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.”
The Next Wave of Workers’ Comp Medical Cost Savings
Managing medical costs for workers’ compensation claims is like pushing on a balloon. As you effectively manage expenses in one area, there are bound to be bulges in another.
Over the last decade, great strides have been made in managing many aspects of workers’ compensation medical costs. Case management, bill review and pharmacy benefits management are just a few categories that produce significant returns.
And yet, according to the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI), medical costs remain the largest percentage of workers’ comp expenses. Worse still, medical costs continue to be the fastest growing expense category.
Many medical services are closely managed through provider negotiations, bill review, utilization review, pharmacy benefits management, to name a few. But a large opportunity for medical cost containment remains largely untouched and therefore represents a significant opportunity for cost savings.
Ancillary medical services is a term used to describe specialty or supplemental health care services such as medical supplies, home health care, durable medical equipment, transportation and physical therapy, etc.
According to Clifford James, Vice President of Strategic Development at Healthesystems in Tampa, Fla., modernizing the process for managing ancillary medical services presents compelling opportunities for cost savings and improved patient care.
Source: 2014 Healthesystems Ancillary Medical Services Survey
“The challenge of managing these types of medical products and services is a cumbersome and extremely disconnected process,” James said. “As a result, it represents a missing link in an overall medical cost management strategy, which means it is costing payers money and patients the most optimal care.”
James singled out three key hurdles:
Lack of transparency
As the adage goes, you can only manage what you can measure.
Yet when it comes to the broad range of products and services that comprise ancillary benefits, comprehensive data and benchmarking metrics by which to gauge success are hard to come by.
The problem begins with an antiquated approach to coding medical services that was developed in the 1970s. The coding system falls short in today’s modern health care environment due to its lack of product and service level detail such as consistent units of measure, quantity and descriptors.
As a result, a meaningful percentage of ancillary benefits spending is coded as “miscellaneous,” which means a payer has little to no visibility into what product or service is being delivered — and no way to determine if the correct price is being applied or if the item is even necessary or appropriate.
Source: 2014 Healthesystems Ancillary Medical Services Survey
“It’s a big challenge. Especially when you consider that for many payers, it’s difficult to determine exactly what they are spending, or identify what the major cost drivers are when it comes to ancillary services,” James said. And when frequently over 20 percent of these types of services are billed as miscellaneous, payers have zero visibility to effectively manage these costs.
Measurement and monitoring
Often, performance that is monitored is given the most attention. Therefore, ancillary programs that are closely monitored and measured against objective benchmarks should be the most successful.
However, benchmarks are hard to determine because multiple vendors are frequently involved using disparate data and processes. There isn’t a consistent focus on continuous quality improvement, because each vendor operates off of their own success criteria.
“Leveraging objective competitive comparisons breeds success in any industry. Yet for ancillary services there is very limited data to clearly measure performance across all vendors,” James said. “And for payers, this is a major area of opportunity to promote service and cost containment excellence.”
Source: 2014 Healthesystems Ancillary Medical Services Survey
If you ask claims executives about their strategies for improving the claims management process, a likely response may be “workload optimization.” The goal for some is to enable claims professionals to handle a maximum case load by minimizing administrative duties so they can leverage their expertise to better manage the outcome of each case.
But the path towards “workload optimization” has many hurdles, especially when you consider what needs to be coordinated and the manual way it frequently is done.
Ancillary benefits are a prime example. For a single case, a claims professional might need to coordinate durable medical equipment, secure translation services, arrange for transportation and confirm the best physical therapy plan. Unfortunately they often don’t have the needed time, or the pertinent information, in order to make quick, yet informed, decisions about the ancillary needs of their claimants.
In addition there is the complexity of managing multiple vendor relationships, juggling various contacts, and accessing multiple platforms and/or making endless phone calls.
“We’ve been called the ‘industry integrator’ by some people, and that’s accurate. We are delivering a proven platform connecting payers with providers and vendors on the ancillary medical benefit front. It’s never been done before.”
– Clifford James, Vice President of Strategic Development, Healthesystems
Modernizing the process
To the benefit of both payers and vendors, Healthesystems offers Ancillary Benefits Management (ABM).
The breakthrough ABM solution consists of three foundational components — a technological platform, proprietary medical coding system and a comprehensive benefits management methodology.
The technological platform integrates payers and vendors with a standardized architecture and processes. Business rules and edits can be easily managed and applied across all contracted vendors. All processes – from referral to billing and payment – are managed on a single platform, empowering the payer with a centralized tool for managing the quality of all ancillary providers.
But when it comes to ancillary products, the critical and unique challenge Healthesystems had to solve is the antiquated coding system. This was completed by developing a highly granular, product-specific coding system including detailed descriptions and units of measure for all products and services. This coding provides payers with the clearest understanding of all products and services delivered including pricing and all the necessary utilization metrics.
“We bring the highest level of transparency and visibility into all ancillary products and services,” James said, adding that the ABM platform uses an extensive preferred product coding system 15 times more detailed than any other existing system or program.
This combination of sophisticated technology, proprietary coding system and benefit management methodology revolutionizes the ancillary category. Some of the benefits include:
- Crystal-clear transparency
- A more detailed and comprehensive view into ancillary products and services
- An automated process that eliminates billing discrepancies or resubmittals
- Integrated and consistent processes
- Strategic program management
Taken together, the system leapfrogs over the existing hurdles while creating entirely new opportunities. It’s a win for vendors and payers, and ultimately for patients, who receive the optimal product or service.
“We’ve been called the ‘industry integrator’ by some people, and that’s accurate,” James said. “We are delivering a proven platform connecting payers with providers and vendors on the ancillary medical benefit front. It’s never been done before.”
To learn more about the Healthesystems Ancillary Benefits Management solution visit: http://www.healthesystems.com/solutions-services/ancillary-benefits