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Mitigating Fraud, Waste, and Abuse of Opioid Medications

Proactive screening for fraud, waste and abuse situations is the best way to minimize their effects on opioid management.

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There’s a fine line between instances of fraud, waste, and abuse. One of the key differences is intent and knowledge. Fraud is knowingly and willfully defrauding a health care benefit program for personal gain or profit. Each of the parties to a claim has opportunity and motive to commit fraud. For example, an injured worker might fill a prescription for pain medication only to sell it to a third party for profit. A prescriber might knowingly write prescriptions for certain pain medications in order to receive a “kickback” by the manufacturer.

Waste is overuse of services and misuse of resources resulting in unnecessary costs, whereas abuse is practices that are inconsistent with professional standards of care, leading to avoidable costs. In both situations, the wrongdoer may not realize the effects of their actions. Examples of waste include under-utilization of generics, either because of an injured worker’s request for brand name medication, or the prescriber writing for such. Examples of abusive behavior are an injured worker requesting refills too soon, and a prescriber billing for services that were not medically necessary.

Actions that Interfere with Opioid Management

Early intervention of potential fraud, waste, and abuse situations is the best way to mitigate its effects. By considering the total pharmacotherapy program of an injured worker, prescribing behaviors of physicians, and pharmacy dispensing patterns, opportunities to intervene, control, and correct behaviors that are counterproductive to treatment and increase costs become possible. Certain behaviors in each community are indicative of potential fraud, waste, and abuse situations. Through their identification, early intervention can begin.

Injured workers

  • Prescriber/Pharmacy Shopping – By going to different prescribers or pharmacies, an injured worker can acquire multiple prescriptions for opioids. They may be able to obtain “legitimate” prescriptions, as well as find those physicians who aren’t so diligent in their prescribing practices.
  • Utilizing Pill Mills – Pain clinics or pill mills are typically cash-only facilities that bypass physical exams, medical records, and x-rays and prescribe pain medications to anyone—no questions asked.
  • Beating the Urine Test – Injured workers can beat the urine drug test by using any of the multiple commercial products available in an attempt to mask results, or declaring religious/moral grounds as a refusal for taking the test. They may also take certain products known to deliver a false positive in order to show compliance. For example, using the over-the-counter Vicks® inhaler will show positive for amphetamines in an in-office test.
  • Renting Pills – When prescribers demand an injured worker submit to pill counts (random or not), he or she must bring in their prescription bottles. Rent-a-pill operations allow an injured worker to pay a fee to rent the pills needed for this upcoming office visit.
  • Forging or Altering Prescriptions –Today’s technology makes it easy to create and edit prescription pads. The phone number of the prescriber can be easily replaced with that of a friend for verification purposes. Injured workers can also take sheets from a prescription pad while at the physician’s office.

Physicians

  • Over-Prescribing of Controlled Substances – By prescribing high amounts and dosages of opioids, a physician quickly becomes a go-to physician for injured workers seeking opioids.
  • Physician dispensing and compounded medication – By dispensing opioids from their office, a physician may benefit from the revenue generated by these medications, and may be prone to prescribe more of these medications for that reason. Additionally, a physician who prescribes compounded medications before a commercially available product is tried may have a financial relationship with a compounding pharmacy.
  • Historical Non-Compliance – Physicians who have exhibited potentially high-risk behavior in the past (e.g., sanctions, outlier prescribing patterns compared to their peers, reluctance or refusal to engage in peer-to-peer outreach) are likely to continue aberrant behavior.
  • Unnecessary Brand Utilization – Writing prescriptions for brand medication when a generic is available may be an indicator of potential fraud, waste, or abuse.
  • Unnecessary Diagnostic Procedures or Surgeries – A physician may require or recommend tests or procedures that are not typical or necessary for the treatment of the injury, which can be wasteful.
  • Billing for Services Not Provided – Since the injured worker is not financially responsible for his or her treatment, a physician may mistakenly, or knowingly, bill a payer for services not provided.

Pharmacies

  • Compounded Medications – Compounded medications are often very costly, more so than other treatments. A pharmacy that dispenses compounded medications may have a financial arrangement with a prescriber.
  • Historical Non-Compliance – Like physicians, pharmacies with a history of non-compliance raise a red flag. In states with Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMPs), pharmacies who fail to consult this database prior to dispensing may be turning a blind eye to injured workers filling multiple prescriptions from multiple physicians.
  • Excessive Dispensing of Controlled Substances – Dispensing of a high number of controlled substances could be a sign of aberrant behavior, either on behalf of the pharmacy itself or that injured workers have found this pharmacy to be lenient in its processes.

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Clinical Tools for Opioid Management

Once identified, acting on the potential situations of fraud, waste, and abuse should leverage all key stakeholders. Intervention approaches include notifying claims professionals, sending letters to prescribing physicians, performing urine drug testing, reviewing full medical records with peer-to-peer outreach, and referring to payer special investigative unit (SIU) resources. A program that integrates clinical strategies to identify aberrant behavior, alert stakeholders of potential issues, act through intervention, and monitor progress with the injured worker, prescriber, and pharmacy communities can prevent and resolve fraud, waste, and abuse situations.

Proactive Opioid Management Mitigates Fraud, Waste, and Abuse

Opioids can be used safely when properly monitored and controlled. By taking proactive measures to reduce fraud, waste, and abuse of opioids, payers improve injured worker safety and obtain more control over medication expenses. A Pharmacy Benefit Manager (PBM) can offer payers an effective opioid utilization strategy to identify, alert, intervene upon, and monitor potential aberrant behavior, providing a path to brighter outcomes for all.

This article was produced by Helios and not the Risk & Insurance® editorial team.



The Optum workers’ compensation and auto no-fault division works to collaborate with our clients to deliver value beyond transactional savings while helping ensure injured parties receive safe and effective clinical care throughout the life of their claim. Our innovative and comprehensive cost management programs include pharmacy care services, ancillary benefit management, medical services, and settlement solutions.

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