Focus on the Patient, Not the Pain
The upcoming release of the new ACOEM opioid treatment guideline reflects new evidence associated with opioid risks. Of note, one of the recommendations is to significantly lower the maximum daily morphine equivalent dose (MED) to 50 from the 120 MED recommended in earlier guidelines. Morphine is the standard against which the potency of all other opioids is measured. While it is tempting to focus on the MED reduction, the real story is the opportunity the new guideline presents for payers to redefine their opioid strategy.
Robert Goldberg, MD, FACOEM, an occupational medicine specialist and chief medical officer at workers’ compensation PBM Healthesystems, expects the new guideline to help reshape the opioid discussion. “Once physicians consistently approach pain relief as a tool for helping speed recovery instead of as the ultimate goal of treatment, everything will change,” noted Dr. Goldberg. “When physicians focus on pain relief as the primary goal and prescribe opioids on the first visit, they open up patients and payers to well-documented risks. The outcomes data show that this approach is not working.”
A past president of ACOEM, Dr. Goldberg recommends payers include four key steps when updating or redefining their current opioid strategy. The steps involve developing a new treatment philosophy; gaining access to the right information systems and clinical expertise; establishing new policies and procedures to support the new approach; and deploying precisely timed clinical tools and strategies to keep claims on track.
Step 1 – Refocus treatment goals
The most effective opioid strategy is one that takes a holistic approach and makes recovery and functional improvement the ultimate goal of treatment. Dr. Goldberg advises physicians and payers to refocus the goal of treatment as a critical first step in updating their opioid strategy.
“A key principle in occupational medicine is to minimize the effects of an injury and help injured workers remain at work whenever possible, or regain function and return to work,” explained Dr. Goldberg. In addition to reframing treatment goals, he recommends implementing these supporting strategies:
- Focus on adequate pain relief — reduce pain sufficiently so that injured workers can participate in treatment plans to speed recovery.
- Follow the updated opioids guideline — use non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or acetaminophen as a primary treatment and physical therapy when indicated.
- Incorporate alternative therapies — adjunctive therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy, massage, yoga, chiropractic and acupuncture can aid in pain relief and help injured workers cope with the presence of some pain.
Step 2 – Gain access to the right information systems and clinical expertise
Another step needed to update an opioid strategy is to ensure that the claims organization has access to the right data and expert analysis so they can identify claims requiring close attention. To achieve this, payers should:
- Develop state-of-the-art information systems — or rely on a PBM — to provide reliable data that can quickly identify cases that are moving toward prolonged or accelerated use of opioids.
- Work with a team of well-trained claims professionals and nurse case managers who can coordinate efforts and make good decisions.
- Tap the expertise of clinical pharmacists and knowledgeable physicians.
“The ultimate goal is for a patient to physically recover, not to simply manage their pain. Once physicians consistently approach pain relief as a tool to help speed recovery, everything will change.”
— Dr. Robert Goldberg, Occupational Medicine Specialist and Chief Medical Officer, Healthesystems
Step 3 – Establish new medical policies and procedures
Clear policies and procedures that reflect the most current evidence-based medical guidelines are an important component of an up-to-date opioid strategy. Dr. Goldberg recommends payers revise policies and procedures to:
- Approve opioids only when appropriate, per current evidence-based guidelines.
- Approve alternative therapies such as cognitive behavior therapy and physical therapy to reduce reliance on pain medication when appropriate.
New policies and procedures should delineate:
- The jurisdictional and professional guidelines that will be applied.
- What circumstances will trigger clinical interventions — such as MED levels, a defined number of prescriptions or prescribers or other factors.
- Which cases will be escalated for higher level clinical intervention — such as claims that reach a certain dollar value or involve certain complex conditions or injuries.
- Which tools and interventions will be deployed and by whom.
Step 4 – Deploy precisely timed tools
An updated opioid strategy should include a robust suite of tools and clinical expertise, as well as define how and when to use them to help keep opioid therapies on track. Claims organizations need a strategic PBM partner with a robust toolkit and a deep bench of clinical expertise to guide them in deploying tools such as:
- Alerts to pharmacies and claims organizations about issues involving prescription dosing, quantities, early refills and other concerns.
