Employers Adding Stem Cell Options to Insurance Plans

By Liz Szabo, Kaiser Health News

A Midwestern grocery chain, Hy-Vee, is taking an unusual approach to reducing health care costs. Before employees in certain cities can undergo knee replacement, they first must visit a stem cell provider.

Hy-Vee has contracted with one of the United States’ leading stem cell companies — Regenexx, based in Des Moines, Iowa — that claims injections of concentrated bone marrow or platelets can help patients avoid expensive joint surgery.

Regenexx has persuaded over 100 employers to include its services in their health insurance plans. In a marketing booklet, Regenexx, whose injections range in price from $1,500 to $9,000, notes that its treatments cost a fraction of major surgery.

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A single knee replacement ranges from $19,000 to $30,000 in the U.S.

Health insurance typically doesn’t cover stem cell injections, with the exception of certain accepted treatments, such as bone-marrow transplants for cancer and aplastic anemia.

Aetna, the United States’ third-largest health insurer, dismisses stem cells and platelet injections as experimental; Anthem, the country’s second-biggest health insurance provider, classifies the injections as “not medically necessary.” Without insurance coverage, patients are forced to pay out-of-pocket or forgo treatment.

So instead of dealing with disapproving insurance executives, Regenexx appeals directly to employers large enough to fund their own health plans. These businesses have the freedom to customize their plans, covering services that aren’t part of a standard insurance package.

In a statement, Regenexx said its goal is to “replace more invasive surgical orthopedics” with nonsurgical options, noting that recent research has found many joint operations are ineffective. On its website, Regenexx claims its procedures “repair and regenerate damaged or degenerated bone, cartilage, muscle, tendons, and ligaments.”

In a bone marrow stem cell procedure, for example, a doctor withdraws bone marrow cells from a patient’s hip, concentrates them, then reinjects them into a problem area, such as an arthritic knee. Doctors target the exact location in the joint using ultrasound. For a “platelet-rich plasma” treatment, doctors draw blood, concentrate the platelets, then inject them into the target area.

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Regenexx, previously known as Regenerative Sciences, is one of the oldest stem cell companies in the U.S. When it opened its doors in 2005, it had only a handful of competitors.

Today, there are more than 1,000 stem clinics in the U.S., said Leigh Turner, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Bioethics, who has published a series of articles describing the stem cell market.

At times, Regenexx has clashed with the Food and Drug Administration. In 2010, for example, Regenexx sued the FDA, claiming the agency lacked the authority to regulate its procedures, which involved culturing stem cells before reinjecting them into patients. Regenexx lost its case and was countersued by the FDA, which charged that Regenexx was marketing an unapproved drug. In 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington sided with the FDA, forcing Regenexx to stop performing the controversial procedures.

Today, Regenexx performs this procedure only in the Cayman Islands, where the government allows it. The Cayman Islands, where there is less government regulation of health care, has become known as a medical tourism destination, Turner said.

Regenexx says that the treatments offered at its U.S. clinics comply with FDA regulations, which require that cells injected into patients undergo no more than “minimal manipulation.”

On its website, Regenexx lists more than two dozen studies led by its doctors. For example, its chief medical officer, Dr. Chris Centeno, published a small study last year that found patients with knee arthritis who received bone marrow and platelets fared better than those randomly assigned to exercise therapy.

Other research suggests stem cells and platelets may work no better than placebos. In a recent analysis, over 80% of patients with knee arthritis experienced a noticeable improvement in pain after receiving simple saltwater injections.

There’s also no definitive evidence stem cells and platelets can regrow lost cartilage. A 2018 review concluded platelets have “marginal effectiveness,” and experts note that most published studies are so small or poorly designed that their results aren’t reliable.

Corporate Boosters

Corporate executives have become some of Regenexx’s biggest boosters. Hy-Vee’s former chairman and CEO, Ric Jurgens, appears in a Regenexx marketing brochure and says that he turned to Regenexx because of heel pain. The brochure, which was removed from a Regenexx website after Kaiser Health News began reporting this story, quotes Jurgens as saying, “I knew that giving our employees the chance to explore options besides surgery was in their best interest.”

Hy-Vee did not make Jurgens or other employees available to interview.

Perhaps Regenexx’s best-known corporate client is Des Moines-based Meredith Corp., which owns multiple TV and radio stations, as well as magazines such as Better Homes & Gardens.

Steve Lacy, Meredith’s former CEO and current board chairman, said he underwent a Regenexx procedure two years after his company began covering stem cell treatments. He had been facing knee surgery and thought stem cells were worth a try.

The procedure got him back to doing everything he wants to do, Lacy said, even running several days a week. He also has done daily physical therapy for over two years. “The rehab and recovery is far less onerous” with the Regenexx procedure than with surgery, Lacy said. “If the procedure doesn’t work for an individual, there’s no harm.”

Meredith has spent about $400,000 in four years on 85 employees who have had Regenexx treatments, or about $4,700 a patient, said Meredith spokesman Art Slusark. That’s a small share of the roughly $75 million a year that Meredith spends on its medical plan, he said.

