The Opioid Epidemic

More Comp Claimants Turning to Heroin

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

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]

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