The Secret Role of Insurers in Medicare Opioid Policy
This month marks the one year anniversary of a closed door meeting between law enforcement agencies, federal and state regulators, and health insurance companies in a Baltimore suburb – a “special session” of an obscure advisory group to the U.S. Justice Department and the Department of Health and Human Services.
Although the mission of the Healthcare Fraud Prevention Partnership – HFPP for short -- is to prevent healthcare fraud, the October 20, 2016 meeting went much further. It gave the insurance industry – so-called “Partner Champions” -- a direct role in drafting recommendations that could decide how millions of pain patients will be treated by their doctors and what opioid medications will be prescribed to them, if any.
Major insurers like Aetna, Anthem, Cigna, Humana, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Kaiser Permanente were invited to attend, but no other stakeholders in healthcare, such as physicians, pharmacists, hospitals or patients, were asked to appear or share their insights. Few details about the meeting were made public, until now.
Pain News Network has obtained documents through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that shed some light on how the meeting was organized and what was discussed, but we were denied access to a list of individuals that attended, who they represented, or any recordings of what they said.
“The nature of some of the information provided during the Special Session on opioids would be of the sort that could have a negative impact on the competitive posture or business interests of a company if made public,” Jay Olin, Director of FOIA Analysis for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), wrote in a letter to PNN.
“The release of this sensitive information could put the company at significant financial risk if interested parties use this information to develop and execute schemes and individuals and organizations use this information to game the system and reap financial or other benefit.”
Olin also said the HFPP is not a federal advisory committee and therefore not subject to federal open meeting laws, even though the October 20 meeting was called by CMS, organized by CMS, funded by CMS, and held on federal property at the CMS Command Center in Woodlawn, Maryland.
“Furthermore, most (HFPP) partners are from the private sector and private industry is not subject to FOIA, nor is CMS authorized to release such information,” Olin wrote.
PNN is appealing that decision.
‘Government-authorized use only’
CMS may be trying to distance itself from the HFPP, but it’s clear they work closely together in their unusual “public-private partnership.”
A CMS website hosts a portal for HFPP members to sign-in that plainly states “this system is provided for Government-authorized use only.” The website also goes into detail on how to become an HFPP partner, the benefits of membership and provides an extensive list of partners that includes 45 different insurance companies.
According to a recent report from the General Accounting Office (GAO), CMS has spent over $30 million funding the HFPP since 2012, the year the partnership was created by the Obama administration to help the federal government detect and prevent healthcare fraud. A side benefit for insurers is that it helps them lower the cost of healthcare coverage. A CMS flyer plainly states that one of the reasons the HFPP exists is to help payers “identify potential savings.”
The goals and activities of the partnership are important to understand because CMS contracts with dozens of insurers to provide Medicare coverage to about 57 million elderly and disabled Americans, at an annual cost of nearly $700 billion. And if the insurance industry is making healthcare decisions while being subsidized with billions of taxpayer dollars, Americans have a right to know what’s going on.
Yet CMS won’t even say who attended that October 20 meeting.
“A total of 58 participants across 26 federal, state, public and private organizations, including CMS, attended the event,” is all that an executive summary of the meeting says about the attendees.
The first half of the daylong meeting wasn’t even about opioids. It focused on the HFPP’s mission: combating fraud. According to the executive summary, a CMS technical advisor briefed attendees about common fraud schemes in the addiction treatment and drug testing industries, such as “substance abuse facilities that may be exposing their patients to physical or other harm” and insurance claims from treatment facilities “for services not rendered and unnecessary service, including lab claims.”
Another fraud scheme flagged by CMS was “physicians who appear to be referring Marketplace (Medicare/Medicaid) members, as well as other individuals who may be paid by substance abuse facilities to sign people up for Marketplace coverage.”
After a break for lunch, the discussion veered away from fraud prevention and into treatment decisions normally left between a patient and their doctor. A CMS official “emphasized the need to look at improving the quality of care” and identified several priority areas, including “best practices for acute and chronic pain.”
“Eliminate or restrict opioid prescribing for acute conditions,” was one of the...