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.”
Achieving More Fluid Case Management
Risk management practitioners point to a number of factors that influence the outcome of workers’ compensation claims. But readily identifiable factors shouldn’t necessarily be managed in a box.
To identify and discuss the changing issues influencing workers’ compensation claim outcomes, Risk & Insurance®, in partnership with Duluth, Ga.-based Healthcare Solutions, convened an April roundtable discussion in Philadelphia.
The discussion, moderated by Dan Reynolds, editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance®, featured participation from four tenured claims management professionals.
This roundtable was ruled by a pragmatic tone, characterized by declarations on solutions that are finding traction on many current workers’ compensation challenges.
The advantages of face-to-face case management visits with injured workers got some of the strongest support at the roundtable.
“What you can assess from somebody’s home environment, their motivation, their attitude, their desire to get well or not get well is easy to do when you are looking at somebody and sitting in their home,” participant Barb Ritz said, a workers’ compensation manager in the office of risk services at the Temple University Health System in Philadelphia.
Telephonic case management gradually replaced face-to-face visits in many organizations, but participants said the pendulum has swung back and face-to-face visits are again more widely valued.
In person visits are beneficial not only in assessing the claimant’s condition and attitude, but also in providing an objective ear to annotate the dialogue between doctors and patients.
“Oftentimes, injured workers who go to physician appointments only retain about 20 percent of what the doctor is telling them,” said Jean Chambers, a Lakeland, Fla.-based vice president of clinical services for Bunch CareSolutions. “When you have a nurse accompanying the claimant, the nurse can help educate the injured worker following the appointment and also provide an objective update to the employer on the injured worker’s condition related to the claim.”
“The relationship that the nurse develops with the claimant is very important,” added Christine Curtis, a manager of medical services in the workers’ compensation division of New Cumberland, Pa.-based School Claims Services.
“It’s also great for fraud detection. During a visit the nurse can see symptoms that don’t necessarily match actions, and oftentimes claimants will tell nurses things they shouldn’t if they want their claim to be accepted,” Curtis said.
For these reasons and others, Curtis said that she uses onsite nursing.
Roundtable participant Susan LaBar, a Yardley, Pa.-based risk manager for transportation company Coach USA, said when she first started her job there, she insisted that nurses be placed on all lost-time cases. But that didn’t happen until she convinced management that it would work.
“We did it and the indemnity dollars went down and it more than paid for the nurses,” she said. “That became our model. You have to prove that it works and that takes time, but it does come out at the end of the day,” she said.
The ultimate outcome
Reducing costs is reason enough for implementing nurse case management, but many say safe return-to-work is the ultimate measure of a good outcome. An aging, heavier worker population plagued by diabetes, hypertension, and orthopedic problems and, in many cases, painkiller abuse is changing the very definition of safe return-to-work.
Roundtable members were unanimous in their belief that offering even the most undemanding forms of modified duty is preferable to having workers at home for extended periods of time.
“Return-to-work is the only way to control the workers’ comp cost. It’s the only way,” said Coach USA’s Susan LaBar.
Unhealthy households, family cultures in which workers’ compensation fraud can be a way of life and physical and mental atrophy are just some of the pitfalls that modified duty and return-to-work in general can help stave off.
“I take employees back in any capacity. So long as they can stand or sit or do something,” Ritz said. “The longer you’re sitting at home, the longer you’re disconnected. The next thing you know you’re isolated and angry with your employer.”
“Return-to-work is the only way to control the workers’ comp cost. It’s the only way,” said Coach USA’s Susan LaBar.
Whose story is it?
Managing return-to-work and nurse supervision of workers’ compensation cases also play important roles in controlling communication around the case. Return-to-work and modified duty can more quickly break that negative communication chain, roundtable participants said.
There was some disagreement among participants in the area of fraud. Some felt that workers’ compensation fraud is not as prevalent as commonly believed.
On the other hand, Coach USA’s Susan LaBar said that many cases start out with a legitimate injury but become fraudulent through extension.
“I’m talking about a process where claimants drag out the claim, treatment continues and they never come back to work,” she said.
Social media, as in all aspects of insurance fraud, is also playing an important role. Roundtable participants said Facebook is the first place they visit when they get a claim. Unbridled posts of personal information have become a rich library for case managers looking for indications of fraud.
“What you can assess from somebody’s home environment, their motivation, their attitude, their desire to get well or not get well is easy to do when you are looking at somebody and sitting in their home,” said participant Barb Ritz.
As daunting as co-morbidities have become, roundtable participants said that data has become a useful tool. Information about tobacco use, weight, diabetes and other complicating factors is now being used by physicians and managed care vendors to educate patients and better manage treatment.
“Education is important after an injury occurs,” said Rich Leonardo, chief sales officer for Healthcare Solutions, who also sat in on the roundtable. “The nurse is not always delivering news the patient wants to hear, so providing education on how the process is going to work is helpful.”
“We’re trying to get people to ‘Know your number’, such as to know what your blood pressure and glucose levels are,” said SCS’s Christine Curtis. “If you have somebody who’s diabetic, hypertensive and overweight, that nurse can talk directly to the injured worker and say, ‘Look, I know this is a sensitive issue, but we want you to get better and we’ll work with you because improving your overall health is important to helping you recover.”
The costs of co-morbidities are pushing case managers to be more frank in patient dialogue. Information about smoking cessation programs and weight loss approaches is now more freely offered.
Managing constant change
Anyone responsible for workers’ compensation knows that medical costs have been rising for years. But medical cost is not the only factor in the case management equation that is in motion.
The pendulum swing between technology and the human touch in treating injured workers is ever in flux. Even within a single program, the decision on when it is best to apply nurse case management varies.
“It used to be that every claim went to a nurse and now the industry is more selective,” said Bunch CareSolutions’ Jean Chambers. “However, you have to be careful because sometimes it’s the ones that seem to be a simple injury that can end up being a million dollar claim.”
“Predictive analytics can be used to help organizations flag claims for case management, but the human element will never be replaced,” Leonardo concluded.