By Pat Anson, Editor
The Trump administration has proposed new rules that will make it harder for Medicare patients to obtain high doses of opioid pain medication. If adopted, critics say the regulations could force many high-dose pain patients to be abruptly tapered to lower doses, a risky procedure that could lead to severe pain and withdrawal symptoms, or even illegal drug use and suicide.
The rules proposed by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) would also make health insurers the final arbiters in deciding who gets high doses of opioid medication.
"We are proposing important new actions to reduce seniors' risk of being addicted to or overdoing it on opioids while still having access to important treatment options," said Demetrios Kouzoukas, CMS deputy administrator. “We believe these actions will reduce the oversupply of opioids in our communities."
Under the proposal for the 2019 Medicare Part D prescription drug program, a ceiling for opioid doses would be established at 90mg morphine equivalent units (MME). Any prescription at or above that level would trigger a “hard edit” requiring pharmacists to talk with the insurer and doctor about the appropriateness of the dose.
Medicare officials claim the goal of the rule is to get patients, doctors and insurers to “engage in a dialogue” about the risks associated with opioids. But regardless of how that dialogue goes, ultimately the final decision on whether to override the hard edit would be left to insurers – known as plan sponsors.
"The trigger can only be overridden by the plan sponsor after efforts to consult with the prescribing physician," said Kouzoukas.
The 90mg MME ceiling was established in 2016 by the CDC’s much criticized opioid prescribing guidelines. Those “voluntary” guidelines were only meant as recommendations for primary care physicians, but have been widely adopted as rigid rules by other federal agencies, insurers, state regulators and prescribers.
High Dose Patients at Risk
CMS says 1.6 million Medicare beneficiaries met or exceeded opioid doses of 90mg MME for at least one day in 2016. Many suffer from chronic or intractable pain and have been on high doses for years.
“If this CMS proposal is adopted, it will accelerate an ongoing pattern of involuntary opioid tapers,” says Stefan Kertesz, MD, a practicing physician and professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine. “I have great concern for today’s high dose patients, many of whom have complex disabilities. Their disabilities often reflect a combination of underlying physical disease, mental conditions, harm from the health care system and opioid dependence, even if those same opioids confer some degree of relief.
"Over the last year, I have received wave after wave of reports of traumatized patients, with outcomes that include suicidal ideation, medical deterioration, rupture of the primary care relationship, overdose to licit or illicit substances, and often enough, suicide.”
To reduce the risk of these “unintended consequences,” CMS would allow high dose patients to receive a temporary 7-day supply of opioids while they seek an exception to the 90mg MME rule. If approved, patients would then need to get a new prescription from their doctor. The 7-day supply would only be granted once.
Under the proposed rules, CMS would also create a new 7-day limit for initial prescriptions of opioids for acute, short-term pain. CMS would also start monitoring “high risk beneficiaries” who are prescribed opioids and “potentiator” drugs such as gabapentin (Neurontin) and pregabalin (Lyrica). Recent research has shown that combining the medications increases the risk of overdose.
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.
Public comments on the proposals must be submitted by Monday, March 5, 2018. To submit comments or questions electronically, go to www.regulations.gov, enter the docket number “CMS-2017-0163” in search and follow the instructions for submitting a comment.
The 2019 proposed rule changes may viewed by clicking here.