At its headquarters, Meredith has promoted Regenexx procedures through email, posters and “lunch-and-learn” sessions in the office, said Jenny McCoy, Meredith’s corporate communications director.

McCoy herself has become a poster child for Regenexx’s benefits. She and two other Meredith employees appear with Lacy in a marketing video on the Regenexx site:

Although McCoy had begun to experience knee and hip pain during exercise, she said in an interview that her pain was not severe enough to need surgery. McCoy underwent platelet injections two years ago and is pain-free today, she said.

“I thought, ‘If Meredith is covering it, I might as well have it done early before [the pain] causes me too many problems,’” said McCoy, 52. Given the price tag, she said, “I would not have done it otherwise. I wouldn’t have even known about it.”

‘Very Pushy’ Marketing

Some employers are, in fact, skeptical. The Des Moines Public Schools has opted not to add Regenexx to its employee health plan, said Catherine McKay, director of employee services for the school system. She said a salesman for a local stem cell clinic, which has since merged with Regenexx, told her the treatments could save the school system lots of money. McKay wasn’t sold.

“My experience with them has not been great, in terms of marketing and sales. They’re very, very pushy,” McKay said. “They claim they can get people back to work earlier” than surgery. “But if I still need knee surgery a year down the road, that doesn’t cut my costs.”

The Des Moines school system has agreed to consider covering Regenexx procedures as part of its workers’ compensation program on a case-by-case basis, McKay said. The school system has not signed a contract with Regenexx, however, and hasn’t included Regenexx in its health plan.

McKay said she knows of two school employees who have tried Regenexx. While one employee was satisfied with the results, McKay said, another “went through a couple procedures and ended up needing surgery anyway.” 

In response, Regenexx noted that many patients who undergo knee surgery are also unhappy with the results. Research suggests that up to one-third of those who have knees replaced continue to experience chronic pain, while one-fifth report that they are dissatisfied with the results of their surgery.

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

A Pained Life: Who Benefits From the Opioid Crisis?

By Carol Levy, PNN Columnist

For the first time in almost 40 years, I have to fight to get my codeine prescription filled.

I understand intellectually what so many pain patients have said about the frustration, upset and upheaval they experience when a pharmacist refuses to fill their prescription or insurance refuses to pay for it. Or harder still, what they go through having their opioid medications cut down or stopped completely.

But I did not understand the emotional side of it until it happened to me.

The insurance company refused to pay for my codeine prescription. They had no problem filling it for the last many, many years but suddenly they need "authorization" from the doctor. How does that make sense? Writing the prescription was authorizing. Why do they need to add a second permission?

It is now over three weeks. The pharmacist tells me they have contacted the doctor's office three times: "You need to call them and find out why they haven't responded."

When I call the office, they tell me the pharmacy never sent over the forms they need.

So I call the pharmacy back. They recite a fax number for the doctor’s office. It is not the right number. I give them the number the doctor's office just gave me. “We'll try it again right now,” she says.

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I keep my fingers crossed and hope I don't run out of pills before it is resolved — if it is resolved.

The pharmacy clerk and I talked the day the prescription was refused by the insurance company. I was venting my frustration over not being able to get the prescription filled, especially because it is the same prescription I have had for years, one that was always covered by my insurance.

To my surprise she says: "It is not just narcotics. Many insurance companies are refusing to cover or making unwarranted demands, requiring many more hoops to jump through. They have refused to cover certain creams and hormones, other prescriptions, non-narcotics that are routinely given and, until now, paid for by the insurance companies."

This is appalling. And makes no sense.  

But then I start thinking about it and was struck by a thought: Yes, there is an opioid crisis. And we’ve all heard the reasons they blamed patients for the “crisis.”  But I think there may be another factor at play: the profit margin.

After all, if we pay insurance premiums but they refuse to pay for our medication -- forcing some folks to pay cash rather than wait for all the rigamarole to be completed -- then the insurance company comes out way ahead. They get our monthly fees and work to make sure we get as little as possible in return. 

I hope I am merely being paranoid. But somehow, I doubt it.

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Carol Jay Levy has lived with trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic facial pain disorder, for over 30 years. She is the author of “A Pained Life, A Chronic Pain Journey.” 

Carol is the moderator of the Facebook support group “Women in Pain Awareness.” Her blog “The Pained Life” can be found here.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

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.

Tips for Surviving the Rising Cost of Healthcare

By Barby Ingle, Columnist

In my 20+ years as a chronic care patient, I have had over $1 million in medical bills. By the time I pass away, it may be nearing the $2 million mark for me.

Although insurance covered most of my healthcare costs, I’ve paid tens of thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses and deductibles. Chronic illness can wipe you out financially. I had to sell my house to help pay the bills. Family and friends pitched in by hosting medical fundraisers for me.

This was before I realized that I was overpaying, that I could negotiate some prices, and that there were time savers and tools I could use to help keep costs down.  Here are a few tips that I use to keep my medical expenses low.

