Readers and Tweeters Diagnose Greed and Chronic Pain Within US Health Care System

KHN gives readers a chance to comment on a recent batch of stories.

Letters to the Editor is a periodic feature. We welcome all comments and will publish a selection. We edit for length and clarity and require full names.

U.S. Health Care Is Harmful to One’s Health

Thank you for publishing this research (“Hundreds of Hospitals Sue Patients or Threaten Their Credit, a KHN Investigation Finds. Does Yours?” Dec. 21). I am a psychotherapist and have written about this problem in my blog. The mercenary American health care system is hypocritical in the stressful financial demands and threats it imposes on so many patients. Stress due to health care-related bankruptcy, or the threat of bankruptcy, is harmful to one’s health. A health care system that is supposed to treat illness and restore health can, in fact, cause serious illness and/or exacerbate existing medical problems. The higher levels of stress and the threat of bankruptcy that all too frequently follow needed medical care can be harmful to individuals with cardiovascular issues such as high blood pressure and heart arrhythmia, and can trigger panic attacks in those who suffer from anxiety disorders. There may be digestive issues associated with higher levels of stress, and the patient’s sleep may be adversely affected. The individual may have to cut back on essentials such as food and medications because of unpaid medical bills, aggressive calls from collection agencies, and the threat of bankruptcy.

All of this in the name of “health care” delivered by professions and organizations that proclaim the importance of beneficence, justice, and malfeasance within their respective codes of ethics. Curative stress? Therapeutic bankruptcy? The hypocrisy is palpable.

American history is replete with examples of discrimination against certain groups, including racial discrimination, the disenfranchisement of women, child labor, and others. Eventually, political measures were enacted to correct these injustices. It’s only a matter of time until the American health care system, including the pharmaceutical industry, is forced to reform itself for the sake of the men, women, and children in need of essential health care. It’s not a question of if, but when.

— Fred Medinger, Parkton, Maryland

I find this infuriating! Especially the nonprofit organizations. Hundreds of US Hospitals Sue Patients or Threaten Their Credit, a KHN Investigation Finds | Kaiser Health News https://t.co/87TTYPVE0P

— Jan Oldenburg ☮️ (@janoldenburg) December 21, 2022

— Jan Oldenburg, Richmond, Virginia

Thanks for the article about hospitals suing patients. I just switched health plans in New York state. Reasons: My previous insurer raised my premium over 90% last year, paid very little of my claims (leaving Medicare to pay most of the claims), and sent me to collections. This, even though I worked two full-time jobs for most of my 46 years of teaching. How do insurance companies and hospitals get away with this unethical and outrageous behavior?

— George Deshaies, Buffalo, New York

Great story by @KHNews' @NoamLevey, which found that at least 297 hospitals in MN, 56%, sue patients for unpaid medical bills. 90, or 17%, can deny patients nonemergency medical care if they have past-due bills.Mayo is one of those hospitals. See🧵https://t.co/p5dHdbZKou

— Molly Work (@mollycastlework) December 21, 2022

— Molly Work, Rochester, Minnesota

Unhappy New Year of Deductibles and Copays

Listened to a conversation between Noam N. Levey and NPR’s Ari Shapiro, regarding Levey’s article on Germany’s lack of medical debt (“What Germany’s Coal Miners Can Teach America About Medical Debt,” Dec. 14). Levey passed along the tidbit that Affordable Care Act plans purchased through state exchanges would pay a maximum out-of-pocket amount of $9,000 a year. Likely Mr. Levey knows the actual details of the ACA at least as well as I, but I had well over $20,000 in out-of-pocket expenses for my own care last year (in addition to annual premiums of over $15,000). The deductible/copay aspect of health insurance is rigged against folks who actually use their insurance. The in-network and out-of-network provider scheme is likewise designed to benefit providers as opposed to patients.

I’ve had health insurance for about 40 years, since I graduated from college. Always a plan paid for by myself, never through an employer. I’ve had my first year of using a lot of heath care services (colon cancer surgery and chemo follow-up), and the bills are quite astronomical. Still awaiting the final negotiations between Stanford Hospital and Blue Shield of California for the $97,000 bill for services for the surgery and stay in the hospital. Though my surgery was in September, the two had not resolved the bill by year-end. Now all my copays and deductibles have reset, and I’ll be back at the starting gate, dollar-wise.

We need health care payment reform.

— George McCann, Half Moon Bay, California

Tx @NoamLevey for this important comparative piece on how Germany's private healthcare system does not create #medicaldebt. We need to do better. @RIPMedicalDebt https://t.co/PoAduYljXq

— Allison Sesso (@AllisonSesso) December 14, 2022

— Allison Sesso, president and CEO of RIP Medical Debt, Long Island City, New York

Greedy to the Bone?

In orthopedics, surgery is where the money is (“More Orthopedic Physicians Sell Out to Private Equity Firms, Raising Alarms About Costs and Quality,” Jan. 6). Just as a private equity-controlled ophthalmology group tried to persuade me to have unnecessary cataract surgery (three other eye doctors agreed it wasn’t necessary), too many orthopedic patients can expect to be pushed to unnecessary surgeries.

— Gloria Kohut, Grand Rapids, Michigan

As #private #equity firms acquire #physician practices, the issue of non-competes and #restrictive covenants become even more relevant in #healthcare @AAOS1 @AmerMedicalAssn @JHU_HBHI @linakhanFTC @KHNews https://t.co/fTfilK4WEX

— Amit Jain, MD, MBA (@AmitJainSpine) January 8, 2023

— Dr. Amit Jain, Baltimore

The Painful Truth of the Opioid Epidemic

In a recent article, Aneri Pattani and Rae Ellen Bichell discussed disparities in the distribution of settlement funds from lawsuits against major pharmaceutical companies, especially in rural areas (“In Rural America, Deadly Costs of Opioids Outweigh the Dollars Tagged to Address Them,” Dec. 12).

We suggest that the merit of many of the lawsuits that led to these large settlements remains unproven. While Purdue Pharma clearly overstated the safety of prescription opioids in treating chronic pain, judges in two high-profile cases ruled in favor of the pharmaceutical companies stating that prosecutors falsely inflated the danger of opioids and noted that opioids used per FDA guidelines are safe and effective, remaining a vital means to treat chronic pain. Also, many cases involving Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, and others were settled based on expediency, rather than merit. This may have been due to the reasoning that continuing their defense against prosecutors having access to limitless public funds would lead to bankruptcy.

The primary cause of America’s overdose crisis is not physicians’ “overprescribing” opioids. Dr. Thomas Frieden, former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noted that the rise in prescription opioids paralleled the increase in opioid deaths up to 2010, leading the CDC to create guidelines in 2016 limiting opioid use to treat chronic pain. However, cause-and-effect relationships between the legitimate use of prescription opioids and opioid deaths remain unclear. For example, the National Institute on Drug Abuse noted in 2015 that since 2000, misuse of prescription drugs preceded the use of heroin in most cases. But legitimate prescriptions by physicians to patients with chronic pain constituted only 20% of the cases leading to heroin addiction. Prescription drugs used by heroin addicts were from family members or friends in 80% of the cases leading to heroin use.

