Medicare Modifies Opioid Prescribing Plan

By Pat Anson, Editor

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is moving ahead with plans to align its Medicare Advantage and Part D prescription drug plans with the CDC’s opioid prescribing guidelines.

However, the agency has modified a policy to ensure that high doses of opioids that are medically necessary can still be prescribed.

Like the CDC guideline, CMS is recommending a daily ceiling on opioid pain medication at 90 mgs of a morphine equivalent dose (MED).  If a dose exceeds that level, Medicare insurers are expected to impose a "soft edit" that would automatically block the prescription from being filled until the edit is overridden by a pharmacist. 

Under a previous proposal, insurance companies could also impose a “hard edit” that could not be overridden on prescriptions that exceed 200 mgs of MED. The modification allows a pharmacist to override the edit if the prescribing physician says the dose is medically needed.

“Point of sale edits are not intended to substitute physician judgment or dictate a prescribing limit. If a sponsor (insurer) chooses to implement a hard edit, CMS expects the sponsor to rely only on prescriber attestation that the MED is medically necessary to override the hard edit, and to not require additional clinical criteria,” a senior CMS official said in a news briefing.

“The edits are not to stop prescriptions. They’re to provide information to sponsors in real time as a preventative step, so that prescribers are aware of the amount of opioids that patients are receiving as well as that they may be receiving opioids from other doctors.  They are not prescriber limits and they are not to substitute for prescriber judgement.”

CMS said there was a “significant number of comments” from the public about its opioid prescribing proposal. Some doctors and patient advocacy groups expressed concern that pain patients who are medically stable on high opioids doses would be forced to taper to lower doses.

“My tentative judgement, based on quickly looking at the documents today, is that CMS carefully stepped back from the absolute requirement that would have caused patients at over 200 (MED) mgs to have a sudden crisis in their care,” said Stefan Kertesz, MD, a practicing physician and Associate Professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine.

“That doesn’t mean that they have foresworn this course of action in the future, but they clearly registered that they heard concerns from patients, doctors and others, and to me that is a hopeful sign.”

CMS is still moving ahead with plans to implement an opioid Overutilization Monitoring System (OMS) to identify physicians who prescribe high doses and the patients who receive them. Patients who receive opioids from more than 3 prescribers and more than 3 pharmacies during a 6 month period would also be red-flagged.

Insurers are expected to identify pharmacies, doctors and patients who do not follow CMS policies, and could potentially drop them from Medicare coverage and their insurance networks.

As PNN has reported, the insurance industry appears to have played a major role in drafting the OMS plan, which contains some of the same strategies suggested in a “white paper” prepared by the Healthcare Fraud Prevention Partnership, a coalition of insurers, law enforcement agencies, and federal and state regulators formed in 2013 to combat healthcare fraud. 

The white paper goes far beyond fraud prevention, however, by recommending policies that will determine how a patient is treated by their doctor, including what medications should be prescribed.  The white paper was drafted largely by insurance companies, including Aetna, Anthem, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Cigna, Highmark, Humana, Kaiser Permanente and the Centene Corporation.

CMS contracts with dozens of insurance companies to provide health coverage to about 54 million Americans through Medicare and nearly 70 million in Medicaid. CMS policy changes often have a sweeping impact throughout the U.S. healthcare system because so many insurers and patients are involved.