Pain Clinics Ordered Unnecessary Urine Drug Tests

By Fred Schulte, Kaiser Health News

A Tennessee-based chain of pain clinics that abruptly shut down last summer faces five whistleblower lawsuits accusing it of defrauding Medicare and other health insurers by billing for hundreds of unnecessary urine drug tests and other dubious health services, newly unsealed court records show.

The federal suits target Tennessee-based Comprehensive Pain Specialists, also known as Anesthesia Services Associates, PLLC, and several of its physician owners. At its peak, CPS ran 60 pain clinics in 12 states, according to the suits, as well as a lucrative urine-testing lab in Brentwood, Tenn. CPS closed with no warning in July, leaving patients in several states distressed and scrambling to find a new source of narcotic pain medicines.

In federal court filings unsealed in Nashville this week, federal prosecutors said they would take over the urine-testing allegations and sue several CPS owners, including co-founding anesthesiologists Peter Kroll and Steven Dickerson. Dickerson is a Republican state senator representing Nashville.

Kroll could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Dickerson did not respond to an email or a phone message left at his legislative office.

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It is not clear whether the whistleblowers, who include former CPS doctors and other employees, would pursue several allegations against the company that the federal government declined to join in. CPS, in an unrelated court filing in December, said the company had terminated all of its employees and that debts “greatly exceed its assets.”

Once among the largest pain management groups in the Southeast, CPS crumbled amid financial woes that included nearly a dozen civil suits alleging unpaid debts, and a criminal investigation that ensnared its former chief executive, John Davis. Davis, 41, was convicted this month in federal court in Nashville on health care fraud charges. He is to be sentenced later this year.

CPS was the subject of a November 2017 investigation by Kaiser Health News that scrutinized its Medicare billings for urine drug tests. Medicare paid the company at least $11 million for urine screenings and related tests in 2014, when five of CPS’ medical professionals stood among the nation’s top such Medicare billers. One nurse practitioner working at a CPS clinic in Cleveland, Tenn., generated $1.1 million in urine-test billings that year, according to Medicare records analyzed by KHN.

Kroll, who also served as CPS’ medical director, said at the time that the tests were justified for patient safety and to reduce chances the pills might be sold on the black market. Kroll billed Medicare $1.8 million for urine tests in 2015, the KHN analysis of Medicare billing records found.

Kroll in an interview with KHN at the time said that he and fellow anesthesiologist Dickerson came up with the idea for the pain clinics over a cup of coffee at a Nashville Starbucks in 2005.

One of the whistleblower suits alleging unnecessary urine tests was first filed under seal in 2016 by Suzanne Alt, a doctor who worked in the company’s pain clinics in Troy, Mo., and Keokuk, Iowa, from May 2014 to March 2015. She alleged CPS doctors were “strongly encouraged to order full-panel urine drug screens on each patient, every time, despite the patient’s history, compliance and risk.”

She also said that the company’s electronic medical records “made it extremely difficult to order anything less than the full panel.” Alt said she was told the Tennessee lab did about 600 of these screens daily. Another whistleblower said he toured the lab with CPS executives and observed an “overpowering and unpleasant smell of urine.” In response, a CPS executive said, “To me, it smells like money,” according to the suit.

“They were making a killing,” said Birmingham, Ala., attorney Don McKenna, who represents Alt in the case.

Another of the whistleblowers, former CPS anesthesiologist Cynthia Niendorff, alleged that the company billed Medicare about $754 for each additional urine test, even though earlier results had come back negative. She said CPS grossed approximately $6 million per month from the urine-testing lab and said about 20% of this amount was suspect, according to the suit.

Mary Butner, a former insurance specialist for CPS in Gallatin, Tenn., alleged that CPS charged some patients $1,500 for a drug test to measure blood levels of medication and $400 for a drug test designed to detect illegal drugs — charges that the suit called “grossly inflated and disproportional to the actual costs.” She also alleged that CPS would fill prescriptions for patients whose drug tests detected the presence of illegal drugs, or showed that they were not taking their medication as directed.

Butner also accused medical director Kroll of approving prescriptions for back braces when it was “clearly medically unnecessary,” including some people who had injuries to a knee or elbow.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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.

