The Secret Role of Insurers in Medicare Opioid Policy

By Pat Anson, Editor

This month marks the one year anniversary of a closed door meeting between law enforcement agencies, federal and state regulators, and health insurance companies in a Baltimore suburb – a “special session” of an obscure advisory group to the U.S. Justice Department and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Although the mission of the Healthcare Fraud Prevention Partnership – HFPP for short -- is to prevent healthcare fraud, the October 20, 2016 meeting went much further. It gave the insurance industry – so-called “Partner Champions” -- a direct role in drafting recommendations that could decide how millions of pain patients will be treated by their doctors and what opioid medications will be prescribed to them, if any.

Major insurers like Aetna, Anthem, Cigna, Humana, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Kaiser Permanente were invited to attend, but no other stakeholders in healthcare, such as physicians, pharmacists, hospitals or patients, were asked to appear or share their insights. Few details about the meeting were made public, until now.

Pain News Network has obtained documents through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that shed some light on how the meeting was organized and what was discussed, but we were denied access to a list of individuals that attended, who they represented, or any recordings of what they said.

“The nature of some of the information provided during the Special Session on opioids would be of the sort that could have a negative impact on the competitive posture or business interests of a company if made public,” Jay Olin, Director of FOIA Analysis for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), wrote in a letter to PNN.

CMS COMMAND CENTER IN WOODLAWN, MD

CMS COMMAND CENTER IN WOODLAWN, MD

“The release of this sensitive information could put the company at significant financial risk if interested parties use this information to develop and execute schemes and individuals and organizations use this information to game the system and reap financial or other benefit.”

Olin also said the HFPP is not a federal advisory committee and therefore not subject to federal open meeting laws, even though the October 20 meeting was called by CMS, organized by CMS, funded by CMS, and held on federal property at the CMS Command Center in Woodlawn, Maryland.

“Furthermore, most (HFPP) partners are from the private sector and private industry is not subject to FOIA, nor is CMS authorized to release such information,” Olin wrote.

PNN is appealing that decision.

‘Government-authorized use only’

CMS may be trying to distance itself from the HFPP, but it’s clear they work closely together in their unusual “public-private partnership.”

A CMS website hosts a portal for HFPP members to sign-in that plainly states “this system is provided for Government-authorized use only.” The website also goes into detail on how to become an HFPP partner, the benefits of membership and provides an extensive list of partners that includes 45 different insurance companies.

According to a recent report from the General Accounting Office (GAO), CMS has spent over $30 million funding the HFPP since 2012, the year the partnership was created by the Obama administration to help the federal government detect and prevent healthcare fraud. A side benefit for insurers is that it helps them lower the cost of healthcare coverage. A CMS flyer plainly states that one of the reasons the HFPP exists is to help payers “identify potential savings.”       

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The goals and activities of the partnership are important to understand because CMS contracts with dozens of insurers to provide Medicare coverage to about 57 million elderly and disabled Americans, at an annual cost of nearly $700 billion. And if the insurance industry is making healthcare decisions while being subsidized with billions of taxpayer dollars, Americans have a right to know what’s going on.

Yet CMS won’t even say who attended that October 20 meeting.

“A total of 58 participants across 26 federal, state, public and private organizations, including CMS, attended the event,” is all that an executive summary of the meeting says about the attendees.

The first half of the daylong meeting wasn’t even about opioids. It focused on the HFPP’s mission: combating fraud. According to the executive summary, a CMS technical advisor briefed attendees about common fraud schemes in the addiction treatment and drug testing industries, such as “substance abuse facilities that may be exposing their patients to physical or other harm” and insurance claims from treatment facilities “for services not rendered and unnecessary service, including lab claims.”

Another fraud scheme flagged by CMS was “physicians who appear to be referring Marketplace (Medicare/Medicaid) members, as well as other individuals who may be paid by substance abuse facilities to sign people up for Marketplace coverage.”

After a break for lunch, the discussion veered away from fraud prevention and into treatment decisions normally left between a patient and their doctor. A CMS official “emphasized the need to look at improving the quality of care” and identified several priority areas, including “best practices for acute and chronic pain.”

“Eliminate or restrict opioid prescribing for acute conditions,” was one of the many strategies discussed. So was the concept of “pay for performance,” in which doctors would receive payments from insurers “for following guidelines or quality practices, not for prescribing opiates.”

“Higher copay for opioid prescriptions” was another recommendation, as was “step therapy and dosage control.”

"Media outreach" and “social media and digital advertising tools” were suggested as ways to promote patient and provider compliance through “social normalizing.”

It is not clear from the documents provided to PNN if these were strategies advocated by insurers, law enforcement or CMS.

‘Serious Conflict of Interest’ for Insurers

Attendees were told the ultimate goal of the meeting was “to produce an HFPP-branded White Paper that identifies best practices payers can take to effectively address and minimize current and future opioid abuse.”

In other words, the meeting was not just about fraud prevention. The insurance industry was being asked to help design federal policy on opioid prescribing and “encourage practices that connect patients to the level of care best suited to their needs…. while avoiding unnecessary services or opioid prescriptions.”

“It is very disturbing to see CMS working with insurance companies to reduce the amount of opioids prescribed without physician and organized medicine's input,” said Lynn Webster, MD, a pain management expert and past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine (AAPM). 

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It is a serious conflict of interest to have insurance companies determine what medications are appropriate and how much to use.”

