Monday, May 16, 2016

ProPublica: Drug Seeking Irony

Say the name "ProPublica" in a work comp meeting these days and watch what happens.  It's like a pinata at a little kid's birthday party... everyone takes a swing, only a precious few actually connect (but when they do connect, we all get candy... or something like that).  Metaphors and Mondays don't always mix.

By way of brief background, ProPublica is an independent, non-profit news organization that focuses on investigative journalism.  "Journalism in the public interest" is their tagline.  Regardless of how you feel about the organization, they've done good work in the past and the pieces they publish deserve at least a glance, regardless of where you think the organization sits on the political spectrum.

Over the last year or so, ProPublica's Michael Grabell and NPR's Howard Berkes have teamed up for a memorable series of articles on the work comp industry.  I chose the word "memorable" carefully - the aim of this post isn't to offer my view of the work.  Topics ranged from the state politics surrounding system change to how much one's arm would be worth if one lost it in a work-related accident, from the wisdom of opt-out initiatives to the appropriateness of benefit levels.  These articles were the source of much conversation and the target of a great deal of criticism, much of it obviously emanating from our industry.
Another of ProPublica's efforts that made news over the last couple of years was the publication online of a trove of Medicare Part D data in the form of a searchable database.  Journalists have used this data to identify trends in prescribing patterns that might be newsworthy.  Public health officials have used the data to develop and support both policy initiatives as well as fundamental research. Doctors and health systems have used the data to measure how they stack up against other groups.

And guess who else uses the data?  That's right!  Opioid seekers aiming to identify doctors most likely to prescribe pills. 

First of all, this isn't ProPublica's fault.  Secondly, they rushed to both publish their own story on this phenomenon and add additional warnings to their site regarding the dangers of opioid misuse and abuse.  So this is obviously a simple case of unintended consequences.  And frankly, the benefits of having the prescription data made public still outweigh the risks of inappropriate use.  The database is neither good nor bad; it's use makes it so.  

But it does beg the question: How many of those "drug seekers" on the ProPublica web site are injured workers?  And how many of them went to the site initially to satiate their appetite for complaining about the work comp system... and ended up learning where they might be able to get more opioids?

On Twitter @PRIUM1



  1. Hey Michael - Michael Grabell here from ProPublica. I looked into your question about how many readers navigated from the workers' comp series to the prescription data. We checked the analytics on this, and the answer is almost zero.

    1. Very much appreciate you looking into it. I only wish it was zero instead of "almost zero."

  2. Something is terribly wrong with workers' compensation - isn't it.