- Monitoring and analyzing MED levels to ensure patient safety.
- Real-time therapeutic interventions as part of a prior-authorization process to help prevent risks.
- Letters of medical necessity that document the need for opioid therapy.
- Informed consent forms that alert injured workers to the risks associated with opioid therapy.
- Pain contracts with injured workers that detail what is expected of them while they are receiving opioid therapy.
- Peer-to-peer interventions by clinical pharmacists or physicians.
- Screening and assessment tools for substance abuse, opioid risks, depression, pain and other conditions that contraindicate opioid therapy.
- Compliance monitoring programs using urine drug testing.
- Drug regimen reviews.
An opioid strategy that focuses on achieving functional improvement will yield benefits for the payer, patient and employer that include:
- Reduced length and cost of opioid drug treatment
- Reduced adverse effects of treatment
- Enhanced recovery
- Increased likelihood that the injured worker will return to work quickly
- Decreased temporary and permanent disability
- Reduced overall medical and total case costs
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Healthesystems. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.
Making the Grade
Taking the time to match a tough job with a worker who can actually do it reduces the potential for costly workplace injuries, employers are now finding.
That concept is leading more employers to study their essential job functions and test the ability of job candidates, particularly when a job requires a new hire to perform functions known to cause injuries.
Increased nationwide hiring, the rising cost of treating workplace injuries and a less physically fit job applicant pool are driving more employers to employ the practice known as post-offer employment testing.
Post-offer employment testing, or POET, involves simulating the lifting, pushing, pulling and other physical activities that make up a job’s essential functions. Employers are increasingly making employment offers conditional upon a job applicant’s physical ability to perform those activities.
And in another recent trend, employers are expanding the strategy to help determine when to return an established employee to their duties following a workplace injury or a non-occupational disability leave.
“Pre-work screens are not a good strategy if your injuries are coming three years into employment.”
–Drew Bossen, founder, Atlas Ergonomics
At Cooper Standard, the Novi, Mich.-based automobile parts manufacturer, for example, workers desiring a strenuous job first participate in “simulated work.” That helps determine whether they are physically capable of performing the real job, said Patricia Hostine, the company’s global manager of workers’ compensation.
A job requiring continual force to press rubber hose into a mold that forms radiator hoses is desirable because it is one of the better paying tasks the auto parts manufacturer offers, Hostine added.
But it’s also one of the company’s most physically demanding roles.
“It’s very hard work,” Hostine said. “That is where a lot of our injuries are found.”
After performing the simulated work, more applicants decide against taking the job than the company disqualifies. That’s because the testing showed them they couldn’t do the job anyway.
Cooper Standard also requires a functional evaluation, conducted by physical therapists, for any worker who has been away from work either because of a workplace injury or a non-occupational disability.
That requires employees who normally form radiator hoses to show that they are once again physically capable of performing the work after returning from an absence.
Employers that have benefited from conducting POET evaluations for newly hired employees are increasingly adopting a similar worker evaluation as part of their return-to-work programs, several experts said.
“Historically, these [physical evaluations] have been used at the point of offer, at the point of employment,” said Drew Bossen, a physical therapist and founder of Atlas Ergonomics. “But in the last 12 months, we have clients formulating methodologies to use them for return to work as well.”
Data from an initial POET exam can also provide a measured baseline of an employee’s abilities that can be reviewed post injury to help determine when the worker has regained their ability to return to their original job, or whether they should take up other duties.
Using data that way can reduce return-to-work durations by providing support for a doctor’s determination to release their patient.
Most employers using a POET system, however, still use it only to test newly hired workers.
Evaluating whether potential new hires have the physical ability to perform certain tasks can substantially reduce a company’s injury rate because newer workers typically account for a greater number of injuries than their more-experienced counterparts, POET advocates said.
Data compiled by the National Council on Compensation Insurance Inc. showed that workers on the job less than a year in 2007 accounted for nearly 34 percent of injuries although they made up only 23 percent of the labor force.
“Pre-work screens are not a good strategy if your injuries are coming three years into employment,” Bossen said.