Webster was also alarmed by some of the strategies discussed at the October 20 meeting.  

“The proposal that insurance might eliminate opioids for acute pain would leave many patients without any effective treatment. That is not helpful and will produce a huge backlash,” he said.

“To encourage CMS to reward doctors to not prescribe opioids is a very ominous trend, knowing that untreated pain can have lethal effects on the body,” said Ingrid Hollis, a patient advocate and mother of a chronic pain sufferer. “To perpetuate these myths about reining in the addiction crisis, when in fact it is looking more and more like cost saving measures, is a conflict of interest for sure.

“I also find it disturbing that a private group with so much influence on insurance would not disclose to you who was in attendance at their meetings. Because they are influencing public programs and healthcare funded by taxpayers, they need to disclose who they are.”

When asked why the October 20 meeting was closed to the public, a CMS spokesman said "all HFPP meetings are limited to members of the Partnership, as they deal with sensitive issues relating to fraud, waste and abuse in the healthcare sector."

Payer ‘Partner Champions’

The HFPP white paper was released in January on the CMS website. The 62-page report -- Healthcare Payer Strategies to Reduce the Harms of Opioids -- begins by praising the “Partner Champions” who helped draft it. 

Among the payers listed as “champions” were Aetna, Anthem, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Cigna, Centene, Highmark, Horizon, Humana, and Kaiser Permanente.

“To overcome the problems of prescription opioid misuse, it is also vital to understand that provider prescribing practices and patient drug seeking behavior can exacerbate the development and persistence of OUD (opioid use disorder),” the white paper warns.

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“Providers may write prescriptions without assessing their patient’s risk for misuse, prescribe opioid analgesics for minor pain, prescribe a greater medication quantity or dose than warranted by the patient’s medical indication, or provide opioids fraudulently with the knowledge they are likely to be misused. Patients may exaggerate or falsify symptoms to obtain opioid prescriptions, seek prescriptions from multiple physicians, forge prescriptions, or obtain prescriptions for resale on the black market.”

The white paper goes on to endorse the CDC’s opioid prescribing guideline, and recommends that over-the-counter pain relievers such as aspirin, acetaminophen and ibuprofen be used as alternatives to opioids, as well as non-drug therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy, chiropractic care and TENS nerve stimulation units. Few of these treatments are covered by insurance.

The white paper also encourages pharmacists to “deny payments for (opioid) prescriptions that do not conform to general prescribing practices” and to profile doctors and patients to identify “problematic actors and schemes.”

Patients could be profiled in one of three ways, according to the HFPP:

  1. Stewards (those who follow guidelines)
  2. Stockers (those who hoard medication)
  3. Demanders (those who ask for medication)

The white paper does not discuss fraud in the addiction treatment industry, the initial focus of the October 20 meeting. Also unmentioned is a recent HFPP policy decision that allows insurers to share information about Medicare beneficiaries.

Individual patient data on 57 million Americans is now being pooled, studied and analyzed by the insurance industry, something that payers were previously reluctant to do.

“Several HFPP participants we spoke with indicated their support for the new strategy and willingness to provide beneficiaries’ personally identifiable information and protected health information for more in-depth HFPP studies,” the GAO report says.

Several HFPP participants we spoke with indicated their support for the new strategy and willingness to provide beneficiaries’ personally identifiable information and protected health information for more in-depth HFPP studies.
— GAO Report

Is the HFPP overstepping its authority? Do insurers have any business sharing and analyzing the personal health information of millions of Americans? No one at HFPP would comment. CMS referred us to this statement in the white paper:

“Payers can help to combat the opioid crisis by identifying and sharing strategies, such as reimbursement and coverage policies, conditions for provider plan participation, and dissemination of information to a variety of audiences, to address the large-ranging issues that lead to fraud, waste, and abuse in the healthcare system. Such interventions are particularly suited to payers due to their relationships with providers of healthcare services, pharmacies, insured patients, employers, and law enforcement (in cases where potential fraud is identified). Payers collect and administer a large amount of healthcare information that can be used to identify and intervene on behalf of patients at risk of opioid-related harm, as well as to target fraud, waste, and abuse in opioid prescribing.”

CMS announced plans to align its Medicare Advantage and Part D prescription drug plans with the CDC guideline soon after receiving the HFPP white paper. But some of the more extreme strategies discussed by the HFPP were not adopted. CMS won’t be paying doctors to follow the guideline or be eliminating opioids as a treatment for short term, acute pain.

But the agency is moving ahead with plans for a new monitoring system to identify opioid “overutilizers” -- physicians who prescribe high doses, patients who get them, and pharmacies that fill their prescriptions. Payers are authorized to drop suspicious pharmacies, doctors and patients from Medicare coverage and their insurance networks.

How many overutilizers are there? At last count, there were 15,651 Medicare beneficiaries getting multiple high dose opioid prescriptions. That may sound like a lot, but it amounts to only 0.04% of the 41.8 million patients enrolled in Medicare Part D plans.

Why are insurers targeting Medicare beneficiaries when only a tiny percentage may be abusing prescription opioids? Dr. Webster suspects the real motive is money.

“Clearly the insurance companies are benefiting from tunnel vision and a laser focus on Pharma companies and doctors,” says Webster. “There is a vast under appreciation that commercial insurers are also driven by the bottom line.  This is why they should not be making medical decisions without input from pain physicians and organized medicine.”