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“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.

Many Alternative Therapies for Back Pain Not Covered

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A new study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has confirmed what many back pain sufferers already know: Public and private health insurance plans often do not cover non-drug alternative pain therapies.

Bloomberg researchers looked at dozens of Medicaid, Medicare and commercial insurance coverage policies for chronic lower back pain and found that while most plans covered physical therapy and chiropractic care, there was little or no coverage for acupuncture, massage or counseling.

"This study reveals an important opportunity for insurers to broaden and standardize their coverage of non-drug pain treatments to encourage their use as safer alternatives to opioids," says senior author Caleb Alexander, MD, a professor of epidemiology at the Bloomberg School.  

Alexander and his colleagues examined 15 Medicaid, 15 Medicare Advantage and 15 major commercial insurer plans that were available in 16 states in 2017.

Most payers covered physical therapy (98%), occupational therapy (96%), and chiropractic care (89%), but coverage was inconsistent for many of the other therapies.

Acupuncture was covered by only five of the 45 insurance plans and only one plan covered therapeutic massage.

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Nine of the Medicaid plans covered steroid injections, but only three covered psychological counseling.

"We were perplexed by the absence of coverage language on psychological interventions," Alexander says. "It's hard to imagine that insurers wouldn't cover that."  

Even for physical therapy, a well-established method for relieving lower back pain, insurance coverage was inconsistent.

"Some plans covered two visits, some six, some 12; some allowed you to refer yourself for treatment, while others required referral by a doctor," Alexander says. "That variation indicates a lack of consensus among insurers regarding what model coverage should be, or a lack of willingness to pay for it.”  

The Bloomberg study is being published online in the journal JAMA Network Open.  It was funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

Lower back pain is the world’s leading cause of disability, but there is surprisingly little consensus on the best way to treat it. A recent series of reviews by an international team of experts in The Lancet medical journal found that low back pain is usually treated with bad advice, inappropriate tests, risky surgeries and painkillers.

“The majority of cases of low back pain respond to simple physical and psychological therapies that keep people active and enable them to stay at work,” said lead author Rachelle Buchbinder, PhD, a professor at Monash University in Australia. “Often, however, it is more aggressive treatments of dubious benefit that are promoted and reimbursed.”

The authors recommend counseling, exercise and cognitive behavioral therapy as first-line treatments for short-term low back pain, followed by spinal manipulation, massage, acupuncture, meditation and yoga as second line treatments. They found limited evidence to support the use of opioids for low back pain, and epidural steroid injections and acetaminophen (paracetamol) are not recommended at all.

Prescription Pain Creams Flagged for Medicare Fraud

By Julie Appleby, Kaiser Health News

Medicare pays hundreds of millions of dollars each year for prescription creams, gels and lotions made-to-order by pharmacies — mainly as pain treatments. But a new report finds that officials are concerned about possible fraud and patient safety risks from products made at nearly a quarter of the pharmacies that fill the bulk of those prescriptions.

“Although some of this billing may be legitimate, all of these pharmacies warrant further scrutiny,” concludes the report from the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services.

In total, 547 pharmacies — nearly 23 percent of those that submit most of the bills to Medicare for making these creams — hit one or more of five red-flag markers set by investigators.

Those included what the researchers called “extremely high” prices; large percentages of Medicare members getting identical drugs — 16 of the pharmacies billed for identical drugs for 200 or more customers; “greatly increased” year-over-year billing — 20 pharmacies increased their billing by more than 10,000 percent; or having a single medical provider writing more than 131 prescriptions.

More than half of those pharmacies hit two or more measures — and 10 hit all five.

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One Oregon pharmacy, for example, submitted claims for 91 percent of its customers. A pharmacy in New York submitted 5,342 prescriptions ordered by one podiatrist, while a Florida pharmacy saw its Medicare billing for such treatments go from $7,468 in 2015 to $1.8 million the following year.

Many of the pharmacies are clustered in four cities: Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles and New York.

