Medicare Drops Pain Questions in Patient Survey

By Pat Anson, Editor

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has caved into political pressure from Congress and healthcare lobbying organizations by proposing to drop all questions related to pain in patient satisfaction surveys.

The proposed rule change is the latest in a series of steps by the federal government aimed at fighting the so-called opioid epidemic by reducing the prescribing of narcotic pain medication. The policies are meant to prevent addiction and abuse, but have left many pain patients without access to opioids, and feeling marginalized and abandoned by the healthcare system.

At issue in the Medicare rule change is a funding formula that requires hospitals to prove they provide quality care through patient satisfaction surveys. The formula rewards hospitals that provide good care and are rated highly by patients, while penalizing those who do not. 

Critics claim that three pain care questions in the survey -- known as the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems survey (HCAHPS) -- encourage doctors to overprescribe opioid pain medication to boost their hospital's scores.

"While there is no empirical evidence of this effect, we propose to remove the pain management dimension from the Hospital Value-Based Purchasing program to eliminate any potential financial pressure clinicians may feel to overprescribe pain medications," CMS said in a statement.

"CMS continues to believe that pain control is an appropriate part of routine patient care that hospitals should manage and is an important concern for patients, their families, and their caregivers."

CMS has been under intense political pressure over the last few months to drop the pain questions. In March, 26 U.S. senators sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell claiming "the evidence suggests that physicians may feel compelled to prescribe opioid pain relievers in order to improve hospital performance on quality measures."

Several physician groups have also made the same claim, without offering anything more than anecdotal evidence. Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP)  said the survey "fosters dangerous pain control practices" and even the American Medical Association recently said the surveys "are clearly motivating forces for opioid prescribing."

A top Medicare official disputed those claims in an article published in JAMA. 

"It has been alleged that, in pursuit of better patient responses and higher reimbursement, HCAHPS compels clinicians to prescribe prescription opioids. However, there is no empirical evidence that failing to prescribe opioids lowers a hospital’s HCAHPS scores," wrote Lemeneh Tefera, MD. “Nothing in the survey suggests that opioids are a preferred way to control pain.”

These are the three pain questions in the CMS patient survey::

During this hospital stay, did you need medicine for pain?

During this hospital stay, how often was your pain well controlled?

During this hospital stay, how often did the hospital staff do everything they could to help you with your pain?

The agency said it would develop and "field test" alternative questions related to pain and include them in the survey. Public comments on the proposed rule change will be accepted until September 6, 2016.

CMS said the rule changes "are based on feedback from stakeholders, including beneficiary and patient advocates, as well as health care providers, including hospitals, ambulatory surgical centers and the physician community."

While some politicians and lobbyists may support the CMS decision, pain patients clearly do not. 

Pain News Network and the International Pain Foundation recently conducted a survey of over 1,250 pain patients. Nine out of ten said patients should be asked about their pain care in hospital satisfaction surveys. Over half rated the quality of their pain treatment in hospitals as poor or very poor, and over 80 percent said hospital staffs are not adequately trained in pain management. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has adopted guidelines that discourage primary care physicians from prescribing opioids or chronic pain. The Obama administration has also proposed spending over a billion dollars on opioid addiction treatment. Not one cent is proposed for pain research or for funding alternative treatments for pain.