Tag: prescriptions

Is The ACA Helping to Fuel the Opioid Overdose Rate?

Leaders at all levels of government and civil society are alarmed at the continued rise, year after year, in the death rate from opioid overdose. The latest numbers for 2015 report a record 33,000 deaths, the majority of which are now from heroin. Health insurers are not a disinterested party in this matter.

Cigna, America’s fifth largest insurer, recently announced it has made good progress towards its goal of reducing opioid use by its patients by 25% by mid-2019. To that end, Cigna is limiting the quantities of opioids dispensed to patients and requiring authorizations for most long acting opioid prescriptions. Cigna is encouraging its participating providers to curtail their use of opioid prescriptions for pain patients and is providing them with data from monitoring the opioid use patterns of their patients with an aim towards reducing abuse.

In a Washington Post report on this announcement Cigna CEO David Cordani said, “We determined that despite no profit rationale—in fact it’s contrary to that—that societally we needed to step into the void and we stepped in pretty aggressively.”

No profit rationale?

Paying for fewer opioids saves the insurer money in the short run. And opioids have become costlier as “tamper-resistant” reformulations, encouraged by the FDA, have led to new patents allowing manufacturers to demand higher prices.

There is growing evidence that, as doctors curtail their opioid prescriptions for genuine pain patients, many in desperation seek relief in the illegal market, exposing them to adulterated opioids as well as heroin. For the same reason, recent studies on the effect of state-based Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMPs) suggest they have not led to reductions in opioid overdose rates and may actually be contributing to the increase. It is reasonable to be skeptical that Cigna’s internal prescription drug monitoring program will work any differently.

Further research suggests the community rating regulations of the Affordable Care Act may be contributing to the problem. The ACA requires insurance companies to sell their policies to people who have very expensive health conditions for the same premiums they charge healthy people. At the same time, the ACA’s “risk-adjustment” programs systematically underpay insurers for many of their sickest enrollees. The overall effect is that the ACA penalizes insurers whose networks and drug formularies are desirable to those who are sick. Insurers respond to this disincentive by designing their health plans to have with provider networks, drug formularies, and prescription co-payment schedules that are unattractive to such patients, hoping they will seek their coverage elsewhere. This “race to the bottom” between the health plans results in decreased access and suboptimal health care for many of the sickest patients.

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Sorrell vs. IMS Health: Not a Privacy Case

The Supreme Court’s decision in Sorrell vs. IMS Health is being touted in many quarters as a privacy case, and a concerning one at that. Example: Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) released a statement saying “the Supreme Court has overturned a sensible Vermont law that sought to protect the privacy of the doctor-patient relationship.” That’s a stretch.

The Vermont law at issue restricted the sale, disclosure, and use of pharmacy records that revealed the prescribing practices of doctors if that information was to be used in marketing by pharmaceutical manufacturers. Under the law, prescription drug salespeople—“detailers” in industry parlance—could not access information about doctors’ prescribing to use in focusing their efforts. As the Court noted, the statute barred few other uses of this information.

It is a stretch to suggest that this is a privacy law, given the sharply limited scope of its “protections.” Rather, the law was intended to advance the state’s preferences in the area of drug prescribing, which skew toward generic drugs rather than name brands. The Court quoted the Vermont legislature itself, finding that the purpose of the law was to thwart “detailers, in particular those who promote brand-name drugs, convey[ing] messages that ‘are often in conflict with the goals of the state.’” Accordingly, the Court addressed the law as a content- and viewpoint-oriented regulation of speech which could not survive First Amendment scrutiny (something Cato and the Pacific Legal Foundation argued for in their joint brief.)

What about patients’ sensitive records? Again, the case was about data reflecting doctors’ prescribing practices, which could include as little as how many times per year they prescribe given drugs. (They probably include more detail than that.) The risk to patients is based on the idea that patients’ prescriptions might be gleaned through sufficient data-mining of doctors prescribing records (no doubt with other records appended). That’s a genuine problem, if largely theoretical given the availability and use of data today. Vermont is certainly free to address that problem head on in a law meant to actually protect patients’ privacy—against the state itself, for example. Better still, Vermonters and people across the country could rely on the better sources of rules in this new and challenging area: market pressure (to the extent possible in the health care area) and the (non-prescriptive, more adaptive) common law.

Whatever the way forward, Sorrell vs. IMS Health is not the privacy case some are making it out to be, it’s not the outrage some are making it out to be, and it’s not the last word on data use in our society.

“This cries out for a Jim Harper rant.”

… says a colleague. Or maybe it speaks for itself.

Sheriffs want lists of patients using painkillers

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the War on Drugs is meant to help people: The helping hand of government strips away privacy before it goes to work.

My 2004 Cato Policy analysis on point is: “Understanding Privacy – and the Real Threats to It.”