The report comes amid ongoing concern by Medicare officials about these custom-made — or compounded — drugs. In addition to questions like those raised in the report about overuse and pricing, safety has been a key issue in recent years. A meningitis outbreak in 2012 was linked to a Massachusetts pharmacy that did not maintain sterile conditions and sold tainted made-to-order injections that killed 64 Americans.

When done safely, pharmacy-made compounded drugs provide a legitimate option for patients whose medical needs can’t be met by commercially available products mass-produced by pharmaceutical companies. For example, a patient who can’t swallow a commercially available prescription pill might get a liquid version of a drug.

State boards of pharmacy generally oversee compounding pharmacies, and the drugs they produce are not considered approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Rising Cost of Compounded Drugs

The new report focuses on concerns with compounded topical medications.

Medicare spending for such treatments has skyrocketed, rising more than 2,350 percent, from $13.2 million in 2010 to $323.5 million in 2016. Price hikes and an increase in the number of prescriptions written drove the increase, the report said.

It is not the first time the inspector general has looked at compounded drugs. A 2016 report found that overall spending on all types of compounded drugs — not just topical medications — rose sharply.

The U.S. Postal Service inspector general and the Department of Defense also have raised concerns about rising spending and possible fraud for compounded drugs.

In response to those previous reports, the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists, the industry’s trade group, has said that legitimately compounded drugs “can dramatically improve a patient’s quality of life,” noting that proper billing controls need to be in place. The inspector general’s report in 2016, it added, found that “such controls are not in place.”

This report, which the compounding trade group has not yet reviewed, focuses on topical drugs and a subset of the 15,290 pharmacies that provide at least one such prescription each year. It looked at billing records from the 2,388 pharmacies that do at least 10 such prescriptions a year — providing 93 percent of all compounded topical drugs paid for by Medicare.

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Most of the prescriptions were for pain treatment, made from ingredients such as lidocaine, an anesthetic, or diclofenac sodium, an anti-inflammatory drug.

On average, those compounds were more expensive than non-compounded drugs with the same ingredients.

For example, Medicare paid an average of $751 per tube of compounded lidocaine, and $1,506 for the diclofenac, according to the inspector general’s report. Non-compounded tubes of those drugs averaged $445 and $128, respectively.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb recently outlined new efforts his agency is taking to oversee compounded drugs in the wake of legislation passed by Congress following the meningitis outbreak.

“The FDA is inspecting compounding facilities to assess whether drugs that are essentially copies of FDA-approved drugs are being compounded for patients” who could otherwise take a product sold commercially, he said in a statement issued on June 28.

Gottlieb also said the FDA plans to make more information available to patients and their doctors about compounded topical pain creams, including information about their effectiveness and any potential safety risks.

Not being effective is a safety risk, noted Miriam Anderson, a researcher with the inspector general’s office who helped write the report.

The report urged the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to clarify some of its policies to emphasize that insurers can limit the use of compounded drugs by requiring prior authorization or other steps. The agency concurred with the recommendations, according to the report, including the need to “follow up on pharmacies with questionable Part D billing and the prescribers associated with these pharmacies.”

Anderson said the inspector general’s office is continuing to probe the issue.

“We will investigate a number of leads on specific pharmacies and prescribers who were identified as having these questionable patterns,” she said. “Whenever we see that kind of increase in spending, it raises concern about fraud, waste and abuse.”

Kaiser Health News’ coverage of prescription drug development, costs and pricing is supported in part by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit health newsroom whose stories appear in news outlets nationwide, is an editorially independent part of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

CEO of U.S. Pain Foundation Resigns

By Pat Anson, Editor

The founder and CEO of the U.S. Pain Foundation – an advocacy group representing chronic pain patients -- has resigned under pressure.

Paul Gileno resigned Tuesday, May 29th at the request of the foundation’s board of directors, according to a statement released on Thursday by U.S. Pain. It is highly unusual for a non-profit’s board of directors to remove its CEO. No explanation was offered for Gileno’s sudden departure

Nicole Hemmenway, U.S. Pain’s chairperson, has been appointed as interim CEO. A search for Gileno’s replacement is underway.

“The organization is stable and excited to be moving forward on its mission – to empower, educate, connect and advocate for people living with chronic conditions that cause pain,” said  board member Ellen Lenox Smith. “The Board has complete faith in Nicole and the wonderful staff that makes up our organization.”