Since at least 2010, the volume of prescription opioids dropped by over 60% — yet overdose deaths have skyrocketed to over 100,000 cases in 2021. The opioid overdose death crisis is now driven mainly by illegally imported fentanyl and in part by a misguided crackdown of the Drug Enforcement Administration against physicians who legitimately prescribe opioids to chronic pain patients, forcing them to seek out street drugs.

Statistics from Michigan indicate that nearly 40% of primary care clinics will no longer see new patients for pain management. The CDC, in its 2022 updated guidelines, attempted to clarify misunderstandings, including inappropriate rapid tapering and individualizing care. However, the public health crisis of undertreated pain remains. Some states have passed intractable pain laws to restore access to opioids to chronic pain patients with a legitimate need, indicating the shortfalls of the CDC guidelines to treat pain.

— Richard A. Lawhern, Fort Mill, South Carolina, and Dr. Keith Shulman, Skokie, Illinois

Important reporting from @aneripattani and @raelnb in @KHNews: National settlements are being paid out by #opioids manufacturers, but #rural communities are often getting less funds to address the #OpioidCrisis than their urban and suburban counterparts. https://t.co/qeoXtqKfpo

— Joanne Conroy (@JoanneConroyMD) December 15, 2022

— Dr. Joanne Conroy, Lebanon, New Hampshire

We’re fighting to hold accountable the companies that helped create and fuel the opioid crisis so we can help people struggling with opioid use disorder across North Carolina and the country get resources for treatment and recovery. We need this money now to save lives.

To that end, I wanted to flag one concern about the article on rural counties and opioid funding. It looks as if the comparison and the maps about North Carolina funding by county and overdose deaths may not correlate. The reporting seems to reflect overdose deaths on a per capita basis, but funding is indicated by total dollars received.

This spreadsheet might be helpful. It ranks each North Carolina county by the amount of funds they will receive from the distributor and Johnson & Johnson settlements (as posted on www.ncopioidsettlement.org) per capita, using 2019 population figures. In per capita rankings, rural and/or less populous counties are typically receiving more funding per capita than larger counties. For example, the 10 counties receiving the most per capita funding are all rural and/or less populous counties (Wilkes, Cherokee, Burke, Columbus, Graham, Yancey, Mitchell, Clay, Swain, and Surry). Wake County, our most populous county, is ranked 80th.

It’s also important to note that the formula was developed by experts for counsel to local governments in the national opioid litigation, who represent and have duties of loyalty to both large urban and small rural local governments. It takes into account opioid use disorder in the county (the number of people with opioid use disorder divided by the total number of people nationwide with opioid use disorder), overdose deaths as a percentage of the nation’s opioid overdose deaths, and the number of opioids in the county. Click here for more information.

Indeed, one of the special masters appointed by U.S. District Judge Dan Polster in the national opioid litigation found that the national allocation model “reflects a serious effort on the part of the litigating entities that devised it to distribute the class’s recovery according to the driving force at the heart of the lawsuit — the devastation caused by this horrific epidemic.” (See Page 5 of this report of Special Master Yanni.)

You’re absolutely right that rural counties were often the earliest and hardest hit by the opioid epidemic, and it’s critical that they receive funds to help get residents the treatment and recovery resources they need. We’re hopeful that these funds, whose allocation was determined in partnership by local government counsel, will help deliver those resources.

— Nazneen Ahmed, North Carolina Attorney General’s Office, Raleigh, North Carolina

This article is a great example of equality ≠ equity regarding opioid settlement funds disbursement. Really thoughtful article by @aneripattani & @raelnb https://t.co/vRbksffwqP

— Kate Roberts, LCSW (@KateandOlive_) December 14, 2022

— Kate Roberts, Durham, North Carolina

A Holistic Approach to Strengthening the Nursing Workforce Pipeline

As we face the nation’s worst nursing shortage in decades, some regions are adopting creative solutions to fill in the gaps (“Rural Colorado Tries to Fill Health Worker Gaps With Apprenticeships,” Nov. 29). To truly solve the root of this crisis, we must look earlier in the workforce pipeline.

The entire nation currently sits in a dire situation when it comes to having an adequate number of nurses — especially rural communities. With the tripledemic of covid-19, influenza, and RSV tearing through hospitals, it’s never been more evident how vital nurses are to the functioning of our health care system. A recent McKinsey report found that we need to double the number of nurses entering the workforce every year for the next three years to meet anticipated demand. Without support from policymakers and health care leaders, we cannot meet that.

As a health care executive myself, I’ve seen firsthand how impactful apprenticeships can be because they help sustain the health care workforce pipeline. From high school students to working adults, these “earn while you learn” apprenticeships allow students to make a living while working toward their degree, and my system’s apprenticeship program has even reduced our turnover by up to 50%. It provides a framework to support a competency-based education rooted in real-life skills and hands-on training for key nursing support roles, all while team members earn an income.

Education is key to developing competent, practice-ready nurses. Not just through apprenticeships but early on in students’ educational journey, too. According to the newest data from the nation’s report card, students in most states and most demographic groups experienced the steepest declines in math and reading ever recorded. As we continue to see the devastating impact the pandemic had on young learners, it’s crucial we invest more in remediation and support, so students graduate from secondary school with a deep understanding of these core competencies and are ready to pursue nursing. A recent survey of nearly 4,000 prospective nursing students from ATI Nursing Education found that a lack of academic preparedness was the top reason for delaying or forgoing nursing school.

Without intervention now, our nursing workforce shortage will only worsen in the future. We need our leaders to face these challenges head-on and invest in a holistic approach to strengthen our nursing pipeline. There’s no time to waste.

— Natalie Jones, executive director of workforce development at WellStar Health System, Atlanta

1 solution to the staffing crisis: Apprenticeship programs put students directly into long-term care professions. Rural areas benefit the most since they have more residents who are 65 or older & fewer direct care workers to help people w/ disabilities. https://t.co/vnbHAJYWvY

— OK Health Action (@ok_action) November 30, 2022

— Oklahoma Health Action Network, Oklahoma City

Planning Major Surgery? Plan Ahead

I read Judith Graham’s good article “Weighing Risks of a Major Surgery: 7 Questions Older Americans Should Ask Their Surgeon” (Jan. 3) on CNN. Thought I should add some personal experience. At age 78, my mother had back surgery in 2016. When she was getting prepped, she was given multiple documents to sign. Once signed, she was immediately taken to surgery. There was not enough time to read any of them. In hindsight, we are certain the documents were mostly for release of liability if something goes wrong. After surgery, she had “drop foot” — total loss of use of her left foot. Never heard of it. She was told she would regain use in about six months. Never happened. She had to use a walker and still had numerous falls in which her head had hit the ground multiple times. She slowly slid into long-term “confusion” that was attributed to her falls and passed away at age 84.