Now, as the U.S. Labor Department reports increased hiring across the country, vendors that provide physical ability testing programs said they are seeing increased demand, which had dropped off during the recession.
“We have seen a big uptick in companies interested in doing this across all industries,” including transportation, mining and health care, said Connie Vaughn-Miller, vice president of business development for BTE Technologies.
The testing may be more beneficial for the most strenuous types of work.
Hostine at Cooper Standard said, for example, that she does not see a cost/benefit advantage for testing workers engaged in light production jobs.
Most employers adopting a POET strategy do so for certain positions and many start with a pilot program, experts said. It’s best to decide which job categories to include in a pilot program by reviewing the company’s claims history to pinpoint where injury frequency and severity are problems. Or, they recommend starting with the company’s most physically demanding jobs, then add others if the pilot results warrant doing so.
“We can’t be a better place to work if we’re hiring people that are not able to perform the job. That’s bad for the company and the associate.”
–Libby Christman, vice president of risk management, Ahold USA.
Making Work Safer
“One of our company promises is to be a better place to work,” said Libby Christman, vice president of risk management at Ahold USA.
“We can’t be a better place to work if we’re hiring people that are not able to perform the job. That’s bad for the company and the associate.”
Ahold is a retailer with about 120,000 employees operating stores under the names of Stop & Shop, Giant Food Stores, Martin’s Food Markets, and Peapod, an online grocery ordering unit.
Late last year, Ahold launched a pilot program for Peapod delivery drivers and for certain strenuous jobs in two warehouses, Christman said. The warehouse jobs require pushing, pulling, bending and lifting.
Since September, Christman has found that about 25 percent of job applicants could not pass its physical demands test. Screening for an employee capable of doing the job, though, not only reduces injuries, but improves productivity.
“We know that obtaining an accurate assessment of an applicant’s physical abilities can help us place him or her in a suitable job, potentially eliminate injuries and ensure efficiency and performance on the job,” Christman said.
Stepped-up hiring is not the only factor driving employer demand for POET services, observers said.
Employers — continually pushing for more sophisticated safety measures in the face of an aging, more obese, and less physically fit U.S. workforce — are also driving the demand, BTE Technologies’ Vaughn-Miller said.
The Discrimination Question
Employers cannot discriminate when hiring, but they can legally ask a worker to demonstrate that they can meet the physical demands of a job’s essential functions, experts said.
That requires careful analysis, however, to clearly understand a job’s essential functions, so the designed test measures just those functions and does not go beyond evaluating a worker’s ability to perform those specific tasks.
Employers have run afoul of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission when implementing POET programs that evaluated for abilities beyond those required by the job.
If employees must lift 75 pounds only once a year, and can use a mechanical lift assist to help them when they do so, then testing to see whether a worker can lift 75 pounds is not a fair test, advised Colleen M. Britz, managing director and ergonomics practice leader for Marsh Risk Consulting.
Employers may also face discrimination complaints if they do not require a POET evaluation of everyone seeking a specific job, experts warned.
The tests themselves, however, vary substantially, depending on the vendor or employer providing them.
Some resemble gym equipment with electronic systems for measuring a worker’s strength and agility. Those results can then be compared to computerized measurements of a task. Other tests may be as simple as requiring a worker to lift bags of sand.
“I do consider it a best practice to have a well-designed post-offer employment test that truly is measuring an employee’s capacity to meet physical demands,” Britz said. “It’s a matter, from my perspective, of whether some of the methodologies are truly testing that.”
The wide variation in testing methodology has hampered the collection of data on POET’s impact on overall employee injury rates across industries or multiple employers, experts said.
But individual employers have experienced success, Britz said.
“I don’t know of any company that has stopped doing POET after starting — because they are seeing a positive return on investment,” she added.
A physical abilities test helped Prince William County in Virginia mitigate a double loss driven by candidates seeking to become firefighters.
The county was losing tens of thousands of dollars on hiring and training costs each time a job candidate washed out of a 26-week training course simply because they could not perform the physical challenges firefighters face in the line of duty, said Tim Keen, assistant chief for the county’s Department of Fire and Rescue.