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U.S. Pain has recently faced criticism over its relationship with Insys Therapeutics, an Arizona drug maker under investigation for its marketing of Subsys, an oral fentanyl spray blamed for hundreds of overdose deaths. Former Insys executives and sales representatives have been charged with racketeering and bribing doctors to prescribe Subsys off-label. A four day supply of Subsys can cost nearly $24,000.

In recent years, Insys has donated over $3.1 million to U.S. Pain, with most of the money going to a prescription discount program to help patients pay for Subsys and other medications prescribed for breakthrough cancer pain. Critics say the program was primarily designed to benefit Insys by allowing the company to bypass Medicare rules governing illegal kickbacks.

“Co-pay assistance programs (also called copay charities) were created to get around this restriction. Medicare allows copay charities to cover Medicare co-pays, so pharmaceutical companies funnel money through these groups to cover co-pay costs for Medicare patients while bilking Medicare, which bears the full cost of unnecessarily expensive drugs,” a group of critics said in a blog post by The Hastings Center.  

Last week Pfizer agreed to pay a $24 million fine to resolve federal charges that it used a similar co-pay assistance program to pay kickbacks to Medicare patients. “Pfizer used a third party to saddle Medicare with extra costs," said U.S. attorney Andrew Lelling.

In a statement released in February, Gileno defended U.S. Pain’s acceptance of funding from Insys for the co-pay assistance program.

"This funding, like any funding we receive, does not influence our values,” Gileno said. “The funding we receive is not used to promote one type of treatment over another.”

According to a report released by Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, U.S. Pain received $2.5 million from Insys in 2017 – an amount three times larger than what the non-profit received from all donors in 2015.

(Update: U.S. Pain has a statement on its website saying its copay assistance program with Insys ended “as of August 2018” and that “U.S. Pain will not accept funding from Insys going forward.”)

Gileno founded the Connecticut Pain Foundation in 2006 after a back injury forced him to abandon his catering business. In 2011, he launched U.S. Pain, which now claims to be the nation’s largest patient advocacy group. It's growth was fueled by marketing partnerships and donations from dozens of pharmaceutical companies and healthcare organizations.

In its 2016 promotional material, U.S. Pain claimed to have over 90,000 members and over 225,000 social media followers, including 59,000 followers on Twitter. However, that was reduced to less than 14,000 followers in early 2018 after Twitter purged from its system millions of fake accounts.

(Update: U.S. Pain has revised the way it counts actively “engaged members.” The organization now says its has over 15,000 members, 1,500 volunteers and a social media reach of more than 217,000 followers.)

In 2015, Gileno was paid a salary of nearly $404,000, according to U.S. Pain's tax return. Gileno says the 2015 compensation was for “back pay” from 2006 to 2012. The foundation has not publicly released its tax returns for 2016 or 2017, so we don’t know how much Gileno was paid for those years.

In a 2018 New Year’s message to U.S. Pain members, Gileno said he “would never sell out.”

“Not once has the creation of this foundation been about boosting my ego, finding public notoriety or obtaining fame. I am here to serve you. I will never jeopardize our mission or passion to gain five minutes of fame for myself," Gileno said.

"The work of U.S. Pain Foundation is 100% genuine. There are no strings attached or ulterior motives. All that I care about is further enhancing the lives of people suffering with pain, and we will continue to do so in a discreet and powerful manner."

PAUL GILENO

PAUL GILENO

Gileno has been criticized by some in the pain community for a passive approach to patient advocacy that avoided public controversy and protest. Some say he also has an overbearing personality that rubbed people the wrong way.

“There are so many reasons I could cite as to why it’s good to have Paul out, but I am biased because he was one of my biggest bullies and a thief to others in the chronic pain community,” a longtime patient advocate who asked to remain anonymous told PNN. “I am hoping the leadership at U.S. Pain Foundation will do better than they have in the past.”

Interim CEO Nicole Hemmenway has been a key member of U.S. Pain since its inception. She has lived with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) most of her life.

