Spinal Injection Bill Would Raise Healthcare Costs

By Pat Anson, Editor

Republicans and Democrats often claim that reducing the cost of healthcare is one of their major goals. But a bipartisan bill that is sailing through Congress with little debate will do just the opposite, raising the cost of some epidural, facet joint and other spinal injections used to treat pain by as much as 25 percent for Medicare beneficiaries.

Critics say the legislation is little more than a money grab by doctors who perform the procedures, under the guise of preventing opioid addiction.

The “Post-Surgical Injections as an Opioid Alternative Act” (HR 5804) is one of nearly 60 bills to combat the opioid crisis approved last week by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. It moves to the full House for a vote.

The bill would partially reverse a decision made by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in 2016 to cut the Medicare reimbursement rate for epidurals and other injections.  The interventional procedures – which do not involve opioids -- can cost several hundred dollars per injection.

The American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians (ASIPP) lobbied unsuccessfully to get the reimbursement cuts overturned – until it found two Illinois Republican congressmen willing to sponsor HR 5804, Rep. John Shimkus and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi.

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“We first went to the CMS, then HHS, with no success in reversing draconian cuts for interventional techniques. CMS and the administration told us that it requires an Act of Congress,” ASIPP says on its website. “As a first step toward this, Shimkus and Krishnamoorthi have introduced H.R. 5804, which reverses some of the cuts for Ambulatory Surgery Center procedures. This is only the beginning. We have many other cuts to be reversed.”

According to OpenSecrets.org, Shimkus and Krishnamoorthi have both received $10,000 in campaign donations from ASIPP. The organization has spent over $500,000 on lobbying and donations so far in the 2017-2018 election cycle.

‘I Find It Hard to Trust CMS’

Shimkus introduced the ASIPP bill on May 15th and two days later helped shepherd it through its first and only hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

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During the hearing, Shimkus claimed that by cutting the cost of spinal injections, CMS created a disincentive for doctors to perform the procedures and encouraged them to prescribe opioids instead.

“A lot of us were surprised to see CMS reduce the reimbursement rate for non-opioid pain treatments like epidurals for post-surgery pain,” Shimkus said. “I find it hard to trust CMS when those of us in this arena think their cut has led to more opioid use.

“A lot of us believe the inability to use epidurals to treat pain and prescribe opioids is not healthy for our country.”

To be clear, the CMS reimbursement cuts do not prevent any doctor from performing injections – it only made the shots less profitable. And Shimkus offered no evidence that the lower reimbursement rates encourage more opioid use – although he convinced many of his colleagues that they did.  

“I do think it's important in this crisis to be specific with CMS to make sure that we are not discouraging the use of non-opioid alternatives based on reimbursement-related issues,” said Rep. Larry Bucshon, MD (R-IN), who is a cardiologist. “In my experience over the years, CMS makes reimbursement decisions based on the financial incentives to do so, not necessarily, in my opinion, based on what is the appropriate therapy.”

“I don't agree that epidurals are not an alternative (to opioids) already. They are. They are. I just had a conversation with a surgeon about that. So that's not so,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo (R-CA).  “Imagine being able to manage pain without taking an opioid. We could do 20 other things together and it wouldn't equal that."

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) wasn’t buying any of it.

“I don’t think we have gotten any objective criteria to suggest that what CMS did is going to lead to more people taking opiates,” Pallone said. “I don't think there is any evidence to suggest that this legislation will lead to decreased opioid prescribing or a decreased prevalence of addiction.

“I think we are setting a bad precedent with the bill. I don't think that we, as Congress, are in a good position to pick and choose winners amongst therapies and procedures. I just don't think we know enough to understand the consequences of doing that to understand the relative value and the efficacy of different therapies and procedures on the market.”

Despite those concerns -- and after just 30 minutes of debate that included no public testimony -- committee members overwhelmingly supported the bill by a vote of 36 to 14. Nine Democrats joined with all Republicans on the committee in voting yes.

“What we are doing is temporarily reversing cuts to non-opioid treatment that we all agree save money and lives, then collecting to help ensure we are reimbursing providers at the most appropriate levels possible,” Shimkus said.

“That’s ASIPP talking,” says Terri Lewis, PhD, a researcher and longtime advocate for the pain community. “What does Shimkus know? Shimkus doesn’t know anything. There is no data to support that.”

Health Risks of Spinal Injections

There was no discussion by the committee about the effectiveness of epidurals and other spinal injections -- or of the health risks associated with their use.

Epidural injections have long been used to relieve pain during childbirth, but they are also increasingly being used to treat back pain, despite reports there is little evidence the shots are effective.

The FDA has also warned that the use of steroids in spinal injections – a procedure that’s never been approved by the agency -- “may result in rare but serious adverse events, including loss of vision, stroke, paralysis, and death.”

“Here we have a procedure that they’re trying to slip under the swimming pool fence that is not FDA approved, that relies on materials that are not regulated and/or contraindicated, and they’re trying to pull a fast one. And they could very easily do it in this climate of opioid hysteria,” said Lewis.

As PNN has reported, some pain management experts believe spinal injections are overused – in part because they’re more profitable for doctors than using opioids or other procedures.  

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“Probably everything that gets compensated well is over-utilized because it’s the compensation system. It’s a reimbursement system that pays more for treatment procedures than outcomes,” said Lynn Webster, MD, a past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine.

A 2012 report by the General Accounting Office – a report requested by Rep. Pallone – found that unsanitary injection practices in ambulatory care clinics expose thousands of patients every year to blood borne pathogens such as hepatitis and HIV.  A perfectly sanitary needle can also go astray and puncture sensitive membranes in the spinal cord, leaving patients with serious and sometimes permanent injuries.      

“When it comes to spinal injections after surgery the risk to the patient, related to adverse events, increases substantially because spine surgery comes with risks of dural tears and accidental cuts,” says Terri Anderson, a Montana woman whose spine was damaged after receiving steroid injections for a ruptured disc in her back.  She now suffers from adhesive arachnoiditis, a chronic inflammation in the spinal membrane that causes severe pain.

“It is unconscionable that harmful injections would be pushed on unsuspecting pain patients,” Anderson said in an email to PNN. “It looks like the large hospital corporations and interventional pain professional societies have been busy lobbying our congressional representatives.  Apparently our healthcare system has become a profitable venture that indirectly contributes to many election campaigns in the U.S.”

No date has been set for a full House vote on HR 5804. To become law, it must pass both the House and Senate and then be signed by President Trump.  There is little opposition to the bill because many critics only recently learned that it was even being considered by Congress. 

“If this is allowed to stand, we have a problem,” says Lewis. “Another thing is Congress directing the practice of medicine. We’ve had just about enough of that.”