Monday, April 2, 2018
There have been innumerable articles about the opioid crisis and how to crack down on abuses. Medicare has joined the fight, announcing a limit on coverage of opioids. Medicare Is Cracking Down
on Opioids. Doctors Fear Pain Patients Will Suffer explains that Medicare concluded that it "would now refuse to pay for long-term, high-dose prescriptions; a rule to that effect is expected to be approved on April 2." Typically prescribing is the doctor's decision and this rule is may have wide-ranging impact, especially on those who are taking opioids appropriately. What happens to those who can't get their prescriptions refilled under Medicare as a result of this rule? One expert explained "'[t]he decision to taper opioids should be based on whether the benefits for pain and function outweigh the harm for that patient,” said ... an opioid researcher and associate professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. 'That takes a lot of clinical judgment. It’s individualized and nuanced. We can’t codify it with an arbitrary threshold.'"
The article explains that under this new rule Medicare's coverage would be limited to "seven days of prescriptions equivalent to 90 milligrams or more of morphine daily, except for patients with cancer or in hospice."
What is the purpose of this rule, other than a response to the opioid crisis? The article references an unnamed Medicare official "ho would speak only on background said that the limit for monthly high doses was intended not only to catch doctors who over-prescribe, but also to monitor patients who, wittingly or not, accumulate opioid prescriptions from several doctors. When the dose is flagged, the pharmacist or patient alerts the doctor." This means that the pharmacist will be a key player in this rule. The rule will have an appeals process that a doctor can pursue, but keep in mind the time it takes for an appeal, and a doctor's patient load, resulting in a time period where the patient would be without pain meds of this type.
The article ends quoting one doctor about the potential impact of the rule whose "concern is that our results could be used to justify aggressive tapering or immediate discontinuation in patients, and that could harm people — even if opioids have no benefit for their pain ... [and] [e]ven if we walk away from using opioids for back and knee pain, we can’t walk away from patients who have been treated with opioids for years or even decades now.... " The doctor added that there is looming "'a double tragedy for these people.'"