Feds Unveil Opioid Mapping Tool

By Pat Anson, Editor

Big Brother is watching your doctor. And now you can watch too.

In a graphic display of just how closely the government is tracking the prescribing of opioid pain medication, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has released an interactive online map that allows ordinary citizens to follow opioid prescribing trends across the United States.

The map not only permits users to see the number and percentage of opioid prescription claims for each state filed under Medicare Part D – but to drill down on the data to counties, ZIP codes and even prescribers. Over 31 million people are enrolled in Medicare Part D, which subsidizes the cost of prescription drugs for Medicare beneficiaries.

“The opioid epidemic impacts every state, county and municipality. To address this epidemic, while ensuring that individuals with pain receive effective treatment, we need accurate, timely information about where the problems are and to what extent they exist,” said CMS Acting Administrator Andy Slavitt. 

“This new mapping tool gives providers, local health officials, and others the data to become knowledgeable about their community’s Medicare opioid prescription rate.”

The data used in the mapping tool is from Medicare Part D prescription drug claims in 2013, when over 80 million claims for opioids were filed at a cost of $3.7 billion.

The names of Medicare patients are not included in the online map, but prescribers can be looked up by name.

“By openly sharing data in a secure, broad, and interactive way, CMS and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) believe that this level of transparency will inform community awareness among providers and local public health officials,” the CMS said in a statement.

That kind of easy access to prescribing data -- without any context -- is chilling to Mark Ibsen, a Montana doctor who stopped prescribing opioid pain medication to patients because he feared prosecution or losing his medical license.

"Let's keep threatening data bases on car dealers and the crashes that happen, or pharmacies and who dies from their meds, or oncologists and what they prescribe, or police officers and who they have shot, or people we have dated and where they live," Ibsen said in an email to Pain News Network.

"Whatever useless data we can, thinking because it may be useful, using it, regardless of ANY forethought about harm, unintended consequences, or impact on prescribers, patients, business or law enforcement. This has gotten so carried away. I'm done. Whatever evil idea is going on, whoever thought this up, needs to be reeled in."

A look at the national map shows that Alabama, Oklahoma and Nevada have the highest rates of opioid prescribing for Medicare Part D beneficiaries. Over 7 percent of the claims in those states were filed for opioid pain medication, compared to a national average of 5 percent.

Counties and ZIP Codes can have much higher rates, as the map below shows. ZIP code 89081 is north of Las Vegas, near Nellis Air Force Base. Over 34% of the Medicare claims filed by two prescribers in that ZIP code were for opioids.

“The opioid abuse and overdose epidemic continues to devastate American families,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD. “This mapping tool will help doctors, nurses, and other health care providers assess opioid-prescribing habits while continuing to ensure patients have access to the most effective pain treatment. Informing prescribers can help reduce opioid use disorder among patients.”

The CDC is trying to reign in opioid prescribing by issuing guidelines for primary care physicians, who prescribe most of the nation’s opioids. Those guidelines, which are expected to be released in January, encourage doctors to prescribe non-opioid pain relievers and “non-pharmacological” treatments for chronic non-cancer pain.

A recent survey of over 2,000 pain patients by Pain News Network and the Power of Pain Foundation found that 90 percent are worried they will lose access to opioid pain medication if the guidelines are adopted. Many also believe the guidelines will lead to more addiction and overdoses, not less.