My story is about my abdominal aorta aneurysm surgery in 2022 at age 62. I did not have an overnight recovery — tube taken out of my throat, catheter removed, and was immediately transferred to a room. An IV pump of saline was left on and my arm swelled up — I thought my arm was going to burst. Five days later, I was discharged. Everything seemed rushed. The only postsurgical “instructions” I received were to keep the incision clean and not to play golf, and I don’t even play golf. I recuperated at home, and after five months I still have abdominal pain that I’ll always have.

Both of our surgeries were done on a Friday. I’m certain our experiences were due to hospital staff wanting to leave early on Friday, and weekend staffers are mostly the “B” team. So, my advice is to suggest to the elderly not to have surgery scheduled on a Friday unless there is absolute urgency in choosing the date.

— Paul Lyon, Chesapeake, Virginia

Reality bites, doesn’t it.https://t.co/sHe0EV1DQG

— suzette sommer (@suzette_sommer) December 28, 2022

— Suzette Sommer, Seattle

I am writing to express my concerns over the significant misinformation in the article about what older Americans should ask their surgeon before major surgery.

Most abdominal aortic aneurysms are treated with endovascular methods. These minimally invasive procedures still require general anesthesia (with a breathing tube), but most patients have the tube removed before leaving the operating room, and many patients leave the hospital the next day with minimal functional limitations due to surgery being performed through half-inch incisions in each groin.

The “best case” surgical scenario described in your article describes open abdominal aortic aneurysm repair, which is recommended for fewer than 20% of patients requiring aortic aneurysm repairs.

In essence, you’re threatening everyone who comes in for a tuneup with an engine rebuild.

Abdominal aortic aneurysms are still undertreated in the U.S., with many patients not receiving screening recommended by Medicare since 2006. Your article misrepresents the “best case” scenario and may dissuade patients from receiving lifesaving care.

— Dr. David Nabi, Newport Beach, California

I read, with interest, Judith Graham’s article about older Americans preparing for major surgery. But you failed to mention the life-altering effects of anesthesia. My independent 82-year-old mother had a minor fall in July and broke her hip. After undergoing anesthesia, she is required to have 24/7 care as her short-term memory has been forever altered. Was there a choice not to have hip surgery? I didn’t hear one. Did anyone explain the issues that could (and often do) occur with an elderly brain due to anesthesia? No. And now we are dealing with this consequence. And what happens when you don’t have money (like most people in the U.S.) for 24/7 care? I hope you’ll consider writing about this.

— Nancy Simpson, Scottsdale, Arizona

Shouldn't more people wonder why MA plans are profitable while our own gov't MC is losing money. Only 5% of MA plans are audited yearly. Yet they are getting 8.5% increase in payment & docs (the folks taking care of the pts) are getting cut. https://t.co/UiFiiQ9wre via @khnews

— Madelaine Feldman (@MattieRheumMD) December 15, 2022

— Dr. Madelaine Feldman, New Orleans

The High Bar of Medicare Advantage Transparency

Unfortunately, KHN’s article “How Medicare Advantage Plans Dodged Auditors and Overcharged Taxpayers by Millions” (Dec. 13) provided a misleading, incomplete depiction of Medicare Advantage payment.

This story focuses largely on audits that, in some cases, are more than a decade old. While KHN’s focus is on alleged “overpayment,” the same audits show that many plans were underpaid by as much as $773 per patient.

More recent research demonstrates Medicare Advantage’s affordability and responsible stewardship of Medicare dollars. For example, an October 2021 Milliman report concludes “the federal government pays less and gets more for its dollar in MA than in FFS,” while the Department of Health and Human Services’ fiscal year 2021 report shows that the net improper payment rate in Medicare Advantage was roughly half that of fee-for-service Medicare.

KHN’s article is right about one thing: Only a small fraction of Medicare Advantage plans are audited each year — denying policymakers and the public a fuller understanding of the program’s exceptional value to seniors and the health care system. That is why Better Medicare Alliance has called for regulators to conduct Risk Adjustment Data Validation (RADV) audits of every Medicare Advantage plan every year.

There are opportunities, as outlined in our recent policy recommendations, to further strengthen and improve Medicare Advantage’s high bar of transparency and accountability, but that effort is not well served by this misleading article.

— Mary Beth Donahue, president and CEO of the Better Medicare Alliance, Chevy Chase, Maryland

Targeting Gun Violence

I’m curious why KHN neglected to actually get into all the “meat and potatoes” regarding its report on Colorado’s red flag law (“Colorado Considers Changing Its Red Flag Law After Mass Shooting at Nightclub,” Dec. 23). Specifically, it failed to report that the suspect in this case used a “ghost gun” to execute the crime in Colorado Springs, and more importantly what impact any red flag law is going to have on a person who manufactures their own illegal firearm. Lastly, why is it the national conversation regarding the illegal use and possession of firearms curiously avoids any in-depth, substantive conversation of access to firearms by mentally ill people? Quite frankly, this is the underlying cause of illegal firearms use and no one wants to step up to the plate and address the issue at any in-depth level. It’s categorically embarrassing for American journalism.

— Steve Smith, Carbondale, Colorado

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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At a Tennessee Crossroads, Two Pharmacies, a Monkey, and Millions of Pills

Prosecutors say opioid-seeking patients drove hours to get their prescriptions filled in Celina, Tennessee, where pharmacies ignored signs of substance misuse and paid cash — or “monkey bucks” — to keep customers coming back.

CELINA, Tenn. — It was about 1 a.m. on April 19, 2016, when a burglary alarm sounded at Dale Hollow Pharmacy in Celina, a tiny town in the rolling, wooded hills near the Kentucky border.

Two cops responded. As their flashlights bobbed in the darkness, shining through the pharmacy windows, they spotted a sign of a break-in: pill bottles scattered on the floor.

The cops called the co-owner, Thomas Weir, who arrived within minutes and let them in. But as quickly as their flashlights beamed behind the counter, Weir demanded the cops leave. He said he’d rather someone “steal everything” than let them finish their search, according to a police report and body camera footage from the scene.

“Get out of there right now!” Weir shouted, as if shooing off a mischievous dog. “Get out of there!”

The cops argued with Weir as he escorted them out. They left the pharmacy more suspicious than when they’d arrived, triggering a probe in a small town engulfed in one of the most outsize concentrations of opioids in a pill-ravaged nation.

