CMS Statement on Opioids and WCMSAs Provides Little Clarity as to Future Review Practices

December 27, 2017 By: Daniel Anders

In a recent post on its website, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) acknowledged the opioid crisis in this country, but provided little clarity as to how it intends to address this crisis in its review and approval of Workers’ Compensation Medicare Set-Asides (WCMSAs).

The 12/14/2017 statement provides as follows:

CMS understands the concerns regarding the opioid crisis occurring in the United States. We are committed to ensuring the determination of Workers’ Compensation Medicare Set Aside Arrangement (WCMSA) amounts are an adequate projection of claimant’s needs for future medical services and prescription drugs. CMS continually evaluates all policies and procedures related to WCMSA amounts. Any changes that Medicare pursues related to this issue will be reflected in our WCMSA amount review process.

More information on the WCMSA process can be found in the WCMSA Reference Guide.

We assume the above statement may be, in part, related to the California Workers Compensation Institute (CWCI) study finding nearly 70% of CMS approved MSAs require funding of opioids over an injured worker’s life expectancy (See our article, Opioids in the MSA . . . Challenges and Strategies, where this study is discussed). While we credit CMS’s Office of Financial Management (the CMS department which oversees the WCMSA review program and contractor) with recognizing the opioid crisis, what is left uncertain is what specific actions CMS is to take to address this problem in WCMSAs. Instead, CMS provides a vague statement indicating any changes related to the opioid issue will be reflected in its WCMSA review process and then cites its WCMSA Reference Guide.

CMS does not cite to a particular section of the guide, but we assume the following would be the most pertinent:

Drug Weaning/Tapering

Drug weaning commonly occurs with pain medications, such as opioids, especially when claimants’ work injuries improve. The WCRC takes all evidence of drug weaning into account, although in most circumstances the WCRC cannot assume that the weaning process will be successful. Usually, the latest weaned dosage is extrapolated for the life expectancy, but again, they assess all records when making these types of determinations. Where a treating physician believes tapering is possible and in the best interests of the claimant, CMS will consider all evidence in making a WCMSA determination, including medical evidence of current actual tapering.

Based upon the Tower MSA CMS Reconciliation Module, which reviews all MSA determinations for the purpose of identifying trends in CMS WCMSA allocation practices, CMS consistently disregards any active weaning or tapering process or scheduled reduction to future medication use and instead takes the latest dosage found in the medical records and/or prescription history and extrapolates it over the claimant’s life expectancy.

The question then is whether this December 2017 statement signals a departure by CMS from these past practices to a policy which will now give more weight to a weaning or tapering schedule from the treating physician which translates into limitations on the allocation of opioids in the WCMSA. We will take a wait and see approach in this regard.

It should be understood though that even were CMS to limit the allocation of opioids in the WCMSA, this in no way prevents the claimant from using the WCMSA funds for filling opioid prescriptions in excess of what is allocated. The reason being is CMS rules for administering a WCMSA allow for the funds in the account to be used for any Medicare-covered injury-related treatment or medication. As such, with a valid prescription, there is nothing to stop a claimant from converting funds allocated to a surgery to pay for medications, including opioids. It will remain then in the hands of the claimant’s medical provider to wean the claimant off opioids and other medications not intended for long-term use.

Practical Implications

As always, we will monitor CMS WCMSA determinations for signs of any changes to their allocating practices for prescription medications, especially in regard to opioids. However, we have to assume that until we see any changes, CMS will continue to follow its policy of taking the most recent medication dosage and frequency and pricing it out over the claimant’s life expectancy.

What this means then is opioid misuse must be addressed prior to submission of a WCMSA to CMS with any actual elimination of opioids documented in the medical records prior to submission of the MSA. Tower MSA is committed to working with our clients on reduction and elimination of opioids prior to CMS submission. Our Pre-MSA triage service is uniquely designed to identify such MSA cost-drivers and recommend intervention strategies, including escalating the matter to our Internal Pharm. D. for direct contact with the treating physician. Resulting reductions in opioid use limit MSA costs to the employer and provide for a healthier injured worker over his or her lifetime.

Please contact Dan Anders at Daniel.anders@towermsa.com or (888) 331-4941 with any questions regarding CMS practices in allocation of prescription medications in the WCMSA.

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