Opioid Strategies

Bluegrass State Leads the Opioid Fight

Kentucky, long embroiled in the opioid epidemic, is turning its challenges into strategies that can help other states drive change.
By: | July 5, 2016

Central Appalachia earned a distinction as the epicenter of the nation’s opioid-addiction epidemic for a number of reasons.

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Two key factors are the complex injuries suffered by coal miners and the physical demands placed on workers toiling in other hazardous industries in that region such as logging and trucking.

Others include the region’s economic misfortunes, lax prescribing practices, access to pill mills, and pharmaceutical company marketing.  All led to an ongoing drug-abuse scourge that surfaced there in the 1990s, studies and observers report.

“Central Appalachia, which for us is eastern Kentucky, was one of the first areas to see the opioid epidemic explode in the 1990s,” said former Bluegrass State attorney general Jack Conway.

Jack Conway, former attorney general, Kentucky

Jack Conway, former attorney general, Kentucky

“Because in Appalachia you had mining, you had a lot of heavy industry, trucking, and more workplace injuries on average than you would in other parts of the state. You saw an increase in the prescribing and utilization of opioids and it created an addiction epidemic.”

Now, as the rest of the nation experiences opioid abuse patterns seen early on across Central Appalachia, Kentucky provides examples for battling back against the epidemic.

In 2012, Kentucky became the first state among jurisdictions adopting stricter prescription-drug monitoring programs (PDMPs) with objective criteria mandating when prescribers must register and review a state database of patient prescription histories, Brandeis University’s PDMP Center of Excellence reports.

State PDMPs seek to change provider prescribing practices and prevent patients from doctor-shopping to obtain multiple prescriptions.

Kentucky’s latest PDMP was born from a 2012 comprehensive law adopted to combat opioid abuse.

“Kentucky has a great [PDMP] system,” said Tom Clark, research associate for the Brandeis Center of Excellence. “It is very well supported by the state. Of course, this is all a response to Kentucky being in the epicenter of the prescription drug abuse epidemic and it has been for a long time.”

While all states except Missouri have PDMP laws, participation in many states remains voluntary, said Brian Allen, VP of government affairs for Optum workers’ comp and auto no-fault. In the last three years or so, however, more jurisdictions are making their use mandatory.

“There has been a lot more renewed emphasis on [PDMPs] because everybody has been trying to get their heads around this opioid problem,” he said.

A May 2016 Center of Excellence report with data from Kentucky and the other states indicates that increased PDMP use immediately impacts controlled substance prescribing and doctor-shopping.

Reports linking Central Appalachia’s work injuries to drug abuse have persisted for years.

Yet only a few states have laws as strict as Kentucky’s, requiring all prescribers to register and check their PDMPs when initially prescribing opioids and benzodiazepines, and again every three months when continuing the prescriptions, the PDMP Center of Excellence reports.

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Meanwhile, reports linking Central Appalachia’s work injuries to drug abuse have persisted for years.

A 2002 combined U.S. Justice Department and Kentucky State Police assessment described a growing threat from prescription painkillers. The threat was so specific to Appalachia that opioids and opiates became known disrespectfully as “hillbilly heroin.”

“In the eastern coal mining counties of Kentucky, the large-scale diversion and abuse of painkillers are particular problems,” the report warned.

“In the past, coal miners spent hours each day crouched in narrow mine shafts. Painkillers were dispensed by coal mine camp doctors in an attempt to keep the miners working.

“Self-medicating became a way of life for miners, and this practice often led to abuse and addiction among individuals who would have been disinclined to abuse traditional illicit drugs.”

Michelle Landers, VP and general counsel, Kentucky Employers Mutual Insurance

Michelle Landers, VP and general counsel, Kentucky Employers Mutual Insurance

Michelle Landers, VP and general counsel for Kentucky Employers Mutual Insurance, agreed that eastern Kentucky’s historical dependence on coal mines, and related service industries like trucking, helped link workplace injuries and chronic pain with opioid use.

KEMI, which issues policies to coal mines, is the Bluegrass State’s largest workers’ comp insurer.

Coal operations provide one of eastern Kentucky’s few employment opportunities. Mining also produces severe workplace injuries, caused by accidents such as accidents such as cave-ins or heavy machinery malfunctions, Landers said.

“It’s not an industry where you are going to have small injuries,” she elaborated.

“They are typically severe or the chronic type of injuries you expect from people being underground.”

Kentucky’s private-industry workers, in general, experience a high injury rate. U.S. Department of Labor statistics for 2014 ranked Kentucky among 19 states with a recordable injury rate significantly higher than the national average.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data for the same year, meanwhile, shows Kentucky among five states with the nation’s highest rate of overdose deaths.

Early Adopter

KEMI first discovered a frequent use of the narcotic OxyContin to treat work injuries after contracting with a pharmacy benefit manager in 2001, Landers said. The PBM data revealed questionable practices, such as doctors prescribing high doses of the drugs early in the course of treatment for back strains.

“We were seeing things out there about the high levels of addiction and [overdose] deaths and we didn’t want to contribute to that,” Landers said.

A 2015 study prepared by the Institute of Pharmaceutical Outcomes and Policy at the University of Kentucky reported that since the law’s passage,prescriptions for controlled drugs decreased 4 percent to 8 percent during the same period.

So KEMI became an early adopter of measures like educating adjusters and nurse case managers about the dangers of opioids and teaching them to recognize red flags, such as doctors prescribing the drugs for longer periods than typically appropriate.

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KEMI also used PBM data to identify frequently prescribing doctors.

“If you were treating with one of those [doctors] that might be a red flag,” Landers said.

KEMI’s concerted efforts included using its attorneys to engage in medical-fee disputes challenging claims before administrative judges when inappropriate prescribing occurred.

“We have, from early on, taken the approach that if we don’t feel it’s appropriate and we don’t get cooperation from the physician, we are going to challenge it,” Landers said.

Landers will speak at the 25th Annual National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference® & Expo on Dec. 1, during a presentation titled “Lessons Learned From Fighting Drug Abuse in the Opioid-Crisis Epicenter.”

The 2012 Kentucky law has limited prescription abuse. In addition to requiring prescribers to report to the state PDMP, it also regulated pain clinics.

A 2015 study prepared by the Institute of Pharmaceutical Outcomes and Policy at the University of Kentucky reported that since the law’s passage, prescribers registering with the PDMP increased by 262 percent, while annual prescriber queries into the PDMP rose 650 percent.

Prescriptions for controlled drugs decreased 4 percent to 8 percent during the same period.

 Cindy Whitehouse, CEO and founder, Ascential Care

Cindy Whitehouse, CEO and founder, Ascential Care

Appalachia still has issues, but the situation is improving.

Yet there remain pockets of physicians in Appalachia who still overprescribe opioids, said Cindy Whitehouse, CEO and founder of Ascential Care, a Lexington, Ky.-based managed care company.

But she agrees the law has helped, and other states could benefit from similarly stringent measures.

“I think we have more tools in the states that have been battling this [opioid epidemic] for some time,” Whitehouse said. “That has made us stronger in the ability to control it.”

Roberto Ceniceros is senior editor at Risk & Insurance® and chair of the National Workers' Compensation and Disability Conference® & Expo. He can be reached at [email protected] Read more of his columns and features.

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]