Nearly six years later, federal prosecutors have unveiled a rare criminal case alleging that Celina pharmacy owners intentionally courted opioid seekers by filling dangerous prescriptions that would have been rejected elsewhere. The pharmacies are accused of giving cash handouts to keep customers coming back, and one allegedly distributed its own currency, “monkey bucks,” inspired by a pet monkey that was once a common sight behind the counter. Two pharmacists admitted in plea agreements they attracted large numbers of patients from “long distances” by ignoring red flags indicating pills were being misused or resold. In their wake, prosecutors say, these Celina pharmacies left a rash of addiction, overdoses, deaths, and millions in wasted tax dollars.

“I hate that this is what put us on the map,” said Tifinee Roach, 38, a lifelong Celina resident who works in a salon not far from the pharmacies and recounted years of unfamiliar cars and unfamiliar people filling the parking lots. “I hate that this is what we’re going to be known for.”

Celina, an old logging town of 1,900 people about two hours northeast of Nashville, was primed for this drug trade: In the shadow of a dying hospital, four pharmacies sat within 1,000 feet of each other, at the crux of two highways, dispensing millions of opioid pills. Before long, that intersection had single-handedly turned Tennessee’s Clay County into one of the nation’s pound-for-pound leaders of opioid distribution. In 2017, Celina pharmacies filled nearly two opioid prescriptions for every Clay County resident — more than three times the national rate — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Visitors once came to Celina to tour its historical courthouse or drop their lines for smallmouth bass in the famed fishing lake nearby. Now they came for pills.

Soon after Weir’s police encounter in 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration set its sights on his two Celina pharmacies, three doors apart — Dale Hollow Pharmacy and Xpress Pharmacy. Separately, investigators examined the clinic of Dr. Gilbert Ghearing, which sat directly between Dale Hollow and Xpress and leased office space to a third pharmacy in the same building, Anderson Hometown Pharmacy. Its owners and operators have not been charged with any crime.

In December, a federal judge unsealed indictments against Weir and the other owners of Dale Hollow and Xpress pharmacies, Charles “Bobby” Oakley and Pamela Spivey, alleging they profited from attracting and filling dangerous and unjustifiable opioid prescriptions. Charges were also filed against William Donaldson, the former pharmacist and owner of Dale Hollow, previously convicted of drug dealing, who allegedly recruited most of the customers for the scheme.

The pharmacists at Dale Hollow and Xpress, John Polston and Michael Griffith, pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy and health care fraud charges and agreed to cooperate with law enforcement against the other suspects.

Ghearing was indicted on drug distribution charges for allegedly writing unjustifiable opioid prescriptions in a separate case in 2019. He pleaded not guilty, and his case is expected to go to trial in September.

‘An American Tragedy’

The Celina indictment comes as pharmacies enter an era of new accountability for the opioid crisis. In November, a federal jury in Cleveland ruled pharmacies at CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart could be held financially responsible for fueling the opioid crisis by recklessly distributing massive amounts of pain pills in two Ohio counties. The ruling — a first of its kind — is expected to reverberate through thousands of similar lawsuits filed nationwide.

Criminal prosecutions for such actions remain exceedingly rare. The Department of Justice in recent years increased prosecutions of doctors and pain clinic staffers who overprescribed opioids but files far fewer charges against pharmacists, and barely any against pharmacy owners, who are generally harder to hold directly responsible for prescriptions filled at their establishments.

In a review of about 1,000 news releases about legal enforcement actions taken by the Department of Health and Human Services since 2019, KHN identified fewer than 10 similar cases involving pharmacists or pharmacy owners being criminally charged for filling opioid prescriptions. Among those few similar cases, none involved allegations of so many opioids flowing readily through such a small place.

The Celina case is also the first time the Department of Justice sought a restraining order and preliminary injunction against pharmacies under the Controlled Substances Act, said David Boling, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Tennessee. DOJ used the civil filing to shut down Dale Hollow and Xpress pharmacies quickly in 2019, allowing prosecutors more time to build a criminal case against the pharmacy owners.

Former U.S. Attorney Don Cochran, who oversaw much of the investigation, said the crisis in Celina was so severe it warranted a swift and unique response.

Cochran said it once made sense for small pharmacies to be clustered in Celina, where a rural hospital served the surrounding area. But as the hospital shriveled toward closure, as have a dozen others in Tennessee, the competing pharmacies turned to opioids to sustain themselves and got hooked on the profits, he said.

“It’s an American tragedy, and I think the town was a victim in this,” Cochran said. “The salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar folks that lived there were victimized by these people in these pharmacies. I think they knew full well this was not a medical necessity. It was just a money-making cash machine for them.”

And much of that money came from taxpayers. In its court filings, DOJ argues the pharmacies sought out customers with Medicaid or Medicare coverage — or signed them up if they didn’t have it. To keep these customers coming back, the pharmacies covered their copays or paid cash kickbacks whenever they filled a prescription, prosecutors allege. The pharmacies collected more than $2.4 million from Medicare for opioids and other controlled substances from 2012 to 2018, according to the court filings.

Prosecutors say the pharmacies also paid kickbacks to retain profitable customers with non-opioid prescriptions. In one case, Dale Hollow gave $100 “payouts” to a patient whenever they filled his prescription for mysoline, an anti-seizure drug, then used those prescriptions to collect more than $237,000 from Medicare, according to Polston’s plea agreement.

Attorneys for Weir, Oakley, Donaldson, Spivey, Polston, and Griffith either declined to comment for this article or did not respond to requests for comment.

Ronald Chapman, an attorney for Ghearing, defended the doctor’s prescriptions, saying he’d done “the best he [could] with what was available” in a rural setting with no resources or expertise in pain management.

Chapman added that, while he does not represent the other Celina suspects, he had a theory as to why they drew the attention of federal law enforcement. As large corporate pharmacies made agreements with the federal government to be more stringent about opioid prescriptions, they filled fewer of them. Customers then turned to smaller pharmacies in rural areas to get their drugs, he said.

“I’m not sure if that’s what happened in this case, but I’ve seen it happen in many small towns in America. The only CVS down the street, or the only Rite Aid down the street, is cutting off every provider who prescribes opioids, leaving it to smaller pharmacies to do the work,” Chapman said.

Donaldson, reached briefly at his home in Celina on March 9, insisted the allegations levied against Dale Hollow and Xpress could apply to many pharmacies in the region.

“It wasn’t just them,” Donaldson said.

The Monkey and the Monkey Bucks

Long before it was called Dale Hollow Pharmacy, the blue-and-white building that moved millions of pills through Celina was Donaldson Pharmacy, and Donaldson was behind the counter doling out pills.

Donaldson owned and operated the pharmacy for decades as the eccentric son of one of the most prominent families in Celina, where a street, a park, and many businesses bear his surname. Even now, despite Donaldson’s prior conviction for opioid crimes and his new indictment, an advertisement for “Donaldson Pharmacy” hangs at the entrance of a nearby high school.

“Bill has always had a heart of gold, and he would help anyone he could. I just think he let that, well …” said Pam Goad, a neighbor, trailing off. “He’s always had a heart of gold.”

