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Once a year more than 2,000 people gather in Las Vegas to attend a five-day conference on all things pain related. The attendees aren’t just researchers, but all types of healthcare providers and patients as well. I started attending PainWeek nearly three years ago and each year I return with even greater knowledge about pain and more specifically the latest in treatment for my condition — Complex Regional Pain Syndrome; a condition I developed as a direct result of my work related injury.

This year’s conference had several session regarding workers’ compensation and I had the opportunity to attend Dr. Matthew P. Foster’s session on “Pain Management in Workers’ Compensation: Overview of Spend, Utilization, and Treatment Guidelines”. The room filled up quickly, leaving only a few empty seats.

Dr. Foster’s presentation moved quickly explaining how workers’ compensation treatment and drug prescription moved from whatever, without questions, that the doctor ordered for the injured worker to more and more states adopting guidelines that were either created by the state or that followed the Office of Disability Guidelines (ODG) or that followed the recommendations of the American College of Occupational & Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) or that followed some combination.

His presentation showed that by using treatment guidelines, most states had shown some “control” over the rising costs of workers’ compensation, with the exception of State of New York (which has created its own treatment guidelines). One area where treatment guidelines seem to have the greatest impact was in the approval of opioid treatment for injured workers suffering extreme and/or chronic pain. Many insurance companies and their adjusters have used these guidelines, not such as a guide but much more like something which to adhere to very strictly without wiggle room. Nowhere is this more apparent than with prescription opioids.

It was during the question and answer section of Foster’s presentation that members of the audience brought up very similar tales of adjusters using guidelines to basically “cut off” the injured worker from any opioid medication beyond what the “guidelines” suggest. A common thread was the following: the earliest the insurance company will allow a patient refill of their opioid prescription is 28 days (2 days before the patient’s current script ends), when the patient turns in a new script at the 28 days mark some insurance companies then ask for 7 to 10 days to authorize the new opioid script thus leaving the patient without opioid medication to cover for that time period placing the patient at risk for withdrawal, not to mention the emotional and psychological impact the fight every month to fill their physician order medication has on the injured worker. Meanwhile in California a great many of the utilization review physicians are from ER specialty a discipline that doesn’t prepare the physician to take care of patient for the long term, an observation that I shared with the audience and with which the audience agreed.

So in short when it comes to opioid prescriptions the injured worker is basically made powerless by the very program that’s been put in place to “help the injured worker return to pre-injury condition as quickly as possible”.