Shop around for healthcare services. Use websites like Amino, BuildMyBod or Healthcare Bluebook to find out what your out-of-pocket costs are likely to be for an x-ray, lab test or doctor’s appointment. They can also help you choose an insurance plan that will cover the treatments you are most likely to need.

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Many providers have cash prices for procedures or tests that are lower than what they charge insurers. I have even paid cash to a provider, submitted the insurance claim myself and received a full refund.

Had my provider submitted the paperwork, it would have cost me more out-of-pocket and my care would have been delayed waiting for a prior authorization.

When it comes to prescriptions, check for deals, coupons and if generic medication is available. Don't be afraid to ask. Many pharmacy chains sign contracts with pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) that bind them not to tell a patient that the cash price would be lower, unless the patient asks first. This is known as a PBM clawback and it leads many patients to abandon their scripts because they don’t think they can afford to pick up the medication. 

Pharmacies, manufacturers and coupon companies offer discount pricing that can save you significant amounts.  Walgreen's has a prescription savings club, which can provide savings from $50 to over $100 on a 90-day supply of a medication. I primarily use Walgreen's, but if another pharmacy has a lower price for something like an antibiotic, I will go to them.

I also have my doctor sign my scripts “fill as written,” which can lower the cost of brand name medications run through my insurance card. Always check on how similar the generic is to the brand name. By law they only have to be 70% of the original formulation. The fillers used in generic drugs can vary, so things like time-released medication can work differently than the brand name. It’s important to check on this when looking at how much savings you can create. You want the generic medication to work just as effectively for you.

Walk-in clinics are becoming popular for routine care appointments. By my house there is an urgent care clinic and a Walgreen's clinic that offer online check-in so that patients can avoid lengthy waits. They call or send a text to let you know you are next, so you can head down and spend less time in their waiting room with other sick people. In major cities there are health fairs that offer free or low-cost medical services to uninsured and under insured patients.

I also utilize concierge providers through a monthly subscription. Anything the primary care provider can do in his office is included in the monthly fee, which if you pay quarterly or yearly will be even lower. Sometimes I don’t even have to go see the doctor, I can teleconference with him and he can just call in a script that I will get quicker and cheaper. I save the more expensive ER visits and specialty care for real emergencies like allergic reactions, broken bones, and other life-threatening situations I have had.

My final tip is the use of health apps that allow patients to check the prices of prescriptions, get discounts, print medical records, and store emergency information on your phone for paramedics to access. I like GoodRx and Needy Meds for finding the least expensive medications nearby. And I use HealthTune’s app for mindfulness music, which is a free streaming platform that offers scientifically researched music to support your health.  

No matter what choices you make to save money, the more organized you are with your healthcare and medical records, the better your future care will be. I’d love for you to share in the comment section what tips you use to keep your healthcare costs down.

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Barby Ingle lives with reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), migralepsy and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the International Pain Foundation. She is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics.

More information about Barby can be found at her website. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Opioid Medication Has Been a Godsend to Me

Susan Lay, Guest Columnist

I have been on pain medication for over 30 years, starting with Vicodin. My doctor at the time wasn't concerned about the hydrocodone in Vicodin as much as he was the amount of acetaminophen in it, as it could destroy my liver.

He sent me to an anesthesiologist, who has been my pain doctor for over 20 years. After all the nerve blocks, physical therapy, imagery, TENS unit, spinal cord stimulator, pain pump, etc., I was given Roxicodone. Afterwards, OxyContin was created and then time released OxyContin.

I couldn't tolerate them, so he gave me fentanyl patches (which were new on the market) with fentanyl lozenges for breakthrough pain. My insurance eventually denied the lozenges. The patches were wonderful because I had no feelings of being “high” like other drugs. They made it possible for me to continue working and have a life. I have used the patches since that first day and they've been a Godsend.

Subsys spray was prescribed for breakthrough pain about 6 years ago, but at $22,000 a month, my insurance only paid for a year.

I'm so fortunate to still have the same doctor, although he's getting older and will retire soon. My main issue has been with pharmacies. I live in a very rural area of California and about 2 years ago my regular pharmacy refused to fill any opioids due to DEA and other concerns. My doctor has continued to write scripts for me, but I found them extremely difficult to fill. All the pharmacies I tried, including Walmart, Rite Aid, Walgreens and Safeway, denied me. Some felt uneasy, would only fill a script for 2 months, or just plain would not fill them!

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I tried mail order prescriptions, but they eventually stopped. I tried a small pharmacy 2 hours away, but had to talk the pharmacist into it, after he requested 6 months of medical records and advised me they would only fill my prescriptions every 30 days, with no early refills for vacations.

All has been good this past year, although I don't know if my insurance will continue to cover my meds. I'm 70 and on Medicare Part D. I've never increased the amount of patches or strength I use. I have Dilaudid for breakthrough pain, which doesn't help much, but some. I do what many other pain patients do to get their medication: drive for hours to my doctor once a month, undergo drug tests, sign pain contracts, and use no alcohol. I must go to office if they call for a drug count.