Because firefighting is a tough job, a lack of physical capability also contributed to recruit training injuries.
“Not only is it a hard job, but when you add all the gear they wear, their air packs, as well as the functional movements that it takes to accomplish certain tasks, it puts strains on the body,” Keen said.
Those strains became costly workers’ compensation claims when recruits could not return to an existing job as would occur after an established firefighter suffered an injury, added Lori Gray, the county’s risk management division chief. That forced the county to continue paying workers’ compensation benefits to recruits who did not have a job to return to.
So in 2003, the risk management and fire department helped the county establish its own facility where applicants wanting to become firefighters must first participate in a standardized Candidate Physical Ability Test.
The International Association of Fire Fighters and the International Association of Fire Chiefs developed the CPAT test the county licenses.
The test used by fire departments across the country requires candidates to climb stairs while wearing weight vests, drag hoses and simulated bodies, simulate forcing their way into a building, and conduct other physical feats within a certain time period.
“There are a variety of firefighting tasks they must go through in this course,” Keen said. The course tests their aerobic capabilities, their flexibility, core strength, and upper and lower body fitness.
The test’s standardization ensures it is true to the firefighter’s actual work role and that is legal and fair to all candidates, he added.
“Regardless of age or gender the course is the same for everybody,” he said.
“The test is appropriate so you are not losing people due to injuries, especially early in their careers, Keen said. “It’s the right thing to do, making sure they are physically capable of doing the job.”
The screenings have resulted in fewer recruits lost due to a lack of physical ability.
“We have also seen a huge reduction in the number of injuries that were occurring because recruits are coming in more physically fit to do the job,” Keen said.
POET advocates said the screening results have other applications as well.
In some cases, post-offer physical test results provide employers with a defense in permanent disability cases, Britz said.
In states allowing employers to apportion responsibility for permanent disability claims, for example, the baseline results from the initial post-offer exam can limit an employer’s liability by showing that a worker lost only a certain portion of their functional ability during their employment tenure.
Britz added that she expects to see more large, sophisticated employers counter rising claims severity driven by factors such as aging and obesity by integrating their ergonomics, wellness intervention and physical ability testing programs.
For example, an employee returning from a leave might undergo a fitness for duty exam to evaluate their ability to perform the job without injuring themselves.
Simultaneously, the employee could be referred to the employer’s wellness program to address health-related issues such as high body mass index or to learn exercises that would strengthen certain body parts, such as their shoulders, if frequently used in their daily work routines.
“That is the evolution of post-offer employment testing into fitness-for-duty programs,” she said.
“Not so they lose the job, but to recognize that this person needs to work on shoulder strength. So we create an opportunity to increase shoulder strength. I think that is going to be the wave of the future.”
Mitigating Fraud, Waste, and Abuse of Opioid Medications
There’s a fine line between instances of fraud, waste, and abuse. One of the key differences is intent and knowledge. Fraud is knowingly and willfully defrauding a health care benefit program for personal gain or profit. Each of the parties to a claim has opportunity and motive to commit fraud. For example, an injured worker might fill a prescription for pain medication only to sell it to a third party for profit. A prescriber might knowingly write prescriptions for certain pain medications in order to receive a “kickback” by the manufacturer.
Waste is overuse of services and misuse of resources resulting in unnecessary costs, whereas abuse is practices that are inconsistent with professional standards of care, leading to avoidable costs. In both situations, the wrongdoer may not realize the effects of their actions. Examples of waste include under-utilization of generics, either because of an injured worker’s request for brand name medication, or the prescriber writing for such. Examples of abusive behavior are an injured worker requesting refills too soon, and a prescriber billing for services that were not medically necessary.
Actions that Interfere with Opioid Management
Early intervention of potential fraud, waste, and abuse situations is the best way to mitigate its effects. By considering the total pharmacotherapy program of an injured worker, prescribing behaviors of physicians, and pharmacy dispensing patterns, opportunities to intervene, control, and correct behaviors that are counterproductive to treatment and increase costs become possible. Certain behaviors in each community are indicative of potential fraud, waste, and abuse situations. Through their identification, early intervention can begin.
