The Opioid Epidemic

More Comp Claimants Turning to Heroin

Efforts to limit opioid addiction are leading to heroin abuse.
By: | July 30, 2015 • 5 min read

An increasing number of workers’ comp patients who are addicted to opioid painkillers are now turning to heroin.

Experts talk about the growing problem, and how it could lead to more lawsuits against employers and others within the workers’ comp system. They also discuss how to spot red flags of possible heroin abuse, and ways to minimize use among workers’ comp patients — starting with more responsible painkiller prescribing to reduce opioid painkiller addiction, “the strongest risk factor for heroin addiction,” according to the Centers for Disease Control.

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Indeed, 45 percent of people who used heroin were also addicted to prescription opioid painkillers, the CDC contends. Between 2002 and 2013, the rate of heroin-related overdose deaths nearly quadrupled, and more than 8,200 people died in 2013.

Switching to heroin could “absolutely” lead to lawsuits, said Joseph Paduda, principal of Health Strategy Associates in Syracuse, N.Y. and president at the PBM consortium, CompPharma LLC.

“If an injured worker is on opioids and the workers’ comp payer cuts them off, then they might switch to heroin,” Paduda said. “Potentially the payer could find out and not cover their claim anymore, which could trigger a lawsuit for getting them addicted in the first place. I have no idea if it’s a viable case, but attorneys in many states can be quite creative.”

While utilization of opioids has dropped considerably in states like Texas that have made it more difficult for workers’ comp patients to get opioids, there is concern that some patients who had their opioid prescriptions cancelled are now resorting to heroin, he said. Other states like Ohio are now adopting a much more rigorous approval process for the initial use of opioids, with an even greater focus on patients prescribed long-acting opioids and renewals of prescriptions for longer than a few weeks.

“Ohio is doing something fundamentally different,” Paduda said. “The state is carefully planning its approach to addressing long-term opioid patients with an eye towards ensuring addiction treatment is available if and when workers’ comp patients need it.”

“Potentially the payer could find out and not cover their claim anymore, which could trigger a lawsuit for getting them addicted in the first place. … attorneys in many states can be quite creative.” — Joseph Paduda, principal, Health Strategy Associates; president, CompPharma

Andrew Kolodny, chief medical officer at New York City-based Phoenix House substance abuse treatment centers, said that people who become addicted to opioids and are having trouble maintaining a supply of painkillers are likely to switch to heroin if they live in an area where it is available. However, even though they may switch to heroin, prescription opioids are usually preferred because the medications are pure and the people are less likely to be arrested than if they were buying heroin from a drug dealer.

“Heroin use increased because the number of people who developed opioid addiction from exposure to prescription opioids increased sharply over the past 20 years,” Kolodny said. “The medical community needs to prescribe more cautiously so that we stop creating new cases of addiction.”

Mark Pew, senior vice president at Prium in Duluth, Ga., said that as it becomes more difficult for workers’ comp patients to secure opioids if they are misusing or abusing them, many of those patients switch to heroin because it’s less expensive and easier to obtain on the street than prescription drugs.

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“There is great concern, and rightfully so, that lawsuits on parties within the workers’ comp system could be forthcoming from patients claiming it was the doctor’s fault they became addicted to opioids and then heroin,” Pew said. “The liability costs associated with lawsuits and death benefits could be even greater with the addition of heroin because of its even higher possibility of abuse and misuse.”

Brigette Nelson, senior vice president, Workers’ Compensation Clinical Management Express Scripts in Cave Creek, Az. said that it’s really important to flag problematic claims, when workers “may be going off the rails before they start using heroin.”

“Physicians can monitor for medication abuse, as well as heroin use, with urine drug testing,” Nelson said. “Physicians can also check for needle tracks.”

“The medical community needs to prescribe more cautiously so that we stop creating new cases of addiction.” — Andrew Kolodny, chief medical officer, Phoenix House

Workers’ comp specialists can also check if the use of multiple medications is overly high, which can also lead to use of illicit drugs, she said. Express Scripts’ Morphine Equivalent Dose (MED) management program can help them with this, she said. The potency of various opioids can be equated to one another and to morphine. If someone is taking a strong opioid or multiple prescriptions, the values can be added to determine if the person is over a particular trigger limit.

The MED value can be calculated at the point of sale for a particular prescription, and other prescriptions coming from other pharmacies can be added, to determine if all of the prescriptions are over the recommended guidelines.

“We can flag these claims, and then the workers’ comp adjuster would need to authorize the prescription fill is it is appropriate for the patient,” Nelson said. “We also reach out to physicians to let them know the patient has exceeded the MED limit. This is also good in that it gives physicians a prescription history, as sometimes they may not know about prescriptions from different physicians.”