“We’re very focused on the future. We have a lot of wonderful programs and events coming up – a training program for chronic pain support group leaders in June; our Pain Awareness Month campaign and related activities this September; and our first retreat for pediatric patients this November,” Hemmenway said in a statement.

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.”

Poorly Rated Hospital May Become Model for Pain Care

By Pat Anson, Editor

A New Jersey hospital that has been widely praised for significantly reducing the use of opioid pain medication in its emergency room continues to receive poor ratings from Hospital Compare, a Medicare website that tracks the quality of care in the nation’s hospitals.

The one star overall rating for St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson, New Jersey puts it in the bottom 6 percent of hospitals nationwide.

Despite the poor rating and complaints from patients about poor pain care, St. Joseph’s anti-opioid initiative – known as ALTO (Alternatives to Opioids) -- is being held up as a national model for combatting opioid abuse. ALTO requires emergency room doctors to first consider non-opioid treatments, such as NSAIDs, ibuprofen and nerve block injections, for patients suffering pain from accidents, trauma and chronic conditions.

“We launched ALTO two years ago to offer a real solution to a rapidly growing opioid epidemic,” said Mark Rosenberg, DO, Chair of Emergency Medicine at St. Joseph’s, who was recently named to a federal task force charged with developing "best practices" in pain management for federal agencies.

"I’m very proud to report that we have reduced opioid prescriptions by 82 percent here in the St. Joseph’s Emergency Department. We are stopping addiction before it starts.”

St. Joseph’s has drawn congressional attention for its opioid policy. Last month, New Jersey Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker and Rep. Bill Pascrell – all Democrats – introduced legislation in Congress that would create a nationwide pilot project based on the ALTO program.

“The opioid crisis in our country is staggering and epic in its evil,” Sen. Booker said at a news conference. “The work being done here at St. Joseph’s Medical Center is innovative, it is inspiring, and it is shining light against the darkness.”

SEN. CORY BOOKER SPEAKS AT APRIL, 2018 NEWS CONFERENCE

SEN. CORY BOOKER SPEAKS AT APRIL, 2018 NEWS CONFERENCE

“The ALTO program here at St. Joe’s is at the forefront of innovative thinking and new approaches to treating pain -- to fighting opioid addiction,” said Sen. Menendez.  “We want to see every hospital and provider across New Jersey and across this nation follow St. Joe’s lead, and our bill provides the necessary federal resources to help make it possible.” 

The Alternatives to Opioids in the Emergency Department Act is one of dozens of bills being considered in Congress to combat opioid addiction and overdoses. It would provide $30 million in funding to other hospitals to build their own ALTO programs. After a three-year demonstration project, the Secretary of Health and Human Services would submit a report to Congress on the results and issue recommendations for broader implementation.

St. Joseph's One Star Rating

In patient satisfaction surveys and other quality measures, St. Joseph’s consistently ranks poorly. It is one of 260 hospitals in the country given a one-star rating by Hospital Compare. Over 3,400 hospitals were ranked higher, getting two to five stars.

To be fair, St. Joseph’s is a teaching hospital in a low-income neighborhood and has one of the busiest emergency rooms in the country. The American Hospital Association believes Hospital Compare unfairly penalizes teaching hospitals and those that serve low-income areas, where many people lack access to insurance and medical care.

Hospital Compare evaluates hospitals on 7 major quality measures. St. Joseph’s is rated below the national average on safety, readmission, patient experience, timeliness of care and efficient use of medical imaging. The hospital was rated as average for mortality and effectiveness of care.

ST. JOSEPH'S REGIONAL MEDICAL CENTER

ST. JOSEPH'S REGIONAL MEDICAL CENTER

The quality of pain care is difficult to assess at St. Joseph’s because Medicare dropped all pain questions from its patient satisfaction survey last year – largely due to political pressure and unproven claims that the questions encouraged doctors to prescribe more opioids.

One pain quality measure that still exists is the average amount of a time a patient with a broken bone had to wait before getting pain medication in St. Joseph’s ER. It is 51 minutes, slightly longer than the national average of 49 minutes.