According to interviews with about 20 Celina residents, including Clay County Sheriff Brandon Boone, Donaldson is also known to keep a menagerie of exotic animals, at one point including at least two giraffes, and a monkey companion, “Carlos,” whom he dressed in clothing.

The monkey — a mainstay at Donaldson Pharmacy for years — both attracted and deterred customers. Linda Nelson, who owns a nearby business, said Carlos once escaped the pharmacy and, during a scrap with a neighbor’s dogs, tore down her mailbox by snapping its wooden post in half.

But the monkey wasn’t the only reason Donaldson Pharmacy stood out.

According to a DEA opioid database published by The Washington Post, Donaldson Pharmacy distributed nearly 3 million oxycodone and hydrocodone pills from 2006 to 2014, making it the nation’s 20th-highest per capita distributor during that period. It retained its ranking even though the pharmacy closed in 2011, when Donaldson was indicted for dispensing hydrocodone without a valid prescription.

Donaldson confessed to drug distribution and was sentenced to 15 months in prison. The pharmacy’s name was changed to Dale Hollow and ended up with Donaldson’s brother-in-law, Oakley. In 2014, Oakley sold 51% of the business to Weir, who also bought a majority stake of Xpress Pharmacy, three doors away, according to the DOJ’s civil complaint.

Under Weir’s leadership, these two pharmacies became an opioid hub with few equals, prosecutors say. From 2015 to 2018, Dale Hollow and Xpress pharmacies were the fourth-and 11th-highest per capita opioid purchasers in the nation, according to the DOJ, citing internal DEA data.

Many of these prescriptions were for Subutex, an opioid that can be used to treat addiction but is itself prone to abuse. Unless the patient is pregnant or nursing or has a documented allergy, Tennessee law requires doctors instead to prescribe Suboxone, an alternative that is much harder to abuse.

But at the Celina pharmacies, prescriptions for Subutex outnumbered those for Suboxone by at least 4-to-1, prosecutors say. In their plea agreements, pharmacists from Dale Hollow and Xpress described stores that thrived on the trade in Subutex, and said Weir set “mandates” for how many Subutex prescriptions to fill and instructed them to “never run out.”

Griffith, the head pharmacist at Xpress, said the pharmacy in 2015 created flyers specifically advertising Subutex, then delivered them on trays of cookies to practices throughout Tennessee, including some hours away. In the following two years, the amount of Subutex dispensed by Xpress increased by about eightyfold, according to his plea agreement.

Dale Hollow didn’t need flyers or cookies. It had Donaldson.

After getting out of prison in 2014, Donaldson was hired by the pharmacy he once owned, where he “recruited and controlled” about 50% to 90% of customers, according to the indictment filed against him. The pharmacy also enticed customers by distributing a Monopoly-like currency called “monkey bucks” — an apparent callback to Carlos — that could be spent at the pharmacy like cash, the indictment states.

Prosecutors also allege that, from a desk inside Dale Hollow, Donaldson would sign customers up for Medicare or Medicaid, then use a vehicle provided by the pharmacy to drive them to a doctor’s office to get opioid prescriptions, then back to Dale Hollow where he’d offer to cover their copays himself if they kept their business at the pharmacy. Sometimes, he would text the Dale Hollow pharmacist with instructions to fill specific prescriptions, or just to fill more of them, according to federal court records.

“Y’all have got to get your numbers up. Fill fill,” Donaldson texted Polston in 2018, according to his plea agreement.

By then, however, all those prescriptions had drawn unwanted attention.

In August 2018, Dale Hollow and Xpress pharmacies were raided by DEA agents, who brought with them Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera and a television crew. Six months later, DOJ filed its civil complaint, persuading a federal judge to immediately close both pharmacies.

Today, Dale Hollow Pharmacy sits shuttered, as it has been for the past three years, and a paper sign taped to the door says animals are not allowed inside by order of the DEA. The building that was once Xpress Pharmacy reopened this year as an unrelated pharmacy with a fresh coat of paint. Ghearing’s clinic and Anderson Hometown Pharmacy are closed.

Most of Celina’s opioid prescriptions are gone, too. According to the latest available CDC data, Clay County reported about 32 opioid prescriptions per 100 residents in 2020 — one-sixth the rate of 2017’s.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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Watch: Going Beyond the Script of ‘Dopesick’ and America’s Real-Life Opioid Crisis

KHN teamed up with Hulu for a discussion of America’s opioid crisis, following the Oct. 13 premiere of the online streaming service’s new series “Dopesick.”

KHN and policy colleagues at our parent organization KFF teamed up with Hulu for a discussion of America’s opioid crisis, following the Oct. 13 premiere of the online streaming service’s new series “Dopesick.”

The discussion explored how the series’ writers worked with journalist Beth Macy, author of the book “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America,” and showrunner Danny Strong to create and fact-check scripts and develop characters. It quickly moved on to a deeper discussion of how the fictionalized version of the opioid epidemic portrayed in the Hulu series dovetailed with the broader reality KFF’s journalists and analysts have been documenting in their work for the past few years.

Providing perspective on the role of public health and treatment were KHN correspondent Aneri Pattani, who has reported extensively on opioid policy, substance use and mental health, and KFF senior policy analyst Nirmita Panchal, whose analytical work focuses on mental health and substance use.

The forum was moderated by Chaseedaw Giles, audience engagement editor and digital strategist at KHN who has written about hip-hop music’s relationship with opioid abuse. It was filmed in KFF’s Washington, D.C., conference center to an audience of no one (courtesy of covid-19).

You can read a transcript of the forum by clicking here.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: 100 Days of Health Policy

It’s 100 days into Joe Biden’s presidency and a surprisingly large number of health policies have been announced. But health is notably absent from the administration’s $1.8 trillion spending plan for American families, making it unclear how much more will get done this year. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention loosens its mask-wearing recommendations for those who have been vaccinated, but the new rules are confusing. Joanne Kenen of Politico, Mary Ellen McIntire of CQ Roll Call and Sarah Karlin-Smith of the Pink Sheet join KHN’s Julie Rovner to discuss these issues and more. Plus, Rovner interviews KHN’s Julie Appleby, who reported the latest KHN-NPR “Bill of the Month” episode.

Can’t see the audio player? Click here to listen on SoundCloud.

It’s been a busy 100 days for the Biden administration on health policy. The promise Joe Biden made as president-elect to get 100 million covid vaccinations in arms was doubled, healthcare.gov reopened to those without insurance, and steps were taken to undo a raft of health policies implemented by President Donald Trump. The covid relief bill passed by Congress in March also boosted subsidies for those who buy their own coverage and provided incentives for the 12 states that have yet to expand their Medicaid programs under the ACA.