I discovered withdrawal from the fentanyl patches isn't as horrible for me as it is for addicts who just want to get high. I've had to go without for 5-6 days a few times, when the pharmacy was closed or I couldn't get to the doctor. My doctor explained that those in real pain are wired differently and withdrawal is usually easier. He did give me a script for methadone if I'm ever in that position again.

I feel extremely lucky to have a doctor who actually cares enough to help his patients. His contract says if any patient must go off opioids (for missing an appointment, using alcohol or whatever) he will assist us through withdrawal so we don't suffer.

It's the insurance and pharmacies that are causing us so many problems. Does anyone in other states have these issues? Marijuana is legal in California and we're a progressive state, yet even in my small rural area we're having major issues. Several pharmacies have closed, due to scrutiny by the DEA and other government involvement. It's not worth it to be constantly going through records and double-checking the way they do things.

Insurers and pharmacists have more power than doctors. Even with an honest and necessary prescription, they continue to over-ride doctors’ decisions. Pharmacists refuse to fill for quantities doctors have written, even when insurance agrees with that quantity. When a doctor speaks to the pharmacist, it makes no difference. When did pharmacists become doctors? The same goes for insurance companies that now refuse to pay for prescriptions they've covered for years.

I just don't get it. I'll do anything I can to fight FOR chronic pain patients and AGAINST those who don't give a damn about us and think if you use opioids you're a drug addict!

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Susan Lay is a retired nurse and day care operator. She lives with chronic shoulder and knee pain.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us. Send them to editor@painnewsnetwork.org

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Insurers Promise More Cuts in Rx Opioids

By Pat Anson, Editor

Less than two weeks before its final report is due, President Trump’s opioid commission held its fourth and final public meeting Friday – hearing testimony from top government officials and insurance industry executives about the nation’s worsening overdose crisis.

“Insurance companies are going to be a very, very important part of whether we will be able to stem the tide here or whether we’re not,” said commission chairman Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.

It was clear from their testimony that many insurers are planning to tighten access to prescription opioids even more than they already have.

Aetna’s chief medical officer told the commission the insurance giant was planning to reduce “inappropriate opioid prescribing” to its members by 50 percent within the next five years.  He did not explain what would be considered inappropriate.

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Aetna has already sent warning letters to hundreds of physicians and dentists identified as “super-prescribers,” urging them to reduce the number of opioid prescriptions they write.

“We’re now re-running our analysis and planning more aggressive interventions for those providers who haven’t improved their opioid prescribing habits over the past several months,” said Harold Paz, MD.  

The chief medical officer of Cigna said his company was close to achieving a 25 percent reduction in coverage of opioid prescriptions, a priority it set last year.

“That’s only the first of our goals,” said Alan Muney, MD.

Insurer Harvard Pilgrim said its coverage of opioid prescriptions has declined by over 20 percent since 2014.

“That’s not enough.  This feels like a balloon where you tap on one end and it comes out somewhere else. So it doesn’t mean we’re even close to solving this,” said Michael Sherman, MD, chief medical officer of Harvard Pilgrim.

Insurers clearly have the ear of the federal government when it comes to opioids. As PNN has reported, an obscure federal advisory group composed of insurers, law enforcement, and federal and state regulators has discussed eliminating opioid prescriptions for acute pain, as well as paying doctors not to prescribe opioids.

The Healthcare Fraud Prevention Partnership also wants access to the “personally identifiable and protected health information” of 57 million Medicare beneficiaries to see if they are abusing opioids.

Reducing Opioids a ‘Win-Win’

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta said reducing opioid prescriptions was important to get unemployed Americans back into the workforce. He cited a recent study that found that about a third of unemployed men aged 25 to 54 were using prescription painkillers.   

“Reducing the amount of opioids is a win-win across the board. It’s a win for the individual who doesn’t want to get hooked,” Acosta said. “It’s a win for the insurance companies who don’t want to be paying for medicines that people don’t need. And it’s a win for the American workforce, because if we can get people back to work and paying taxes and participating fully, that’s a win for them and it’s a win for the country.”

Acosta cited no studies that might indicate how many Americans currently taking opioids would become unemployed or disabled if their pain medication was reduced or taken away. 

No pain patients, patient advocates or experts in pain management were asked to appear before the commission. No one from the pain community has testified during any of the commission’s public meetings, although thousands have submitted written comments.

An interim report released by the opioid commission in July focused on expanding access to addiction treatment and developing new ways of treating pain without opioids. Since then, the commission has increasingly focused on limiting opioid prescriptions. The final report from the commission is expected November 1.

The interim report also strongly urged President Trump to declare a national emergency to speed up efforts to combat the overdose crisis, something he has yet to do.  “We’re going to be doing it in the next week,” Trump told reporters on Monday.  However, there appears to be little consensus in the administration about what actions to take after an emergency is declared or how to pay for them.

"Everyone wants opioids to be a priority, but there's a lot of resistance to calling it an emergency," a senior administration official told Politico.