HospitalInspections.org, a website maintained by the Association of Healthcare Journalists, also found deficiencies in St. Joseph’s emergency room. An October 2017 report faulted the ER for failing to stabilize several patients or provide them with a screening exam or pain assessment. Some patients left the hospital in frustration after waiting for hours without being treated.  

One patient who fell down a flight of steps suffered injuries to her face and arm when she landed on concrete. She waited in St. Joseph’s emergency room for over seven hours before leaving without treatment. There was no record of her getting Tylenol or Motrin while waiting, which is hospital policy.

Another patient suffering from abdominal pain after a Caesarean section waited over five and a half hours in the ER before leaving. There was no record of her getting Tylenol or Motrin either.

Delays in Getting Pain Treatment

St. Joseph’s emergency room gets mixed reviews on Yelp, with many patients complaining of delays in getting treatment.

“This is by far the worst hospital in the state of NJ, my little cousin and I came here because she was in excruciating pain and the waiting room was EMPTY, they literally took over an hour to check her temp and register her,” wrote one reviewer, who even posted a photo of the empty waiting room. 

“Arrived at St Joe's due to vomiting, stomach pain and headache all night. After waiting 50 minutes to get vital signs taken I start vomiting in the lobby,” wrote another patient who eventually left. “I just got frustrated and asked to be discharged and went to primary doctor. Needless to say, I had a gallbladder infection and severe dehydration all diagnosed by primary doctor. 6 hours in the ER for nothing.”

ST. JOSEPH'S EMPTY WAITING ROOM

ST. JOSEPH'S EMPTY WAITING ROOM

“St. Josephs isn't in the best part of town, but the care here, especially for children is excellent. During a scare with our 1 month old, the emergency room staff were excellent and comforting,” wrote one father.

“The nurses and doctors were nice to me, but they moved like snails,” wrote a pregnant woman who went to the ER because she was cramping and bleeding. “The pain was unbearable, and it took them until I threw up on the floor for them to move a little faster. And I was there for 3 hours before I was finally told I was unfortunately miscarrying.”  

Granted, these may be just isolated cases in a busy hospital that treats over 60,000 patients a year. But before Congress passes legislation holding up any hospital as a national model for how pain should be treated, they might want to start asking St. Joseph's patients what they think.

The widespread belief that giving opioids in the ER often leads to addiction is a myth anyway. A recent large study of opioid prescriptions filled in emergency rooms found that only 1.1% of patients progressed to long term opioid use. That compares to 2% of patients given opioids in other hospital settings.  

Rescheduling Hydrocodone May Have Increased Abuse

By Pat Anson, Editor

Four years ago that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration ordered the rescheduling of hydrocodone from a Schedule III controlled substance to the more restrictive category of Schedule II.  The move was intended to reduce the diversion and abuse of hydrocodone, which at one time was the most widely prescribed drug in the United States.

It turns out the rescheduling may have had the unintended effect of increasing the diversion and abuse of opioid medication by elderly Americans.

According to a new study by researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), hydrocodone prescriptions for Medicare beneficiaries declined after the rescheduling, but opioid-related hospitalization of elderly patients increased for those who did not have a prescription for opioids.

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"The 2014 federal hydrocodone rescheduling policy was associated with decreased opiate use among the elderly," said lead author Yong-Fang Kuo, PhD, a professor of Preventive Medicine and Community Health at UTMB.

"However, we also observed a 24 percent increase in opioid-related hospitalizations in Medicare patients without documented opioid prescriptions, which may represent an increase in illegal use."

Kuo and her colleagues say Medicare beneficiaries are among the largest consumers of prescription opioids. They speculated that opioid abuse by the elderly may be a coping mechanism to deal with poor health and depression, and that opioid diversion may be a sign of drug dealing.

“An economic purpose may relate to monetary gains from the diversion and sale to others,” Kuo wrote. “It is important for prescribers to understand that their elderly Medicare beneficiaries might be obtaining opioids from sources that are not documented in their medical records. There is a need for additional research on why, where, and how these Medicare enrollees are obtaining opioids.”

The UTMB research team analyzed a large sample of Medicare Part D enrollment and claims data from 2012 through 2015. Their study was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

The reclassification of hydrocodone to a Schedule II controlled substance limited patients to an initial 90-day supply and required them to see a doctor for a new prescription each time they need a 30-day refill. Prescriptions for Schedule II drugs also cannot be phoned or faxed in by physicians.