But those actions may prove the high point for health policy this year. Administration officials initially promised that health would be a major part of the president’s $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, but major changes, particularly those addressing prescription drug costs, were nowhere to be seen when the plan was unveiled Wednesday.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KHN, Joanne Kenen of Politico, Mary Ellen McIntire of CQ Roll Call and Sarah Karlin-Smith of the Pink Sheet

Here are some takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • Among the Trump administration health policies the Biden administration has moved to reverse are those on women’s reproductive health and Medicaid work requirements. Some experts suggest that Democratic officials pushed forward on this with good speed because the past administration’s health policies were easier to disentangle than its rules on environment, where Biden also wants to make changes.
  • Democratic lawmakers had seemed eager to use Biden’s family plan to expand Medicare or drive down prescription drug prices. It likely signals that while health care is a key issue for Democrats on Capitol Hill, it is not as big a priority in the White House. Biden, who did mention those policies favored by progressive lawmakers in his speech to Congress on Wednesday, seems to be putting his emphasis on strengthening the Affordable Care Act.
  • Right now, the pharmaceutical industry is scoring high with voters and politicians because of the successes of the covid vaccines. So, getting Senate approval of a bill to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices is likely to be difficult. Those odds get even tougher without pressure from the White House.
  • Biden may also have shied away from the drug pricing initiative in his formal plan for helping families because he was concerned that it could divide the Democratic caucus and imperil the overall initiative.
  • The administration is gearing up to provide India with help to fight the pandemic. Public health officials point out that although the vaccination effort in the U.S. is going well, it is imperative to tamp down the virus in other countries so variants that could evade the vaccines don’t develop. However, there is already a debate about how much U.S. vaccine to ship abroad before authorities determine how to vaccinate children here.
  • Federal health officials have lifted the pause on using the Johnson & Johnson covid vaccine, but that decision has been controversial and some scientists question whether there was enough study or it was the right move.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention loosened its mask-wearing recommendations for people who have been vaccinated, but the new rules are confusing and even sparked some jokes among late-night TV comedians.
  • As the vaccination efforts in the U.S. gain steam, interest is growing among people with long-term cases of covid-19. A hearing on Capitol Hill this week looked at some of the issues, such as what sorts of disabilities these patients face and what workplace accommodations are necessary.
  • The National Institutes of Health is beginning major studies of “long covid” and its myriad symptoms. Although health officials do not yet have a clear definition of long covid, they are generally not dismissing patients’ complaints about the disorder. That differs from some mysterious ailments in the past.
  • The Biden administration has loosened the rules governing who can prescribe the drug buprenorphine, a controversial but effective treatment for opioid addiction. The policy eliminates a training requirement and seeks to allow medical professionals other than doctors to prescribe the drug. But hurdles to its use remain, leading some to question how much more widely the drug will be used as a result of the new policy.

Also this week, Rovner interviews KHN’s Julie Appleby, who reported the latest KHN-NPR “Bill of the Month” feature — about the intersection between car insurance and health insurance. If you have an outrageous medical bill you’d like to share with us, you can do it here.

Plus, for extra credit, the panelists recommend their favorite health policy stories of the week they think you should read too:

Julie Rovner: This American Life’s “The Herd,” by Ira Glass, Anna Maria Barry-Jester and David Kestenbaum. Also, KHN’s “We’re Coming for You’: For Public Health Officials, a Year of Threats and Menace,” by Anna Maria Barry-Jester.

Joanne Kenen: The New Yorker’s “How Vaccine Hesitancy Is Driving Breakthrough Infections in Nursing Homes,” by Masha Gessen.

Mary Ellen McIntire: CQ Roll Call’s “FEMA’s Tasks Pit COVID-19 Vaccinations Against Hurricane Prep,” by Emily Kopp.

Sarah Karlin-Smith: The Pink Sheet’s “Conflicts Galore: Upcoming Accelerated Approval Cancer Panel Includes Many Industry Relationships,” by Sarah Karlin-Smith.

To hear all our podcasts, click here.

And subscribe to What the Health? on iTunesStitcherGoogle PlaySpotify, or Pocket Casts.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: Open Enrollment, One More Time

Keeping a campaign promise, President Joe Biden has reopened enrollment for health coverage under the Affordable Care Act on healthcare.gov — and states that run their own health insurance marketplaces followed suit. At the same time, the Biden administration is moving to revoke the Trump administration’s permission for states to impose work requirements for some adults on the Medicaid health insurance program. Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico, Kimberly Leonard of Business Insider and Rachel Cohrs of Stat join KHN’s Julie Rovner to discuss these issues and more. Also, Rovner interviews medical student Inam Sakinah, president of the new group Future Doctors in Politics.

Can’t see the audio player? Click here to listen on SoundCloud.

An estimated 9 million Americans eligible for free or reduced premium health insurance under the Affordable Care Act have a second chance to sign up for 2021 coverage, since the Biden administration reopened enrollment on healthcare.gov and states that run their own marketplaces followed suit.

Meanwhile, Biden officials took the first steps to revoke the permission that states got from the Trump administration to require many adults on Medicaid to work or perform community service in exchange for their health coverage. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case on the work requirements at the end of March.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico, Kimberly Leonard of Business Insider and Rachel Cohrs of Stat.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • The Biden administration said it will promote the special enrollment period, a stark change from the Trump administration, which dramatically limited funding for outreach. But navigator groups, whose workers help individuals find and sign up for coverage, say they haven’t yet heard whether the federal government will be offering to pay them to help people during this three-month sign-up period.
  • The House appears poised to pass a bill next week that would fund the covid relief measures President Joe Biden is seeking, as well as major changes to the ACA. Senate staffers are working with the House to align legislation from both chambers as much as possible. With little or no Republican support and only razor-thin majorities in both the House and Senate, Democrats will need to find common ground among their caucus to push the bill through.
  • Congress has a firm deadline on the covid relief bill since many current programs, such as the expanded unemployment funding, expire March 14.
  • CVS announced this week that its insurance subsidiary, Aetna, will be participating in the ACA marketplaces in the fall, another sign that those exchanges are growing in acceptance.
  • The Biden administration’s effort to walk back Medicaid work requirements appears to be an effort to head off the arguments at the Supreme Court. Democrats fear that even if they stop the program through administrative action now, a high-court ruling saying the effort was legal could open the door for future Republican administrations to restore work requirements.
  • The federal government is pushing hard to get more covid vaccine shots in arms around the country and last week reported that 1.7 million doses had been distributed. But it is a race against the emerging threat of covid virus variants, which are even more contagious than the original coronavirus.
  • Among hurdles in the vaccination effort is hesitancy among certain groups to get the shot. There have been reports that 30% of military personnel refused to accept the vaccine and some high-profile athletes in the NBA don’t want to be in public service announcements promoting it. Groups opposed to vaccines in general are posting misinformation online that may also be a source of concern.
  • The latest controversy over New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s policies on counting deaths among nursing home residents with covid-19 has consumed Albany and led to inquiries by legal authorities. It also raises questions about whether politics — Cuomo, a Democrat, and President Donald Trump regularly sparred about covid policies — influenced public health decisions.

