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General interest items edited by Janice Flahiff

Medicare Drug Program Fails to Monitor Prescribers, Putting Seniors and Disabled at Risk

Excerpt from
ProPublica, May 11, 2013, 9:06 p.m., by Tracy WeberCharles Ornstein and Jennifer LaFleur

….An analysis of four years of Medicare prescription records shows that some doctors and other health professionals across the country prescribe large quantities of drugs that are potentially harmful, disorienting or addictive. Federal officials have done little to detect or deter these hazardous prescribing patterns.

Searches through hundreds of millions of records turned up physicians such as the Miami psychiatrist who has given hundreds of elderly dementia patients the same antipsychotic, despite the government’s most serious “black box” warning that it increases the risk of death. He believes he has no other options….

…..

The data, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, makes public for the first time the prescribing practices and identities of doctors and other health-care providers. The information does not include patient names or the reasons why doctors prescribed particular drugs, so reporters interviewed the physicians to learn their rationales.

Medicare has access to reams of data about its patients, their diagnoses and the medical services they received. It could analyze all of this information to determine whether patients are being prescribed appropriate drugs for their conditions.

But officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services say the job of monitoring prescribing falls to the private health plans that administer the program, not the government. Congress never intended for CMS to second-guess doctors – and didn’t give it that authority, officials said.

“CMS’s payments don’t go to physicians, don’t go to pharmacies. They go to plans, which is how our oversight framework has been established,” Jonathan Blum, the agency’s director of Medicare, said in an interview. The philosophy “really has been to defer to physicians” about whether a drug is medically necessary, he said.

Asked repeatedly to cite which provision in the law limits their oversight of prescribers, CMS officials could not do so.

The Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Serviceshas repeatedly criticized CMS for its failure to police the program, known as Part D. In report after report, the inspector general has advised CMS officials to be more vigilant. Yet the agency has rejected several key recommendations as unnecessary or overreaching.

Other experts in prescription drug monitoring also said Medicare should use its data to identify troubling prescribing patterns and take steps to investigate or restrict unsafe practitioners. That’s what state Medicaid programs for the poor routinely do.

“For Medicare to just turn a blind eye and refuse to look at data in front of them . . . it’s just beyond comprehension,” said John Eadie, director of the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program Center of Excellence at Brandeis University.

“They’re putting their patients at risk.”

….

The Part D records detail 1.1 billion claims in 2010 alone, including prescriptions and refills dispensed. ProPublica has created an online tool, Prescriber Checkup, to allow anyone to search for individual providers and see which drugs they prescribe.

Typically in Medicare, the government is responsible for contracting with doctors, reviewing claims for treatment and paying the bills.

But Part D is different: Patients get their drugs through stand-alone drug plans, which cover only drugs, or through Medicare HMOs that also cover medical services.

Medicare pays private insurers a set amount per enrollee to run the program and pay for the drugs. All the insurance plans are supposed to alert pharmacies to potentially harmful drug interactions, query doctors who prescribe high levels of narcotics to individual patients and be on the lookout for fraud, among other things.

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Potential for Fraud

Since Part D was launched, the HHS inspector general and the Government Accountability Office have grown increasingly worried that it lacks adequate oversight.

Several reports have found that Part D is vulnerable to fraud. Insurers have paid for prescriptions from doctors who were barred by Medicare. Separately, in 2007 alone, the program covered $1.2 billion worth of drugs prescribed by providers whose identities were unknown to insurers or Medicare, according to a June 2010 report.

The inspector general even found fault with the contractors Medicare hired to dig out fraud: The contractors generated few of their own investigations, relying on outside complaints for direction.

Although many reports focus on fraud, analysts also have found that the program was vulnerable to inappropriate prescribing that put patients’ lives in danger.

A May 2011 report said Medicare has not ensured that Part D paid only for drugs prescribed for FDA-approved and widely accepted off-label indications as federal law requires. About half of the 1.4 million antipsychotic prescriptions made to nursing home patients in the first six months of 2007 “were not used for medically accepted indications,” the report said.

“There’s certainly room for improvement,” Robert Vito, a regional inspector general who has directed many of the reports, said in an interview.

Medicare should, for example, require that prescriptions include a patient’s diagnosis as a way to monitor how Part D drugs were being used, his agency said.

But Medicare officials told the inspector general that neither state boards of pharmacy nor private industry requires this practice, so neither would they.

CMS also has rejected proposals to require insurers to report suspicious prescribing to its fraud contractor. Such sharing is now voluntary.

Medicare’s safeguards lag well behind those of many state Medicaid programs.

Louisiana requires that doctors include diagnosis codes when they write prescriptions for painkillers and antipsychotics. Similar checks have proved effective in other states. Florida found that antipsychotics given to children younger than 6 dropped when specialists reviewed prescriptions.

Even some of Medicare’s top prescribers think the program should do more to research unusual or suspicious prescribing patterns.

Indiana physician Daniel J. Hurley led the country with more than 160,000 prescriptions under Part D in 2010, ProPublica’s analysis shows. In an interview, he said nursing home pharmacies had credited him with prescriptions by other health professionals in his practice, a quirk Medicare should want to address.

It’s unclear how often this might happen, and some nursing home doctors do write lots of prescriptions on their own. Medicare said it recently addressed this issue, but according to Medicare’s own numbers, Hurley’s prescriptions have dropped only slightly.

“Why wouldn’t they call us up and ask us?” Hurley said. “If you hustled, you couldn’t come anywhere near that number, nor should you.”

 

July 7, 2013 Posted by | health care, Librarian Resources | , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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