As rates of prescription painkiller abuse remain stubbornly high, a number of states are attempting to cut off the supply at its source by making it harder for doctors to prescribe the addictive pills to Medicaid patients.
Recommendations on how to make these restrictions and requirements were detailed in a “best practices” guide from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
But the move is prompting worry from some physicians who say it could have the unintended consequence of keeping appropriate medical treatment from people with chronic pain.
The CMS protocols, released last January, encourage but do not demand that state Medicaid programs adopt more stringent coverage requirements for opioids, such as requiring physicians to get prior authorization before writing a prescription or stipulating that patients try other treatment options first, which is sometimes called “step therapy.” Patients may also have to provide proof that they meet certain medical criteria in order for their pain pills to be covered.
The goal is to make physicians think twice before prescribing the highly addictive medicines — a change many say is necessary, especially within the state-federal health insurance program for low-income people.
Because they can’t afford any other treatments and cannot miss even a day of work without getting fired.
They can take the form of seemingly straightforward controls such as limiting prescriptions to a one-month supply and requiring patients to pick up the doctors’ written refill order in person. For some, though, they are problematic.
This is really going to limit patient access,” said John Meigs, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, and a practicing doctor in Centreville, Ala. “There are patients with legitimate pain, who have legitimate need.”
- 46 Medicaid programs have put in place prescription caps,
- 45 require prior authorization,
- 42 need proof of meeting clinical guidelines and
- 32 allow the drugs only after patients have exhausted other options.
Some commercial plans are also using these kinds of strategies, though experts said it’s unclear how far that trend will spread.
“This is an indication that policymakers are finally recognizing that overprescribing of opioids is fueling the epidemic,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, a Brandeis University senior scientist and the executive director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, an advocacy group.
this perspective overlooks the separate, underlying challenge of treating a chronic condition.
“Just because it is now harder to prescribe patients opioid medicines, it does not mean we have fewer patients who have pain,” said Dr. Eric Weil, the associate chief for clinical affairs in internal general medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston
Such restrictions can become a difficulty, especially since Medicaid beneficiaries already are dealing with limited means.
For instance, a smaller prescription dose means patients — whose chronic pain makes making travel a hardship — have to visit the doctor more often for medicine. Not only is that difficult, it can absorb time and extra transportation money.
That kind of experience is leading some state Medicaid officials to seek a balance between limiting abuse and allowing reasonable access to medications.
But there can be a tension between these limits and coverage of other pain management options. For example, beneficiaries are limited to one visit with a pain specialist. They also can receive prescriptions for some less powerful and usually less effective pain medications.
years of budget cuts to the program mean it’s difficult to pony up the funds to properly cover a robust array of care options.
“We need much more to address this,” she said. “If you just cut off the pills, it’s not addressing the bigger picture.”
Dr. Steve Diaz, an emergency physician in Maine, who is consulting with that state’s Medicaid program as it develops its regulations.
The patients being squeezed often don’t have extra money to pay out of pocket for things such as acupuncture, tai chi or yoga class, all of which can sometimes be used to help manage pain, he noted.
That said, given the spread of opioid abuse, using insurance rules to curtail prescribing makes sense, he said. And while evidence is limited, restricting coverage has worked to drive down prescriptions of other particular drugs.
But “these are blunt instruments,” he said. “We do have to be thoughtful.”
And, experts noted, it’s still unclear if these strategies can make a difference.
Difference in what? Suffering? Suicide? Certainly not addiction rates which continue to climb in our increasingly hopeless society devastated by the effects of 3rd-world-style inequality.
“Will these policies have the intended effects? There’s very limited evidence [they will],” said Dr. Jonathan Chen, an instructor at Stanford University School of Medicine, who has researched opioid abuse. “On the other hand, the problem has grown to the point where we have to do something.”
They’d rather do something hurtful and stupid out of ignorance than risk doing nothing at all.