In 2012, over 135 million prescriptions were written in the U.S. for hydrocodone products such as Vicodin, Lortab and Norco.  That fell to 90 million prescriptions by 2016.

Overall Opioid Prescribing Down

Hydrocodone isn't the only opioid medication to see steep declines in prescribing. The volume of opioid prescriptions filled last year dropped by 12 percent, the largest decline in 25 years according to a new report by the IQVIA Institute.  Opioid prescriptions have been falling since 2011, while dispensing of addiction treatment drugs like buprenorphine (Suboxone) and methadone have risen sharply.

“The U.S. opioid epidemic is one of the most challenging public health crises we face as a nation," said Murray Aitken, IQVIA senior vice president and executive director of the IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science.

“Our research and analytics revealed that 2017 saw new therapy starts for prescription opioids in pain management decline nearly 8 percent, with a near doubling of medication-assisted therapies (MATs) for opioid use dependence to 82,000 prescriptions per month. This suggests that healthcare professionals are prescribing opioids less often for pain treatment, but they are actively prescribing MATs to address opioid addiction."

All 50 states and Washington DC had declines in opioid prescribing of 5 percent or more in 2017, with some of the states hardest hit by the opioid crisis -- like West Virginia and Pennsylvania --  showing declines of over 10 percent. Nevertheless, the number of Americans overdosing continues to rise due to increased use of black market drugs like illicit fentanyl, heroin and cocaine, which now account for about two-thirds of all drug deaths.

Medicare Finalizes Plan to Reduce High Dose Opioids

By Pat Anson, Editor

The Trump administration has finalized plans that will make it harder for many Medicare patients to obtain high doses of opioid pain medication. Medicare beneficiaries will also be limited to an initial 7-day supply of opioids for acute pain.

Under new rules released today for the 2019 Medicare Part D prescription drug program, a ceiling for opioid doses will be established at 90mg morphine equivalent units (MME).  Any prescription at or above that level would trigger a “hard safety edit” requiring pharmacists to talk with the prescribing doctor about the appropriateness of the dose. If satisfied with the explanation, the pharmacist could then override the edit and fill the prescription.

Under an earlier proposal that was widely criticized, only insurers could decide whether to override a safety edit – a requirement that would have essentially made insurers the final arbiters in deciding who gets high doses of opioid pain medication.

The new rules adopted by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) will still allow insurers to implement safety edits, but only at a much higher dose of 200 MME or more.  Insurers will also be given greater authority to identify beneficiaries at high risk of addiction and to require they use “only selected prescribers or pharmacies.”

CMS is also adopting a new policy that requires all new opioid prescriptions for short term acute pain to be limited to no more than 7 days’ supply. Several states have already adopted similar measures.

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CMS says this “tailored approach” to opioid prescriptions was needed to address what it called “chronic opioid overuse” at the pharmacy level and to encourage support for the CDC’s 2016 opioid prescribing guideline.

“CMS believes it is important that (insurers) set expectations for prescribers to implement the CDC’s recommendations as a best practice through their provider contracts. PDPs (prescription drug plans) should also reinforce these messages through interactions with prescribers as an integral component of sponsors’ drug utilization management program,” CMS said.

“We also recommend that beneficiaries who are residents of a long-term care facility, in hospice care or receiving palliative or end-of-life care, or being treated for active cancer-related pain are excluded from these interventions.”

About 1.6 million Medicare beneficiaries met or exceeded opioid doses of 90mg MME for at least one day in 2016. The 90mg MME ceiling established by the CDC was only meant as a recommendation for primary care physicians, but has been widely adopted as a rule by other federal agencies, insurers, state regulators and prescribers.

'Cruel' Limits on Opioid Prescribing

"The 90 mg dose they set as a threshold for 'high' or overuse is flawed and not scientifically based.  It is totally arbitrary," says Lynn Webster, MD,  a pain management expert and past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine.  "It is cruel to impose such a limit on people with involuntary dose reductions who have been functioning well without signs of abuse for years.