Insurers Behind Medicare’s ‘Big Brother’ Opioid Policy

By Pat Anson, Editor

The insurance industry appears to have played a major role in the development of a new strategy by the federal government to combat the abuse of opioid pain medication.

As Pain News Network has reported, the plan calls on pharmacists to report suspicious activity by doctors who prescribe opioids to Medicare and Medicaid patients (see “Medicare Takes ‘Big Brother’ Approach to Opioid Abuse”). Individual profiles of patients, their behavior, and opioid use would also be created and shared among insurance providers.

The plan was outlined earlier this month by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) in the agency’s proposed “Opioid Misuse Strategy.” 

The CMS plan closely follows a 62-page “white paper” prepared by the Healthcare Fraud Prevention Partnership (HFPP), a coalition of private insurers, law enforcement agencies, and federal and state regulators formed in 2013 to combat healthcare fraud. 

The white paper, however, goes far beyond fraud prevention by recommending policies that will determine how a patient is treated by their doctor, including what medications should be prescribed.  It states that all physicians should follow the opioid prescribing guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even though the guidelines are voluntary and explicitly state they are not intended for all prescribers.

The white paper was drafted largely by insurance companies – called “Partner Champions” -- including Aetna, Anthem, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Cigna, Highmark, Humana, Kaiser Permanente and the Centene Corporation.

“These HFPP Partner Champions have committed themselves to the creation of an HFPP White Paper that describes the best practices for serious consideration by all healthcare payers and other relevant stakeholders to effectively address and minimize the harms of opioids,”  the white paper states.

“Through coordinated action, payers, including members of the HFPP, have the opportunity to dramatically influence and reduce opioid misuse in the U.S. Simple actions performed systematically across a large group of stakeholders can considerably decrease the toll of prescription opioid misuse and OUD (opioid use disorder) in the U.S.”

Physicians and Patients Left Out

No other stakeholders in healthcare, such as physicians, pharmacists, hospitals or patients, were involved in a “special session” of the HFPP last October that led to the drafting of the white paper.

“It’s concerning that CMS appears to have developed a policy proposal regarding opioid prescribing solely on the basis of advice from a group dominated by the insurance industry, without asking for input from affected healthcare professional groups,” said Bob Twillman, PhD, Executive Director of the Academy of Integrative Pain Management, an organization of physicians who specialize in pain care.

“We have to be mindful of the vested interests of insurance companies in this issue. Some advocates have argued that pharmaceutical manufacturers have wielded outsized influence in previous policy decisions, but there has been precious little focus on the influence of payers, which seems obvious in this case.”

CMS contracts with dozens of private insurance companies to provide health coverage to about 54 million Americans through Medicare and nearly 70 million in state-run Medicaid programs.

“Who exactly are the individuals who put this information together for CMS… and what is their true aim?” asks Ingrid Hollis, the mother of a chronic pain patient. “It looks to me like collusion between insurance companies and federal agencies to cut costs.

“Senior citizens and those disabled with progressive painful diseases or injuries deserve better treatment than this. To single this community out for draconian policies based on what looks like purely profit motives in the name of ‘harm reduction’ is inhumane. Who is truly being harmed here?”

“When they describe insurance companies involved in their efforts as ‘Champions,’ it calls to mind comic book and movie heroes like Superman.  Superman was noble, his motives pure.  I don't think of profit-conscious insurers as being noble or pure in motive,” said Anne Fuqua, a disabled nurse, pain patient and patient advocate. 

“Involving insurance companies in setting policies that directly or indirectly impact prescribing and/or reimbursement presents a conflict of interest.”

Stewards, Stockers and Demanders

Under the proposed CMS policy, information about doctors and patients who’ve been red flagged by pharmacists for suspicious prescribing would be shared through a CMS database with all insurers. The companies would then be empowered to “investigate provider and beneficiary behaviors that may be indicative of fraud or abuse.” Violators could be dropped from insurance networks or lose their coverage.    

The HFPP white paper goes further, recommending that insurers develop profiles of each patient and classify them in one of three groups based on their behavior:

  1. “Stewards” (patients who follow guidelines)
  2. “Stockers” (patients who stockpile unused medications)
  3. “Demanders” (patients who ask for medication)

“Segmenting patients by intentions/behaviors with regards to opioid prescriptions could help payers better target messages and disseminate tailored communications that are most salient to the recipient,” the white paper states.

“For example, stewards may be those who are more likely to adhere to the CDC guideline and seek non-pharmacologic or non-opioid pharmacologic therapies for chronic pain and stockers may be those who are likely to ask for an opioid prescription/have received an opioid prescription for chronic pain in the past.”

A data analysis of patients and doctors, according to the white paper, could also be used by insurers to develop computer models to identify “problematic actors and schemes” and “deny payments for prescriptions that do not conform to general prescribing practices.”

“The HFPP strongly encour­ages collaborative efforts to develop and widely disseminate effective strategies to identify: patients at risk of opioid misuse or OUD, providers whose opioid prescribing patterns fail to comply with quality indicators (such as the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain), and methods that are particularly ef­fective at preventing or treating OUD,” the white paper states.