- Prescriber/Pharmacy Shopping – By going to different prescribers or pharmacies, an injured worker can acquire multiple prescriptions for opioids. They may be able to obtain “legitimate” prescriptions, as well as find those physicians who aren’t so diligent in their prescribing practices.
- Utilizing Pill Mills – Pain clinics or pill mills are typically cash-only facilities that bypass physical exams, medical records, and x-rays and prescribe pain medications to anyone—no questions asked.
- Beating the Urine Test – Injured workers can beat the urine drug test by using any of the multiple commercial products available in an attempt to mask results, or declaring religious/moral grounds as a refusal for taking the test. They may also take certain products known to deliver a false positive in order to show compliance. For example, using the over-the-counter Vicks® inhaler will show positive for amphetamines in an in-office test.
- Renting Pills – When prescribers demand an injured worker submit to pill counts (random or not), he or she must bring in their prescription bottles. Rent-a-pill operations allow an injured worker to pay a fee to rent the pills needed for this upcoming office visit.
- Forging or Altering Prescriptions –Today’s technology makes it easy to create and edit prescription pads. The phone number of the prescriber can be easily replaced with that of a friend for verification purposes. Injured workers can also take sheets from a prescription pad while at the physician’s office.
- Over-Prescribing of Controlled Substances – By prescribing high amounts and dosages of opioids, a physician quickly becomes a go-to physician for injured workers seeking opioids.
- Physician dispensing and compounded medication – By dispensing opioids from their office, a physician may benefit from the revenue generated by these medications, and may be prone to prescribe more of these medications for that reason. Additionally, a physician who prescribes compounded medications before a commercially available product is tried may have a financial relationship with a compounding pharmacy.
- Historical Non-Compliance – Physicians who have exhibited potentially high-risk behavior in the past (e.g., sanctions, outlier prescribing patterns compared to their peers, reluctance or refusal to engage in peer-to-peer outreach) are likely to continue aberrant behavior.
- Unnecessary Brand Utilization – Writing prescriptions for brand medication when a generic is available may be an indicator of potential fraud, waste, or abuse.
- Unnecessary Diagnostic Procedures or Surgeries – A physician may require or recommend tests or procedures that are not typical or necessary for the treatment of the injury, which can be wasteful.
- Billing for Services Not Provided – Since the injured worker is not financially responsible for his or her treatment, a physician may mistakenly, or knowingly, bill a payer for services not provided.
- Compounded Medications – Compounded medications are often very costly, more so than other treatments. A pharmacy that dispenses compounded medications may have a financial arrangement with a prescriber.
- Historical Non-Compliance – Like physicians, pharmacies with a history of non-compliance raise a red flag. In states with Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMPs), pharmacies who fail to consult this database prior to dispensing may be turning a blind eye to injured workers filling multiple prescriptions from multiple physicians.
- Excessive Dispensing of Controlled Substances – Dispensing of a high number of controlled substances could be a sign of aberrant behavior, either on behalf of the pharmacy itself or that injured workers have found this pharmacy to be lenient in its processes.
Clinical Tools for Opioid Management
Once identified, acting on the potential situations of fraud, waste, and abuse should leverage all key stakeholders. Intervention approaches include notifying claims professionals, sending letters to prescribing physicians, performing urine drug testing, reviewing full medical records with peer-to-peer outreach, and referring to payer special investigative unit (SIU) resources. A program that integrates clinical strategies to identify aberrant behavior, alert stakeholders of potential issues, act through intervention, and monitor progress with the injured worker, prescriber, and pharmacy communities can prevent and resolve fraud, waste, and abuse situations.
Proactive Opioid Management Mitigates Fraud, Waste, and Abuse
Opioids can be used safely when properly monitored and controlled. By taking proactive measures to reduce fraud, waste, and abuse of opioids, payers improve injured worker safety and obtain more control over medication expenses. A Pharmacy Benefit Manager (PBM) can offer payers an effective opioid utilization strategy to identify, alert, intervene upon, and monitor potential aberrant behavior, providing a path to brighter outcomes for all.