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Oakland – Nearly 70% of federally mandated and approved Medicare settlements for injured workers require funding for decades of opioid use, often at dangerously high levels and in conjunction with other high-risk drugs. Such a requirement exceeds federal and state clinical guidelines and places patients at high levels of risk.
Workers’ Compensation Medicare Set-Aside (WCMSA) plans are required to set up reserves to cover Medicare beneficiaries’ future medical care for injured workers who are or will soon be Medicare eligible. A new California Workers’ Compensation Institute (CWCI) study examines data from 7,926 California WCMSA plans completed, submitted and approved by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in 2015 and 2016. Authors Alex Swedlow and Dr. David Deitz found that on average, insurers allocated $103,393 at the time of the injured workers’ settlements to cover the future medical expenses associated with their work injuries, with $48,986 (47%) of that amount set aside to pay for prescription drugs. Opioids were the number one type of drug included in WCMSAs, found in 69.4% of the approved plans, and overall, opioids accounted for 27.7% of all WCMSA prescriptions – more than twice the proportion of any other drug category. In terms of costs, the study found that with an average allocation of $33,113, opioids accounted for almost 1/3 of the total dollars reserved for prescription drugs. The opioid combination drug Hydrocodone-Acetaminophen (generally known as Vicodin® or Norco®) was the most common opioid found in the WCMSAs (44% of the opioid prescriptions in the plans, 20.7% of the dollars allocated for opioids), followed by Tramadol HCI and Oxycodone HCI, though even more powerful Fentanyl, linked to more than 20,000 deaths in 2016, accounted for 2.2% of the opioids and 6.6% of the total amount allocated for opioids in the approved plans.
Comparing opioids found in WCMSAs to a case-matched control group of closed workers’ comp permanent disability claims for similar injuries, the authors found that the WCMSAs called for much stronger opioids, as average cumulative morphine milligram equivalents (MMEs) allocated to WCMSAs with opioids were 45 times the level used in the control group during the life of the claim. Likewise, approved WCMSAs with opioids required funding for an average daily dose of 54.7 morphine equivalents (MEDs) for a period of 20.9 years, while 1 in 10 had allocations for a daily dose of 90 MEDs, a marker for elevated risk to the patient. In addition to requiring funds for long-term opioid use, many of the WCMSA plans also included reserves for simultaneous, long-term use of other potentially risky medications. For example, 14.5% of the WCMSAs with opioids also had reserves for sedative-hypnotics, and nearly 5% had allocations for sedative-hypnotics, muscle relaxants, and opioids.
Additional details from the study are available in a CWCI Report to the Industry, “Opioids in Workers’ Compensation Medicare Set-Asides.” CWCI members and subscribers can access the report at www.cwci.org and others can purchase it at the Store.