But critics say the profiling of patients and doctors, as well as the sharing of data from prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs), amounts to an invasion of privacy.

“PDMP data contains some of the most sensitive health information that is produced.  When PDMPs were introduced, confidentiality protections were stressed and prescribers and pharmacists could review the information,” says Anne Fuqua.

“Now, CMS is discussing their plan to provide open access to insurers participating in their database.  They flip between arguments that this will help insurers make sure people get needed treatments for addiction and fraud detection.  It's clear that detection of fraud and conserving on drug costs is the primary focus.”

Non-Opioid Treatments Encouraged

Like the CDC guidelines, the white paper discourages the use of opioid pain medication, and recommends that over-the-counter pain relievers such as aspirin, acetaminophen and ibuprofen be used as an alternatives, as well as “non-pharmacological” treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy and chiropractic care. Addiction treatment drugs such as buprenorphine and methadone are strongly recommended for anyone showing signs of opioid use disorder.

“Clinicians should consider opioid therapy only if expected benefits for both pain and function are anticipated to outweigh risks to the patient. If opioids are used, they should be combined with non-pharmacologic therapy and non-opioid pharmacologic therapy,” the paper states.

Critics say the recommendations – and threats of sanctions against those who don’t follow them -- could interfere with the doctor-patient relationship.

"Proposals, like CMS' Opioid Misuse Strategy, aimed at combatting the prescription drug abuse crisis, while important, must be careful to not leave patients with a legitimate medical need without access to the treatments they and their doctors have determined are the best course of care,” the Alliance for Patient Access, a national network of physicians, said in a statement to PNN.

“Patient access can be impeded when physicians and patients feel threatened that they are being watched, may be reported, or their personal information shared by pharmacists and insurers. When that happens patients suffer and the physician-patient relationship, one based on trust, is strained.” 

“It should not be a surprise that insurance companies have been aggressively opposing the use of branded opioids. Their fiduciary responsibility is to their shareholders, not to patients,” said Lynn Webster, MD, past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. “Decisions by insurance companies are causing many patients to suffer. This is not right.”

“Patients and doctors don’t want insurance companies and other parties determining what is best for them.  Doctors have a medical degree, the experience, the knowledge and treatment plans are determined by the medical condition they are treating,” says Ingrid Hollis.

“They act in the best interest of the patient, and have pledged the Hippocratic Oath of ‘Do no harm.’ Can the same be said of the bean counters in the insurance industry? Insurance is interested in cost cutting and maximizing profits.  Doctors are trying to save lives.”

CMS has not said when it plans to implement its Opioid Misuse Strategy or if public hearings would ever be held on them. The agency has only said that in coming weeks it would release “statements reflecting the agency’s Medicare and Medicaid goals.”

The HFPP white paper was released publicly for the first time Tuesday on the CMS website, without any explanation of its broader meaning or impact on Medicare and Medicaid policies.

An HFPP infographic urging people "to fight healthcare fraud, waste and abuse" was also released on the government-run website, without any indication that it was largely developed by the insurance industry.

Pain Patients Say Insurers Interfering with Treatment

By Pat Anson, Editor

It’s no secret that health insurance companies have been raising deductibles and co-pays, and generally making it harder for chronic pain patients to get treatment – whether it’s opioid pain medication or alternative therapy like massage or acupuncture.

But recent actions by some insurers have healthcare providers and patients saying the insurance industry has gone too far in its effort to reduce opioid abuse and is interfering with the doctor-patient relationship.

“My own insurance company just acted as a physician to remove the meds that I need by blackmailing a kind-hearted pain doctor,” says Jennifer Nelson, who has suffered from Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) in her left foot for nearly two decades.

The “blackmail” Nelson refers to is a form letter her pain management doctor received from Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan warning that opioids, benzodiazepines and a muscle relaxant named Soma (carisoprodol) should not be prescribed together. Benzodiazepines such as Valium act as sedatives and are known to increase the risk of overdose when taken with opioids.

But Nelson says she’s used them safely for years to reduce pain, muscle spasms and to help her sleep.   

“Their threat is to pull their coverage from his office if even one patient tests positive for both opioids and benzodiazepines. So now my health insurance has become Big Brother?” said Nelson in an email to Pain News Network. She also included a copy of the form letter sent to her physician.

JENNIFER NELSON

JENNIFER NELSON

“There is no legitimate medical indication for this combination of controlled substances,” the letter from Blue Cross/Blue Shield (BCBS) says. “If the diagnosis is opioid abuse or dependence, the continued use of sedatives is contradicted and the continued use of opioid analgesics is against DEA regulations. If the diagnosis is legitimately chronic pain, benzodiazepines are still contradicted as they lead to a downward spiral of pain control and function.”   

The only downward spiral Nelson feels is from having her Valium tapered.

“The muscle spasms came back with a vengeance,” she says. “The second night I woke up and I thought someone was pulling my leg off.”

 “I am very concerned that an insurance company states there is ‘no legitimate medical indication’ for the combination of opioids, benzo's and Soma,” says Lynn Webster, MD, past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine.