"Even the 7 day limit is misguided at best. The average length of time a person requires an opioid post-op involves several factors and include the type of operation, the genetics of the person and the type of medication. The literature states the duration of pain requiring treatment with an opioid post-operatively is 4-9 days for general surgery, 4-13 days for women's health procedures and 6- 15 days for musculoskeletal procedures.  This means half of the Medicare patients will receive less than half of what they will need."  

Over 1,200 people left public comments in the Federal Register about the Medicare proposal, most of them sharply critical of CMS.

“This is archaic medicine and does more harm than one can imagine,” wrote pain patient Henry Yennie. “The DEA, HHS, private insurers, and now CMS are pursuing policies and restrictions that will cause harm and suffering to millions of people.”

“I cannot understand how Medicare can be so uncaring about the pain people have,” wrote Mikal Casalino, a 72-year old pain patient. “Limiting the dosage to an arbitrary amount is not going to be helpful for individuals.”

A joint letter opposing the rule changes was also submitted by 180 doctors and academics, including some who helped draft the CDC guidelines. The letter points out that a steep reduction in high dose prescribing since 2010 has not reduced the number of opioid overdoses. And it faults CMS for being focused on reducing the number of high dose prescriptions – not the quality of patient care.

“The proposal does not consider adverse impacts on pharmacies, physicians or patients…and it will accelerate patient abandonment,” the letter warns. “The plan avows no metric for success other than reducing certain measures of prescribing. Neither patient access to care nor patient health outcomes are mentioned.”

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.  The new Medicare regulations will go into effect on January 1, 2019.

Fewer Opioids Prescribed in Medical Marijuana States

By Pat Anson, Editor

The availability of medical marijuana has significantly reduced opioid prescribing for Medicaid and Medicare patients, according to two large studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

In one study, researchers at the University of Georgia looked at Medicare Part D prescription drug data from 2010 to 2015. They found that the number of daily doses prescribed for morphine (-14%), hydrocodone (-10.5%) and fentanyl (-8.5%) declined in states with medical marijuana laws. However, daily doses for oxycodone increased (+4.4%) in those same states.

The drop in opioid prescribing was most pronounced in states that have medical marijuana dispensaries, as opposed to those that only allow home cultivation of cannabis for medical purposes.

“We found that prescriptions for hydrocodone and morphine had statistically significant negative associations with medical cannabis access via dispensaries,” wrote lead author W. David Bradford, PhD, Department of Public Administration and Policy at the University of Georgia.

“Combined with previously published studies suggesting cannabis laws are associated with lower opioid mortality, these findings further strengthen arguments in favor of considering medical applications of cannabis as one tool in the policy arsenal that can be used to diminish the harm of prescription opioids.”

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The second study, by researchers at the University of Kentucky, looked at Medicaid prescriptions from 2011 to 2016, and found a 5.88% decline in opioid prescribing in states with medical marijuana laws.  Opioid prescribing for Medicaid patients fell even more -- by 6.38% -- in states where the recreational use of marijuana is legal.

“These findings suggest that medical and adult-use marijuana laws have the potential to reduce opioid prescribing for Medicaid enrollees, a segment of population with disproportionately high risk for chronic pain, opioid use disorder, and opioid overdose,” wrote lead author Hefei Wen, PhD, University of Kentucky College of Public Health.

One weakness of both studies is that they did not determine if Medicaid and Medicare patients reduced their use of opioid medication because they were using cannabis.  They also only included patients that were elderly, poor or disabled. And they were conducted during a period when nationwide opioid prescribing was in decline.

A recent study by the RAND corporation found little evidence that states with medical marijuana laws experience reductions in the volume of legally prescribed opioid medication. RAND researchers believe some pain patients may be experimenting with marijuana, but their numbers are not large enough to have a significant impact on prescribing. 

"If anything, states that adopt medical marijuana laws... experience a relative increase in the legal distribution of prescription opioids," the RAND study found. "Either the patients are continuing to use their opioid pain medications in addition to marijuana, or this patient group represents a small share of the overall medical opioid using population." 

Although 29 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana and a handful of states allow its recreational use, marijuana remains illegal under federal law.