Medicare Takes 'Big Brother' Approach to Opioid Abuse

By Pat Anson, Editor

A new strategy being developed by Medicare to combat the abuse of opioid pain medication will encourage pharmacists to report physicians who may be prescribing opioids inappropriately. Patients that a pharmacist believes are abusing opioids could also be referred for investigation.

The strategy, which has yet to be finalized, was outlined by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) last week in a 30-page report on the agency’s “Opioid Misuse Strategy.”  It has not been widely publicized by CMS or reported in the news media.

“Many Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries and their families have experienced opioid use disorder, commonly referred to as addiction,” the agency says in the report’s executive summary.

“Given the growing body of evidence on the risks of misuse… CMS is outlining our agency’s strategy and the array of actions underway to address the national opioid misuse epidemic.”

One strategy CMS will explore is “incentivizing prescribing behavior” by encouraging physicians and pharmacists to consult with prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs) to review each patient’s prescription drug history. The use of PDMPs is fairly widespread already, but CMS would take it a step further by encouraging pharmacists to report suspicious activity by prescribers and patients.

“Pharmacies would be able to identify prescribers with potentially illicit prescribing practices or beneficiaries (patients) who may be overusing opioids. This information can be referred to health plans to investigate provider and beneficiary behaviors that may be indicative of fraud or abuse.”

Investigations of abuse or inappropriate prescribing would be shared with insurers enrolled in the giant Medicare/Medicaid system, even if the allegations are never proven. CMS contracts with dozens of private insurance companies to provide health insurance to about 54 million Americans through Medicare and nearly 70 million in Medicaid.

“Part D plans can use CMS’s information sharing platform to identify leads for their own internal investigations and can report actions they have taken. For example, if one plan sponsor suspects a provider of inappropriate prescribing behavior, it can alert other plans to that possibility so that those plans can conduct their own evaluations and take coordinated action if warranted.

“The results of these projects are provided to plan sponsors so that additional actions can be taken, including initiating new investigations, conducting audits, or terminating physicians and pharmacies from their network.”

“It looks like ‘Big Brother’ is going to watch everyone,” says Rick Martin, a retired Las Vegas pharmacist who suffers from chronic back pain.

“Pharmacists are going to be even more paranoid than they already are," Martin wrote in an email. “Retail pharmacists don't have time for this. They aren't the police. Nevada has a PDMP. It already shows a significant decrease in prescribing patterns over the last several years, so it is working.  With the CMS, just who decides what are appropriate quantities and proper prescribing habits?”

CMS Using CDC’s Prescribing Guidelines

In developing its strategy, CMS is relying heavily on prescribing guidelines released in 2016 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which discourage doctors from prescribing opioids for chronic pain. CMS says it will use the “evidence-based guidelines” to determine what constitutes inappropriate prescribing. The guidelines include a recommendation that opioids be limited to no more than 90 mg of morphine equivalent milligrams a day, a dose that many patients in severe chronic pain consider inadequate. 

The CDC maintains the guidelines are “voluntary” and intended only for primary care physicians. However, under the CMS strategy, the guidelines would apply to all prescribers, except those treating cancer or patients in palliative care.

“I just hate to see something that CDC itself said was voluntary, was a recommendation, and really isn’t all that specific if you really read it, get turned into something that creates bright red lines. And if you step across the line, you’re going to get yourself in trouble. I don’t think that’s right,” said Bob Twillman, PhD, Executive Director of the Academy of Integrative Pain Management, the nation's largest pain management organization.

CMS says the additional scrutiny of doctors and patients is needed because “the Medicare population has among the highest and fastest-growing rates of diagnosed opioid use disorder,” which the agency estimates at 6 out of every 1,000 beneficiaries. Addiction rates are higher among Medicaid beneficiaries, at 8.7 patients for every 1,000, a figure 10 times higher than patients covered by private insurance plans.

“Because there is no systematic policy of screening for opioid use disorder and patients are unlikely to volunteer that they are misusing their medication or are using opioids like heroin because of discrimination and stigma, these rates are likely underestimates,” CMS says.

Rick Martin believes the Medicare policies will make physicians even less likely to prescribe opioids and pharmacists less likely to fill legitimate prescriptions.

“Pharmacists, like the docs, are just plain scared. If they don't know you, many are reluctant to fill,” said Martin, who is enrolled in Medicare's Part D prescription drug plan.

“One pharmacy I went to refused to fill my bona fide legitimate prescription because it exceeded an arbitrary amount. The manager didn't want any extra scrutiny from DEA, the home office, the PDMP, the board of pharmacy, or the (drug) wholesaler. Even though I was in the system for over 2 years and had previously had even higher amounts filled.

“One of the pain docs I am working with told me he has gotten numerous letters from Humana and one other (insurer) because he is in the upper 1% of dispensing opioids. Well, duh!  He is an exclusive pain management doctor. They didn't compare him with other pain doctors, just ALL doctors. Stupid. What will the CMS do on top of what goes on already?”

Bob Twillman worries the CMS strategy will create distrust between physicians and pharmacists.

“We’ve been trying to make efforts over the last few years to get pharmacists and physicians to work more closely together. I’m concerned this could increase suspicion between the two and be counter to that effort,” said Twillman. “Getting prescribers and pharmacists to work together is an important thing in enhancing patient safety and if we do something like this and short circuit that effort we’re doing more harm than we are good.”

CMS did not say when it planned to implement its Opioid Misuse Strategy or if public hearings would ever be held on them. The agency only said in coming weeks it would release “statements reflecting the agency’s Medicare and Medicaid goals.”

Also unclear is why CMS and the Department of Health and Human Services would take a major step affecting the healthcare of tens of millions of patients and their doctors in the final days of the Obama administration.

“The fact that this is coming out a couple of weeks before the new administration comes in does make it a little bit odd. It makes me wonder how many legs it has or whether it will carry over into the next administration,” said Twillman.