No (insurance) payer nor the DEA should be making this type of dogmatic statement.  Such a statement will be used by the DEA to prosecute any provider who prescribes this combination.  It is inappropriate for either a payer or the DEA to determine what a legitimate medical indication is for any single or combination of drugs prescribed.”  

Webster agrees that combining benzodiazepines with opioids is risky, but says Blue Cross/Blue Shield went too far.

“What is most lacking from the letter is an alternative.  BCBS has a responsibility to offer alternatives to the providers on how to treat anxiety in people who also have pain and or opioid addiction and anxiety,” Webster wrote in an email to PNN.

“I agree the combination of opioids and benzos and other CNS depressants should be avoided, but if the payer wants to practice medicine then they should make it clear that they will pay for cognitive therapy and other alternatives as long as it is needed or pay for other medications that are not as risky as benzos. It is unacceptable to just abandon people with pain, anxiety and/or addiction.”

Aetna “Super Prescribers” Warned  

The insurance company Aetna sent a similar letter to nearly 1,000 physicians in August, warning them about their opioid prescribing habits. The doctors were identified as “super prescribers” by Aetna after a review of insurance claims.

"You have been identified as falling within the top 1 percent of opioid prescribers within your specialty," the letter states.

Aetna’s chief medical officer told The Washington Post the letter was not meant as a threat, but merely a note of caution.

"We're asking you to look at your practice...and identify if the way you're prescribing narcotics is best practice," said Harold Paz, MD. "And if it's not, here's an opportunity to improve."

Kaiser Permanente – an HMO -- is also urging doctors in its network to reduce opioid dosages to those recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC’s guidelines say prescribers “should avoid increasing dosage” over 90 mg of morphine equivalent units a day.

“That dose does nothing for me,” says Scott Michaels, who at age 55 is permanently disabled by severe back pain, arthritis and other chronic illnesses.

Michaels has a genetic condition that causes him to metabolize opioids quickly. For seven years, he’s been taking a daily opioid dose of 330 mg of morphine equivalent units – nearly four times what CDC and Kaiser Permanente recommend as a ceiling.

“I have a terrible metabolism so the medication goes right through me, hence the high dose. As of last month, Kaiser is reducing me 10% a month until I’m at 90 mg. I have no choice they said. The pain is already coming back and they don’t care,” said Michaels, who asked that we not use his real name.

“Kaiser is an insurance company and provider. To me that is a conflict of interest. I just don’t know what to do. It can’t be legal to withhold medication that has proven for me to work.”

Jennifer Nelson was also on a high dose of opioids that is now being reduced by her doctor to reach the levels recommended by the CDC. She says her health has deteriorated significantly and she’s worried about become bedridden.

“I lived a very high functioning life. My biggest fear is my seven year old not having a Mom to walk him to the bus stop," Nelson says. “Nineteen years and I've never overdosed or used my meds incorrectly. I submit to random urine tests and pill counts, and educated myself on my meds. So what do we do? Can insurance companies legally threaten doctors like that? And why are they quoting CDC guidelines when doing so? I'm infuriated. Exhausted, unable to sleep, gritting my teeth in pain, but infuriated.”

Insurers say their efforts to wean patients off high doses of opioids are producing results. Blue Cross/Blue Shield of California says its Narcotic Safety Initiative has resulted in an 11% reduction in members using the very highest doses and “prevented” 25% of all new opioid users from using the drugs for more than 90 days.  

Will these new policies also reduce the number of people dying from opioid overdoses?

Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Massachusetts – one of the first insurers to adopt tougher prescribing policies – says it has reduced the dispensing of opioids to its members by 15 percent since 2012.    But the new policies failed to slow the growing number of opioid overdose deaths in Massachusetts, which more than doubled.

Hoping to Survive the Weekend

By Sarah Daniels, Guest Columnist

How are chronic illness sufferers with life threatening problems supposed to be safe when the people working for the insurance companies, making life and death decisions about their medical care, have no medical training or background whatsoever?

Why is it up to some high school graduate whether or not I can get oxycodone? The same medication that a pain management specialist, primary care provider, neurologist, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome specialist, and 10 other doctors all agree I need to be on.

The is the same medication I was finally given permission to use after YEARS of suffering terrible pain every second of every day, being forced into physical therapy five different times, actually worsening my condition (it can be extremely dangerous for someone with Ehlers-Danlos to participate in physical therapy if the therapist has no knowledge of the illness), paying $8,000 for laser therapy with absolutely no results, and being forced to trial endless medications that are far more dangerous but cheaper for the insurance company -- just so I could be on a medication that we already knew was safe and worked with great results.

You know what is on my mind today? Whether or not I’ll be able to make it through the weekend without having a seizure and dying. NOT because I get seizures, NOT because my condition progressed so much that there is no hope, and NOT because the doctors don't know what is wrong with me or how to help me.

No, it is because a few people in some office working for a money hungry insurance company that has made a monopoly out of the health of our fellow citizens couldn't get their act together and figure out what was wrong on their end by 5 o clock Friday.

