taking up an academic post. The company he started in 1999, the Eikos Group, has a risk consulting arm, with clients in most industrial sectors, including the food, mining, forestry, industrial paper and packaging and banking industries. The group also includes a transportation risk brokerage and a Bermuda-based carrier.
“I think the idea of having a secure data base that everyone can access and can update at any moment is by far the best innovation that I can see happening in the information game.”
– Anthony Valsamakis, Chairman, Risk Financing Strategy, Eikos Group
For as long as he can remember, Valsamakis sought ways to get better information on the risks he underwrites, brokers or consults on.
“Over many years we’ve tried hard to increase the quality and timeliness of the information that enables us to do just that,” Valsamakis said.
Finally, it looks like Valsamakis has found a risk management information systems platform that enables him to do just that.
For the past year and a half, Valsamakis has been using a system developed by Riskonnect.
“What’s useful for me is that the platform basically resides within the client’s systems,” he said.
The information he needs to prioritize, depends on which client he is working with.
“By definition, depending on where I am working and what I am doing, risk management priorities are very different,” Valsamakis said.
The Riskonnect platform provides the necessary flexibility.
A mine, for example, could be in a location in Africa or South America with a high degree of political risk. A key risk for a furniture maker might be around trade secrets, the possibility that a disgruntled employee would leak a pricing catalogue to competitors. For a packaging manufacturer, their material supply chain is of the utmost importance, and so on.
For each client, Valsamakis can use Riskonnect platform and work with the client to compile the information that is most relevant to that client and its industry and enter that into a secure system.
“All of these are template facts that you can easily put into the Riskonnect system,” Valsamakis said.
The Riskonnect platform is housed within the client’s information technology system, and it is transparent enough, to give Valsamakis and his client access to the same sets of data.
“I think the idea of having a secure data base that everyone can access and can update at any moment is by far the best innovation that I can see happening in the information game,” he said.
Whose System Is It?
Valsamakis has been around long enough to know a few things about data and risk transfer. He’s seen a number of risk information management systems put out by brokers, for example, that he thinks are set up more for the broker’s business model than for the sharing of information.
Generally speaking, information about an insured’s risks come from the broker and the insured. The Riskonnect system works, according to Valsamakis, because it is designed to be adapted to the client, not the broker.
“I have seen efforts by brokers, for example, over the years to produce a type of risk information platform that becomes theirs,” Valsamakis said.
“It’s been a perennial problem in the industry, where depending on which broker you end up with, you’ll end up with system A, B or C,” he said.
The Underwriter Needs to Know
Using Riskonnect, Valsamakis encourages clients to be as transparent as possible, in order to give the most complete information to underwriters.
“For me the question is, ‘What is the volatility around the asset and can there be an impact on the balance sheet of our clients?’” he said.
“We need to describe this exposure in various contexts so that the underwriters know what they are covering,” he said.
It’s basic human psychology. If an underwriter doesn’t feel they are getting enough information about a particular risk, they will take a negative view of that risk.
The more accurate the information Valsamakis has about a client’s exposures, the better the pricing he gets from underwriters.
“If you were an underwriter putting your capital and risk and I gave you little information, you would actually be less inclined to look at the risk in favorable terms. There will be a natural inclination to downgrade it,” he said.
Where Valsamakis sees enormous value is in the Riskonnect system ability to tag which can be revisited at a later stage.
“It’s amazing how clients forget, in the passage of time, that there are profiles that have changed for better or worse.”
A Long-Term Investment
The Eikos Group invested significantly in the Riskonnect product and are taking it to a number of clients. The transparency of the system and the advantage it gives the Eikos Group and its clients with underwriters is in itself a business advantage over the competition.
“We made a decision as a small company, relatively speaking, to invest a lot of money in Riskonnect and be very proactive about it,” Valsamakis said.
“When I talk to executives I say we invested in it because it’s going to save our clients money. Better information will lead to a lower cost of risk,” he said.
“If I’m talking to someone at a high level, that’s fairly easily understood.”
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Riskonnect. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.