It’s really important that payers proactively manage opioid utilization and review concurrent therapy to ensure safe use, she said.

“The key is early intervention before it comes a problem,” Nelson said. “That’s where we come in as the PBM. Our programs can help prevent abuse or misuse of opioids, which in turn can prevent the potential for downstream addictions to illicit drugs like heroin.”

The most important thing is to prevent patients who do not have severe conditions from receiving opioids — “period,” said Gary M. Franklin, research professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington.

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“There is no evidence supporting the use of opioids for non-specific musculoskeletal conditions, headaches or fibromyalgia,” Franklin said. “If a prescription is needed, generally it should not go beyond 30 days. If a patient takes opoids for four to six weeks and then tries to withdraw,  they will experience physical withdrawal because they are already very likely dependent,  and that is the first step towards addiction.”

The CDC also recommends that health care providers use prescription drug monitoring programs and ask patients about past or current drug and alcohol use prior to considering opioid treatment; prescribe the lowest effective dose and only the quantity needed for each patient; link patients with substance use disorders to effective substance abuse treatment services; and support the use of FDA-approved MAT options (methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone) in patients addicted to prescription opioid painkillers or heroin.

Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a freelance writer based in California. She has more than two decades of journalism experience and expertise in financial writing. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

4 Companies That Rocked It by Treating Injured Workers as Equals; Not Adversaries

The 2018 Teddy Award winners built their programs around people, not claims, and offer proof that a worker-centric approach is a smarter way to operate.
By: | October 30, 2018 • 3 min read

Across the workers’ compensation industry, the concept of a worker advocacy model has been around for a while, but has only seen notable adoption in recent years.

Even among those not adopting a formal advocacy approach, mindsets are shifting. Formerly claims-centric programs are becoming worker-centric and it’s a win all around: better outcomes; greater productivity; safer, healthier employees and a stronger bottom line.

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That’s what you’ll see in this month’s issue of Risk & Insurance® when you read the profiles of the four recipients of the 2018 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Award, sponsored by PMA Companies. These four programs put workers front and center in everything they do.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top,” said Steve Legg, director of risk management for Starbucks.

Starbucks put claims reporting in the hands of its partners, an exemplary act of trust. The coffee company also put itself in workers’ shoes to identify and remove points of friction.

That led to a call center run by Starbucks’ TPA and a dedicated telephonic case management team so that partners can speak to a live person without the frustration of ‘phone tag’ and unanswered questions.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top.” — Steve Legg, director of risk management, Starbucks

Starbucks also implemented direct deposit for lost-time pay, eliminating stressful wait times for injured partners, and allowing them to focus on healing.

For Starbucks, as for all of the 2018 Teddy Award winners, the approach is netting measurable results. With higher partner satisfaction, it has seen a 50 percent decrease in litigation.

Teddy winner Main Line Health (MLH) adopted worker advocacy in a way that goes far beyond claims.

Employees who identify and report safety hazards can take credit for their actions by sending out a formal “Employee Safety Message” to nearly 11,000 mailboxes across the organization.

“The recognition is pretty cool,” said Steve Besack, system director, claims management and workers’ compensation for the health system.

MLH also takes a non-adversarial approach to workers with repeat injuries, seeing them as a resource for identifying areas of improvement.

“When you look at ‘repeat offenders’ in an unconventional way, they’re a great asset to the program, not a liability,” said Mike Miller, manager, workers’ compensation and employee safety for MLH.

Teddy winner Monmouth County, N.J. utilizes high-tech motion capture technology to reduce the chance of placing new hires in jobs that are likely to hurt them.

Monmouth County also adopted numerous wellness initiatives that help workers manage their weight and improve their wellbeing overall.

“You should see the looks on their faces when their cholesterol is down, they’ve lost weight and their blood sugar is better. We’ve had people lose 30 and 40 pounds,” said William McGuane, the county’s manager of benefits and workers’ compensation.

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Do these sound like minor program elements? The math says otherwise: Claims severity has plunged from $5.5 million in 2009 to $1.3 million in 2017.

At the University of Pennsylvania, putting workers first means getting out from behind the desk and finding out what each one of them is tasked with, day in, day out — and looking for ways to make each of those tasks safer.

Regular observations across the sprawling campus have resulted in a phenomenal number of process and equipment changes that seem simple on their own, but in combination have created a substantially safer, healthier campus and improved employee morale.

UPenn’s workers’ comp costs, in the seven-digit figures in 2009, have been virtually cut in half.

Risk & Insurance® is proud to honor the work of these four organizations. We hope their stories inspire other organizations to be true partners with the employees they depend on. &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]