I was on the phone with Blue Care Network (Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Michigan) for hours Friday. HOURS! They couldn't tell me why I can't get my medication, just that I can't get it. They also wouldn't tell me if any of their rules or regulations changed.

They would only tell me that just because I never had a problem filling my meds before doesn't mean there isn't a problem now. They couldn't even tell me what the problem was!

I have the pharmacy, my primary care physician and my specialists all on my side, telling them I need the medication. Telling them how dangerous it will be if they don’t get this figured out. Telling them my life will be in jeopardy. And what is their response?

SARAH DANIELS

SARAH DANIELS

"Ma’am, I have no medical background so I can’t discern if that’s true or not.”  

Try Googling Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Open your eyes, your heart and have some compassion!

I have done everything right. I have all the authorizations I need and have taken my meds as prescribed, no matter what the circumstances have been. This is why people all over the United States are dying. This is why suicide rates have jumped since the new CDC opioid guidelines have been put in place.

If I could pay for the medication out of pocket I would, but I am on disability like a lot of other people. My money can either go toward my rent and utilities or my medical bills, but it doesn’t pay for both. Most of the time I am struggling to have food on the table and gas in the car. I suppose on the bright side, with gastroparesis and a severe mobility disability, at least my need for both of those things is less.

You want to crack down on the heroin epidemic? How about allocating some funds for substance abuse and mental illness? How about counseling instead of jail time? Heroin addicts could care less about a rule or regulation. They will find a way to get high no matter what.

The war on opiates is killing chronic pain patients like me, who, if it weren’t for their medicine, would be bed ridden. We are the ones suffering. We are the ones paying for others’ choices and mistakes.

This isn’t right. Something has to be done. It’s 2016. There is no reason on earth that a 29-year old woman, a U.S. citizen, should have to worry about dying because they cannot get the medical care they need.

Sarah Daniels lives in the Detroit, Michigan area. She suffers from Ehlers Danlos syndrome and gastroparesis. Sarah is a proud supporter of the Ehlers Danlos National Foundation and the Gastroparesis Patient Association for Cures and Treatments (G-Pact).

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us.  Send them to:  editor@PainNewsNetwork.org

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

The High Cost of Anxiety Drugs Gives Me Anxiety

By Crystal Lindell, Columnist

I recently got a new prescription for a drug that’s supposed to help with my anxiety — which is a debilitating mix caused by opioid withdrawal and what I would call a base level of anxiety that runs through my bones.

The ironic thing about what happened is that when I went to pick up the anxiety medication, the cost of the prescription nearly gave me an anxiety attack — right there at the pharmacy.

The co-pay was $65.

It gets worse. My doctor wanted to gradually move me up on the dose, so he had ordered some 10 mg pills and some 20 mg pills. The insurance company wanted me to pay $65 for EACH dose! That’s $130. 

We need to talk about co-pays. There’s this misconception in America that if you have health insurance, then you don’t have to really worry about medical bills.

But that’s so incredibly not true. 

Listen, I wish a $65 co-pay for medication was no big deal for me. I wish I could just whip out some hundos every time I stopped in the pharmacy and throw them around like confetti, but alas, I am not a rapper or a Kardashian. 

So when my insurance company tells me that the medication I am taking is “not preferred” and thus comes with a $65 co-pay, I cry a little inside. Especially since it’s a monthly prescription.

Add in a couple other meds ($25/month) and I’m looking at $90 a month for prescriptions. That’s literally an electric bill, or four tanks of gas, or about 10 percent of my rent. 

I asked the insurance company if I could appeal the fact that it’s not their preferred medication, seeing as how I had what I thought were very valid reasons. 

1)  I had a horrific reaction to the one that is preferred, and ended up in the ER.

2)  As a response to the horrific reaction to the other drug, my doctor ran genetic testing to see which meds would work best for me, and after a lot of consideration we decided on this one.

3)  This is the medication my doctor chose.

But the insurance company was basically like, “Umm, yeah, no you can’t appeal.” Something about how they do technically cover it, so there’s nothing to appeal.

They literally tried to tell me that my doctor should just prescribe one of the preferred meds, completely ignoring the fact that my psychiatrist had literally spent hours with me talking about all the pros and cons before he decided on this one.

And then they had the audacity to act like it was no big deal. But if it’s no big deal, why don’t they pay the $65 then?

My $65 co-pay is just one small example of all the ways people with insurance can still find themselves with mountains of medical bills. There’s also the $30 co-pay for every single doctor’s appointment, and the $2,500 deductibles you run into every time you’re in the ER.

I live paycheck to paycheck, and all the medicals bills can make it hard to breathe. In fact, it’s enough to give a girl an anxiety attack.

Crystal Lindell is a journalist who lives in Illinois. She loves Taco Bell, watching "Burn Notice" episodes on Netflix and Snicker's Bites. She has had intercostal neuralgia since February 2013.

Crystal writes about it on her blog, “The Only Certainty is Bad Grammar.”

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.