New Drug Testing Guideline Warns Against Fraud

By Pat Anson, Editor

A new guideline on the use of drug testing by the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) warns against expensive and unnecessary tests that have led to “unethical and/or fraudulent activities.”

The ASAM is a professional society that represents over 4,300 physicians and specialists in addiction treatment. Its new guideline – the first attempt to set national standards for clinical drug testing – could also influence primary care providers and pain management specialists who are increasingly testing their patients for opioid misuse.  

"Drug testing is a valuable tool for supporting patients in addiction treatment, and this comprehensive set of recommendations should prove useful to providers in a variety of addiction treatment settings," said Margaret Jarvis, MD, Chair of ASAM's Quality Improvement Council.

The new guideline, developed by an 11-member expert panel, is published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine.

“ASAM is acutely aware that this document will be released in a context where a lack of clarity about the appropriate use of drug testing has led not only to inconsistent clinical practice, but also unethical and/or fraudulent activities,” the guideline says.

“One of the purposes of this document is to clarify appropriate clinical use of drug testing and, in so doing, shine a light on drug-testing practices that are clearly outside of these boundaries. The delineation of appropriate treatment practices will confer multiple benefits; most importantly, it will improve patient care. At the same time, it will reduce waste and fraud.”

Drug testing has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry – what some call “liquid gold” – largely because so many doctors who treat addicts and chronic pain patients require them to submit to urine drug screens. Many experts consider the “point-of-care” immunoassay tests widely used in doctors’ offices unreliable because they often give false negative or false positive results.

Several drug testing laboratories have also paid heavy fines to settle fraud and kickback charges after they bilked Medicare, Medicaid, private insurers, and patients for unnecessary and expensive lab tests. The practice was so egregious that the Department of Health and Human Services issued a Special Fraud Alert in 2014 to warn physicians not to accept any payments, referrals, rent or reimbursements from drug testing companies.

The new ASAM guidelines say drug tests "should be widely used in addiction treatment settings," but warn that negative or positive findings about a patient’s use of drugs do not necessarily mean they have a substance use disorder. A patient who consumes poppy seeds, for example, could have a positive finding for morphine.

“The list of potential sources of false positives is too extensive to list here, but a few noted examples include; cough suppressants resulting in positive opioid results, ephedrine in cold medicine resulting in positive result for amphetamines, and antidepressants resulting in positive opioid results,” the guideline says.

“There are known limitations to urine immunoassays for opiate use and providers should be cautious when interpreting their results. Providers should carefully review the testing report produced by the laboratory to ensure they understand which opiates and opioids a test is capable of detecting.”

The ASAM’s expert panel said there was no “magic formula” to determine how often a patient should be drug tested. Testing should be done at least weekly at the beginning of addiction treatment, according to the guideline, and at least monthly in patients in stable recovery. Testing should be performed on a random schedule, when possible.

The guideline also cautions physicians not to be confrontational with patients if a test has an unexpected finding.

“Drug testing should function as a therapeutic tool, so a provider's response to test results should not be confrontational. This approach can perpetuate an ‘us versus them’ mentality that reduces the effectiveness of drug testing to support recovery,” the guideline says.

The ASAM guideline also advises physicians on other issues such as urine tampering, patient confidentiality, practitioner education, and how to select reliable tests and laboratories.