Pain Meds Top Concern of Work Comp Industry

By Pat Anson, Editor

The use of opioid pain medication is the number one issue faced by the worker’s compensation industry, according to a new survey that calls the long-term use of opioids in the U.S. an “extremely significant problem” for insurers and employers.

The annual survey of nearly two dozen insurers, state worker compensation agencies and self-insured employers was conducted by CompPharma, a consortium of pharmacy benefit managers that helps members develop procedures to control work comp costs.

The survey found that drug spending by the worker compensation industry increased by 6.4% last year, the first increase since 2009. Pharmacy spending in work comp cases was estimated at between $5 and $7 billion in 2014.

“During the past several years long-term opioid use has become the single biggest concern identified by respondents. While program managers and work comp executives have long known about the relatively high usage of narcotics in work comp, the depth and breadth of understanding of the issue continues to increase. Throughout the survey, respondents mentioned narcotics, opioids, addiction, specific drugs, dependency, and related terms, even when responding to other questions,” CompPharma said in a report on the survey.

Asked to rate the severity of the opioid problem on a scale of one to five, respondents gave it an average ranking of 4.75, which was called “a clear indicator of the level of the industry’s anxiety over a problem that it was somewhat slow to fully grasp.”

Payers also expressed concern about the cost of new opioids and abuse deterrent opioids, which are formulated to make it more difficult for the drugs to be snorted or injected.

“They say follow the money well here you go,” said Lynn Webster, MD, past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. “If patient well-being and safety were the concern of payers they would rapidly adopt abuse deterrent formulations and lobby Congress to find safer and more effective therapies.  Neither are occurring.”

Webster said the cost of opioids was the “genesis for the anti-opioid movement” and claimed the work comp industry was fueling efforts to limit opioid prescribing.

“We need to ask why cost to payers trumps patients reporting effectiveness,” Webster said in an email to Pain News Network.  “There should be a Senate investigation to see if this has been an orchestrated attack.  If so it should be criminal.” 

Payers who were surveyed said they had developed a variety of ways to limit the cost of opioids or make them harder to get.

“Respondents noted several approaches to controlling cost, with a more diverse range of solutions and more specificity in solutions than we’ve previously seen. The majority of the respondents implemented programs, upgraded approaches, hired staff, or altered DUR (drug utilization review) processes pertaining to opioids. This shows how seriously these respondents take the issue,” the report states.

Payers were also concerned about physicians dispensing opioid pain medications out of their own offices, which often cost more than opioids obtained at a pharmacy.

“Physician dispensing also drastically and artificially inflates the cost of workers’ compensation pharmacy costs. Physician-dispensed prescriptions typically cost three to ten times the amount of the same prescription filled by a retail pharmacy. More recent studies point to longer claim duration, more claimants prescribed opioids for longer periods, higher overall medical costs, higher indemnity expense, and poorer outcomes associated with claims with physician-dispensed drugs,” the report said.

The survey also found a greater willingness on the part of the work comp industry to utilize urine drug testing. Four years ago, half of the survey respondents said they were using drug tests to monitor employees who had filed work comp claims. The 2014 survey found that three-quarters of respondents have implemented or will implement a drug testing program.