Also this week, Rovner interviews medical student Inam Sakinah, president of the new group Future Doctors in Politics.

Plus, for extra credit, the panelists recommend their favorite health policy stories of the week they think you should read, too:

Julie Rovner: Stat’s “Hospitals’ Covid-19 Heroics Have Them Poised for Power in the New Washington,” by Rachel Cohrs

Rachel Cohrs: KHN’s “As Drug Prices Keep Rising, State Lawmakers Propose Tough New Bills to Curb Them,” by Harris Meyer; and Stat’s “States Still Can’t Import Drugs From Canada. Now, Many Are Seeking to Import Canadian Prices,” by Lev Facher

Alice Miranda Ollstein: Politico’s “How Covid-19 Could Make Americans Healthier,” by Joanne Kenen

Kimberly Leonard: The New Republic’s “The Darker Story Just Outside the Lens of Framing Britney Spears,” by Sara Luterman

To hear all our podcasts, click here.

And subscribe to What the Health? on iTunesStitcherGoogle PlaySpotify, or Pocket Casts.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Patients Struggle to Find Prescription Opioids After NY Tax Drives Out Suppliers

The tax was touted as a way to generate funding for treatment programs across the state. But to avoid paying, scores of manufacturers and wholesalers stopped selling opioids in New York.

NEW YORK — Mike Angevine lives in constant pain. For a decade the 37-year-old has relied on opioids to manage his chronic pancreatitis, a disease with no known cure.

But in January, Angevine’s pharmacy on Long Island ran out of oxymorphone and he couldn’t find it at other drugstores. He fell into withdrawal and had to be hospitalized.

“You just keep thinking: Am I going to get sick? Am I going to get sick?” Angevine said in a phone interview. “Am I going to be able to live off the pills I have? Am I going to be able to get them on time?”

His pharmacy did not tell him the reason for the shortage. But Angevine isn’t the only pain patient in New York to lose access to vital medicine since July 2019, when the state implemented an excise tax on many opioids.

The tax was touted as a way to punish major drugmakers for their role in the opioid epidemic and generate funding for treatment programs. But to avoid paying, scores of manufacturers and wholesalers stopped selling opioids in New York. Instead of the anticipated $100 million, the tax brought in less than $30 million in revenue, two lawmakers said in interviews. None of it was earmarked for substance abuse programs, they said.

The state’s Department of Health, which has twice this year delayed an expected report on the impact of the tax, did not respond to questions for this story.

The tax follows strong efforts by federal and New York officials to tamp down the use of prescription opioids, which had already cut back some supply. Now, with some medications scarce or no longer available, pain patients have been left reeling. And the law appears to have missed its target: Instead of taking a toll on manufacturers, the greater burden appears to have fallen on pharmacies that can no longer afford or access the painkillers.

Among the companies that no longer sell opioids in New York is Epic Pharma. Independent Pharmacy Cooperative, a wholesaler, confirmed it no longer sells medications subject to the tax, but still sells those that are exempt, which are treatments for opioid addiction methadone and buprenorphine and also morphine. AvKARE and Lupin Pharmaceuticals said they do not ship opioids to New York anymore. Amneal Pharmaceuticals, which manufactures Angevine’s oxymorphone, declined to comment, as did Mallinckrodt.

Since the tax went into effect, Cardinal Health, which provides health services and products, published an extensive 10-page list of opioids it does not expect to carry. Cardinal Health declined to comment.

The New York tax is slowly gaining attention in other states. Delaware passed a similar tax last year. Minnesota is assessing a special licensing fee between $55,000 and $250,000 on opioid manufacturers. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy proposed such a tax this year but was turned down by the legislature.

The company that makes the first point of sale within New York pays the tax. That isn’t always the drugmaker. It can mean wholesalers selling to pharmacies here are assessed, explained Steve Moore, president of the Pharmacists Society of the State of New York.

Independent Pharmacy Cooperative said about half its revenue from opioid sales in New York would have gone to taxes.

Mark Kinney, the company’s senior vice president of government relations, said the law is putting companies in a very difficult position.

When wholesalers like IPC left the opioid market, competitive prices went with them.

Without these smaller wholesalers, it’s hard for pharmacies to go back to other wholesalers “and say, ‘Hey, your prices aren’t in line with the rest of the market,’” Moore said.

Indeed, nine independent pharmacies told KHN that when they can get opioids they are more expensive now. They have little choice but to eat the cost, drop certain prescriptions or pass the expense along.

“We can trickle that cost down to the patient,” said a pharmacist at New London Pharmacy in Manhattan, “but from a moral and ethics point of view, as a health care provider, it just doesn’t seem right to do that. It’s not the right thing to ask your patient to pay more.”

In addition, Medicare drug plans and Medicaid often limit reimbursements, meaning pharmacies can’t charge them more than the programs allow.

Stone’s Pharmacy in Lake Luzerne was losing money “hand over fist,” owner Leigh McConchie said. His distributor was adding the tax directly to his pharmacy’s cost for the drugs. That helped drive down his profit margins from opioid sales between 60% and 70%. Stone’s stopped carrying drugs like fentanyl patches and oxycodone, and though that distributor now pays the tax itself, the pharmacy is still feeling the effects.

“When you lose their fentanyl, you generally lose all their other prescriptions,” he said, noting that few customers go to multiple pharmacies when they can get everything at one.

If pharmacies have few opioid customers, those price hikes have less impact on their business. But being able to manage the costs is not the only problem, explained Zarina Jalal, a manager at Lincoln Pharmacy in Albany. Jalal can no longer get generic oxycodone from her supplier Kinray, though she can still access brand-name OxyContin. New York’s Medicaid Mandatory Generic Drug Program requires insurers to provide advance authorization for the use of brand-name prescriptions, delaying the approval process. Sometimes patients wait several days to get their prescription, Jalal explained.

“When I see them suffer, it hurts more than it hurts my wallet,” she said.

One of Jalal’s customers, Janis Murphy, needs oxycodone to walk without pain. Now she is forced to buy a brand-name drug and pays up to three times what she did for generic oxycodone before the tax went into effect. She said her bill since the start of this year for oxycodone alone is $850. Lincoln Pharmacy works with Murphy on a payment plan, without which she would not be able to afford the medication at all. But the bill keeps growing.

“I’m almost in tears because I cannot get this bill down,” she said in a phone interview.

Several pharmacists raised concerns that patients who lose access to prescription opioids may turn to street drugs. High prescription prices can drive patients to highly addictive and inexpensive heroin. McConchie of Stone’s Pharmacy said he now dispenses twice as many heroin treatment drugs as he did a year ago. Former opioid customers now come in for prescriptions for substance use disorder.

Trade groups and some physicians and state legislators opposed the tax before it went into effect, voicing concerns about a slew of potential consequences, including supply problems for pharmacists and higher consumer prices.

