It's mid-summer, and many of our readers are off on well-deserved vacations. For those who are still in the office (and are as fascinated as we are by all things ‘workers’ comp'), we are taking this opportunity to offer some updates to one of the major subjects we've been following and to provide a heads up about what we'll be highlighting later this year.
For more than two years, we've been profiling the challenges posed to the nation's workers and employers by opioids. We've tried to explain:
We've looked into what employers can to do (and their struggle with those activities) to reduce the likelihood that their injured workers will suffer the additional pain of a subsequent opioid addiction. And we've reported how some of America's medical professionals have contributed to (and profited dramatically by) the problem by prescribing so many of the drugs in inappropriate quantities and dosages.
Clearly, opioids as pain relief for workplace injuries have wreaked havoc across the country for at least two decades, and America's employers and employees have borne the economic and emotional brunt of that disaster.
However, increased attention to the issue has also increased responses to it, and all parties involved - employers, employees, insurers, healthcare providers, and government agencies - are now working in conjunction with each other to reduce the problem.
Consequently, we're now happy to report three good news stories about how those added attentions and intentions have had a positive impact on the opioid concern:
Recently released data reveals that in 2018, all 27 respondents to the 16th annual "Survey of Prescription Drug Management in Workers’ Comp" reduced their spending on opioids for injured workers by an aggregate of 23.2 percent in 2018. The drop signals the third year in a row that opioid spending was down, by 16% in 2017 and 13% in 2016.
Those reductions are the result of several changes in how medications are managed in the workers’ comp system. Insurers are now more careful about the number and dosage of opioids that they're will to cover, and ethical healthcare providers are reducing the numbers of opioid prescriptions that they write. And injured persons are also assuming more responsibility for their healthcare, by becoming more aware of the dosage and duration of prescriptions and moving off the drugs earlier in their recovery period.
In many cases, the shift in opioid usage reflects the growing reality that workers who remain on the drugs beyond medically accepted terms take longer to recover, are more likely to not return to work, and more likely to not regain their previous level of function even after they've recovered from the injury itself.
On a related note, in mid-July, the CMS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) for the first time suggested a willingness toauthorize the use of acupuncture treatments for their Medicare patients who suffer from chronic low back pain (cLBP). It's not available for everyone just yet, however; the agency issued a 'proposed' decision, indicating that they'd make a final determination on the question based on the results received by study participants who are enrolled patients in CMS-approved research or clinical trials sponsored by the NIH (National Institutes of Health).
Earlier in the year, CMS launched a National Coverage Analysis (NCA) of scientific evidence that supports or negates the use of acupuncture as a pain-relieving alternative to medical interventions such as opioids. While there's no posted information as to why cLBP is the current focus, again, statistics may reveal why the CMS chose that particular ailment. A 2016 National Health Survey showed that at least 50 million American adults suffered from some form of cLBP and that 19.6 million of those experienced "high impact chronic pain." Both levels of pain are associated with increased anxiety, depression, and, in many cases, opioid dependence. Using the non-medical intervention of acupuncture instead of opioids would be a game-changer for many people if it curtailed their pain and improved their quality of life without the need for opioids.
The NCA is also part of a Strategic Plan developed by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) to reduce the impact of opioids on Americans. The strategy includes four approaches to improved pain management that might assist with the alleviation of pain but not exacerbate the health situation with an unnecessary opioid addiction. The approaches include exploring for more non-opioid medical interventions; assessing the efficacy of non-pharmacological pain treatments such as acupuncture and biofeedback; finding adjunctive supports for cases where opioids remain the best pain controlling mechanism and developing strategies to improve opioid management practices so that opioid use disorders don't develop.
In a show of national unity, the NSC agreed publicly with the CMS and asserted its support of the decision to consider alternative pain treatment methods like acupuncture instead of opioids. The NSC put the opioid crisis in context by noting that the odds of dying prematurely because of a fatal opioid overdose have surpassed the odds of being killed in a car accident for the first time ever. The agency went on to encourage all employers and their benefits providers to consider accepting alternative pain treatments as a way to not just reduce the threat of opioid dependency but to avoid it altogether.
Both the reduction in opioid spending and the possibility of acupuncture coverage for controlling pain are significant strides toward a definitive solution to the opioid crisis. We will continue to monitor how the country is managing this scourge and keep our readers informed about how they can be part of that solution, too.
CompEx MSA also intends to explore its roots and will be providing an overview of the need for and development of Medicare Set-Aside accounts. Protections for worker safety and healthcare management have evolved over a long period that also saw the institution of mandatory work hours, minimum wages, and safe working condition standards. Through it all, employers have had to walk a fine line between profitability and maintaining attention to emerging government and industry regulations. The MSA is one tool they can use to make that process easier.
At CompEx MSA, we believe we can assist our clients better if we help them to better understand how the MSA process works and how it works within America's industries and communities. We will be launching that series next month.