Medicare Patients Face New Rx Opioid Rules in 2019

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) will implement new safety rules on January 1 that could make it harder for over a million Medicare beneficiaries to get prescriptions filled for high doses of opioid pain medication. Prescriptions for opioid “naïve” patients – those who are new to opioids -- will also be limited to an initial 7-day supply, regardless of dose.

The new rules, which are modeled after the 2016 CDC opioid guideline, are intended to reduce the risk of opioid abuse and addiction. They only apply to patients enrolled in Medicare’s Advantage and Part D prescription drug programs, and exempt patients in palliative and hospice care or those being treated for “active” cancer-related pain.

But patients and advocates fear the rules give too much power to insurers and pharmacies, and could result in widespread confusion or patients being denied medications they’ve taken safely for years.

“I am concerned, just as happened with the CDC Guideline, the new CMS rules starting January 1 will be totally misinterpreted, misunderstood, and possibly weaponized to deny patients opioid pain meds,” says Rick Martin, a retired Las Vegas pharmacist disabled by chronic back pain. 

In recent weeks, Martin says he’s spoken with three pharmacists at major chains in the Las Vegas area and none of them had been briefed about the new CMS rules or how they will be implemented by insurers. 

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“Maybe the sponsors (insurers) are so overwhelmed, nothing will happen after January 1 or maybe some obscure person in the basement is waiting to install a computer program that will kick in January 1 and nobody will be expecting it. That would be utter chaos,” said Martin. 

CMS contracts with dozens of private insurers 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. 

‘Safety Edit’ for High Dose Prescriptions

Starting January 1, Medicare insurers will adopt drug management programs (DMPs) designed to flag patients who are deemed high risk – such as those who take opioids with anti-anxiety benzodiazepines or get opioid prescriptions from more than one doctor.

Any opioid prescription at or above 90 MME (morphine milligram equivalent) will trigger an automatic “safety edit” requiring pharmacists to talk with the prescribing doctor about the appropriateness of the dose. If satisfied with the explanation or if a prior authorization was already granted, the pharmacist could override the safety edit and fill the prescription. About 1.6 million Medicare beneficiaries met or exceeded a dose of 90 MME in 2016.

Insurance companies can impose their own “hard edit” for patients getting 200 MME or more, which will require pharmacists to contact the insurer before filling a prescription.  Insurers will also be given greater authority to identify patients at high risk of addiction and can even require they use “only selected prescribers or pharmacies.”

The bottom line for patients is that pharmacists and insurers – not doctors -- could be the final arbiters of whether a prescription is appropriate and should be filled.


“If you get opioids from multiple doctors or pharmacies, your plan may talk with your doctors to make sure you need these medications and that you’re using them safely,” a Medicare advisory tells patients.

“If your Medicare drug plan decides your use of prescription opioids and benzodiazepines isn’t safe, the plan may limit your coverage of these drugs. For example, under its DMP your plan may require you to get these medications only from certain doctors or pharmacies to better coordinate your health care.”

“The process they decided on -- having pharmacists confer with prescribers -- is really a good idea in the abstract, but in practice it's going to be very burdensome,” says Bob Twillman, PhD, Executive Director of the Academy of Integrative Pain Management. 

“I think that the mandated phone conversations between pharmacists and prescribers will turn out to be such a time-consuming endeavor that many prescribers will decide just to prescribe a low enough dose that those phone calls aren't triggered. The net effect, in many cases, I think, will be to encourage prescribers to drop their doses below that threshold.”

If a prescription is rejected by an insurer or pharmacist, patients have the option of paying for the medication in cash and/or filing an appeal.

“CMS officials have confirmed that Medicare prescription drug coverage involvement is limited to payment for medications. If a patient receives a denial of coverage, the patient has the right to pay out-of-pocket for that medication. A Medicare denial only applies to financial coverage. It has no authority to deny the prescription itself,” says Andrea Anderson, Executive Director of the Alliance for the Treatment of Intractable Pain (ATIP). 

ATIP is encouraging patients denied medication to contact a little-known CMS agency called the Beneficiary and Family Centered Care-Quality Improvement Program, where they can file an appeal or make a complaint.   

Medicare patients can also be proactive by talking with their doctor and pharmacist about the new rules before getting a prescription filled. They can also seek a prior authorization from their insurer to avoid the delays of a safety edit at the pharmacy.