New London Pharmacy said one of its regular distributors stopped shipping Percocet, a combination of oxycodone and acetaminophen. Instead, the pharmacy orders from a more expensive company. The pharmacist estimated that a bottle of Percocet for which it used to pay $43 now costs up to $92.

“Even if we absorb the tax, we’re not getting a break from reimbursements either,” a pharmacist who spoke on the condition of anonymity explained, adding that insurance reimbursements have not increased in proportion to rising drug costs. “We’re losing.”

Latchmin Raghunauth Mondol, owner of Viva Pharmacy & Wellness in Queens, has also seen that problem. The pharmacy used to be able to purchase 100 15-milligram tablets of oxycodone for $15, but that’s now $70, she said, and the pharmacy is reimbursed only about $21 by insurers.

Other opioids are just not available.

Mondol said she has been unable to obtain certain doses of two of the most commonly prescribed opioids, oxycodone and oxymorphone — the drug Angevine was on.

After Angevine lost access to oxymorphone, his doctor put him on morphine, but it does not give him the same relief. He’s been in so much pain that he stopped going to physical therapy appointments.

“It’s a marathon from hell,” he said.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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No Quick Fix: Missouri Finds Managing Pain Without Opioids Isn’t Fast Or Easy

In the first nine months of an alternative pain management program in Missouri, only a small fraction of the state’s Medicaid recipients have accessed the chiropractic care, acupuncture, physical therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy meant to combat the overprescription of opioids.

ST. LOUIS — Missouri began offering chiropractic care, acupuncture, physical therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy for Medicaid patients in April, the latest state to try an alternative to opioids for those battling chronic pain.

Yet only about 500 of the state’s roughly 330,000 adult Medicaid users accessed the program through December, at a cost of $190,000, according to Josh Moore, the Missouri Medicaid pharmacy director. While the numbers may reflect an undercount because of lags in submitting claims, the jointly funded federal-state program known in the state as MO HealthNet is hitting just a fraction of possible patients so far.

Meanwhile, according to the state, opioids were still being doled out: 109,610 Missouri Medicaid patients of all age groups received opioid prescriptions last year.

The going has been slow, health experts said, because of a slew of barriers. Such treatments are more time-consuming and involved than simply getting a prescription. A limited number of providers offer alternative treatment options, especially to Medicaid patients. And perhaps the biggest problem? These therapies don’t seem to work for everyone.

The slow rollout highlights the overall challenges in implementing programs aimed at righting the ship on opioid abuse in Missouri — and nationwide. To be sure, from 2012 to 2019, the number of Missouri Medicaid patients prescribed opioid drugs fell by more than a third — and the quantity of opioids dispensed by Medicaid dropped by more than half.

Still, opioid overdoses killed an estimated 1,132 Missourians in 2018 and 46,802 Americans nationally, according to the latest data available. Progress to change that can be frustratingly slow.

“The opioids crisis we got into wasn’t born in a year,” Moore said. “To expect we’d get perfect results after a year would be incredibly optimistic.”

Despite limited data on the efficacy of alternative pain management plans, such efforts have become more accepted, especially following a summer report of pain management best practices from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. States such as Ohio and Oregon see them as one part of a menu of options aimed at curbing the opioid crisis.

St. Louis chiropractor Ross Mattox, an assistant professor at chiropractic school Logan University, sees both uninsured patients and those on Medicaid at the CareSTL clinic. He cheered Missouri’s decision to expand access, despite how long it took to get here.

“One of the most common things I heard from providers,” he said, “is ‘I want to send my patient to a chiropractor, but they don’t have the insurance. I don’t want to prescribe an opioid — I’d rather go a more conservative route — but that’s the only option I have.’”

And that can lead to the same tragic story: Someone gets addicted to opioids, runs out of a prescription and turns to the street before becoming another sad statistic.

“It all starts quite simply with back pain,” Mattox said.

Practical Barriers

While Missouri health care providers now have another tool besides prescribing opioids to patients with Medicaid, the multistep approaches required by alternative treatments create many more hoops than a pharmacy visit.

The physicians who recommend such treatments must support the option, and patients must agree. Then the patient must be able to find a provider who accepts Medicaid, get to the provider’s office even if far away and then undergo multiple, time-consuming therapies.

“After you see the chiropractor’s for one visit, it’s not like you’re cured from using opioids forever — it would take months and months and months,” Moore said.

The effort and cost that go into coordinating a care plan with multiple alternative pain therapies is another barrier.

“Covering a course of cheap opioid pills is different than trying to create a multidisciplinary individualized plan that may or may not work,” said Leo Beletsky, a professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University in Boston, noting that the scientific evidence of the efficacy of such treatments is mixed.

And then there’s the reimbursement issue for the providers. Corry Meyers, an acupuncturist in suburban St. Louis, does not accept insurance in his practice. But he said other acupuncturists in Missouri debate whether to take advantage of the new Medicaid program, concerned the payment rates to providers will be too low to be worthwhile.

“It runs the gamut, as everyone agrees that these patients need it,” Meyers stressed. But he said many acupuncturists wonder: “Am I going to be able to stay open if I take Medicaid?”

Structural Issues 

While helpful, plans like Missouri’s don’t address the structural problems at the root of the opioid crisis, Beletsky said.

“Opioid overutilization or overprescribing is not just a crisis in and of itself; it’s a symptom of broader structural problems in the U.S. health care system,” he said. “Prescribers reached for opioids in larger and larger numbers not just because they were being fooled into doing so by these pharmaceutical companies, but because they work really well for a broad variety of ailments for which we’re not doing enough in terms of prevention and treatment.”

Fixing some of the core problems leading to opioid dependence — rural health care “deserts” and the impact of manual labor and obesity on chronic pain — requires much more than a treatment alternative, Beletsky said.

And no matter how many alternatives are offered, he said, opioids will remain a crucial medicine for some patients.

Furthermore, while alternative pain management therapies may lessen opioid prescriptions, they do not address exploding methamphetamine addiction or other addiction crises leading to overdoses nationwide — even as a flood of funds pours in from the national and state level to fight these crises.

The Show-Me State’s refusal to expand Medicaid coverage to more people under the Affordable Care Act also hampers overall progress, said Dr. Fred Rottnek, a family and addiction doctor who sits on the St. Louis Regional Health Commission as chair of the Provider Services Advisory Board.

“The problem is we relatively cover so few people in Missouri with Medicaid,” he said. “The denominator is so small that it doesn’t affect the numbers a whole lot.”

But providers like Mattox are happy that such alternative treatments are now an option, even if they’re available only for a limited audience.

He just wishes it had been done sooner.

“A lot of it has to do with politics and the slow gears of government,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s taken people dying — it’s taken enough of a crisis for people to open their eyes and say, ‘Maybe there’s a better way to do this.’”