Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Worst Kind of "Whack-a-Mole"

I've heard the "whack-a-mole" analogy applied to nearly every facet of business.  Frankly, it's a tired and worn out analogy.  But it's also an image that paints a clear picture of a common issue and, thus, we can't seem to escape its constant use.  We're always solving one problem only to create a myriad of unanticipated and unintentional consequences that require ever greater effort to address.  Hit one "mole" on the head and another quickly pops up elsewhere to take its place.

Yesterday, the Journal of the American Medical Association released a study that highlights the worst kind of "whack-a-mole" imaginable.

The good news: After the introduction of an abuse deterrent formulation of Oxycontin and the discontinuation of propoxyphene in the latter half of 2010, overall opioid prescriptions appear to have declined 19% vs. where we would have expected them to be.  Mind you, that's not a 19% reduction in scripts; rather, it's a 19% reduction vs. a statistical forecast of a line that was trending up.

So where did the next mole pop its head up?

During the same period, there was a 23% increase in heroin overdose.  

We can add this to the list of reasons abuse deterrent opioids are not the answer.

The study does not establish a causal link between the reduction in opioid scripts and the increase in heroin overdoses, but this phenomenon has been a recurring theme in various reports and studies across the country for some time now.  When Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick declared a public state of emergency in March of 2014, he cited both prescription opioid abuse and heroin overdoses as grounds for his decision.  Is it any wonder that just a week later, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts released an 18 month "check up" on its first-in-the-country program requiring pre-authorization for prescription opioids?  In it, BCBS brags that, starting in July 2012, they decreased claims for short acting opioids by 20% and long acting opioids by 50%.  And yet, the Governor is declaring a state of emergency in early 2014?  Could that be due to at least some portion of BCBS members whose Oxycontin was cut off turning to cheap street drugs?  Perhaps because the insurer, in an effort to stem the tide of prescription drug spend (instead of prescription drug abuse) failed to address the underlying medical issues faced by its members?

PRIUM's own parent company, Ameritox, produced a very compelling piece of research based on our own data that shows:

  • 4 out of 5 heroin users abused prescription drugs first
  • 56% of the time, in heroin positive samples, the opioid prescribed to the patient was not found
  • 66% of heroin users abused both heroin and prescription painkillers in the last month
The most cynical among us in workers' compensation will think (though never say publicly), "Fine with me.  I'm not paying for heroin and I can either settle or cease benefits on this claim with relative ease."  

Those of you that care about injured workers will see this data for what it really is - a warning.  A warning that we must be careful and measured and caring in our approach to issues of prescription drug misuse and abuse in workers' compensation. 

We haven't really solved a problem until we've addressed the underlying issues of dependence and addiction.   

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