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February 15, 2018

House Holds Hearing on Opioid Crisis


On January 17, 2018, the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight held a hearing entitled “The Opioid Crisis: The Current Landscape and CMS Actions to Prevent Opioid Misuse.” The hearing focused on efforts by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to utilize data to identify high risk individuals in the Medicare Part D program who are likely to abuse opioids. The hearing also examined the extent of the problem as well as the tools and programs CMS has used to protect individuals with substance abuse issues and to prevent physicians from over-prescribing.

The Committee heard testimony from a three-person panel, all of whom shared progress reports regarding steps the agency has taken to address different aspects of the opioid crisis. Discussion at the hearing largely focused on the desire to pass bipartisan legislation to address the opioid crisis as well as to determine best practices to identify over-prescribers and reduce instances of fraud.

Opening Statements

Chairwoman Lynn Jenkins opened the hearing by highlighting statistics regarding rising opioid related overdose death rates in her home state of Kansas. She went on to state that the “immense cost opioids impose on society” have caused a loss of productivity and put undue burden on the U.S. economic system. To lessen this burden, Jenkins stressed the importance to provide Medicare, specifically private Part D plan sponsors, the tools they need to ensure that opioids are provided only when medically necessary.

Full Committee Ranking Member Richard Neal mainly focused on the effect the opioid epidemic has on Medicare beneficiaries and negative impact on labor participation rates around the country. In the face of a looming expiration of the Administration’s public health emergency declaration, Neal voiced his frustration that there has not been “positive action” taken to find a solution to opioid overuse.

Witness Testimony

Gary L. Cantrell, Deputy Inspector General for Investigations at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), highlighted the work at the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) in restricting vulnerable beneficiaries’ access to drugs by identifying and apprehending physicians and pharmacies who inappropriately or unnecessarily prescribe opioids. He explained that opioid related fraud encompasses a broad range of criminal activity that the OIG, in tandem with state and federal law enforcement officials, has focused on recently.

Elizabeth H. Curda, Director of Health Care at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), explained how CMS developed a “misuse” strategy to oversee opioid prescribing in the Medicare program. She explained that CMS relies on private insurers – known as plan sponsors – to be alerted of “high-risk” beneficiaries, or beneficiaries receiving opioid prescriptions from four or more prescribers. After a high-risk beneficiary is identified, she said, plan sponsors are alerted, identify a plan of action, and respond to CMS within thirty days of the alert.

Kimberly Brandt, Principal Deputy Administrator for Operations at CMS, explained how CMS oversees efforts from Medicare Part D sponsors to work with prescribing physicians in an attempt to identify improper opioid utilization. Brandt explained that this is done by using utilization monitoring systems to identify high-risk beneficiaries and then alerting pharmacies of the patient’s status.

Committee Discussion

Tracking High-Risk Beneficiaries

Chairwoman Jenkins voiced her concern that CMS only tracks a small portion of the at-risk population when attempting to determine high-risk beneficiaries. Ms. Curda agreed and noted that beneficiaries who are receiving large doses of opioids should be tracked, regardless how many doctors or pharmacies they have visited. It was suggested that current monitoring by CMS is insufficient, with nearly three-quarters of a million beneficiaries receiving high-level doses of opioids being overlooked and at risk for falling victim to addiction or overdose death.


Fraud in Treatment Programs

Representatives Pat Meehan and Carlos Curbelo expressed interest in the most common health care fraud schemes surrounding the opioid crisis. Mr. Cantrell explained that the most common fraud schemes are seen in “sober houses” where addicts go to receive treatment. Patients are often farmed out to corrupt doctors to receive lab testing and other expensive and unnecessary treatments, he explained. He said there have also been cases of individuals selling expensive medications back to pharmacies or on the black market, and unethical prescribers who receive kickbacks from pharmacies as a reward for prescribing certain addictive drugs. Mr. Cantrell attributed this to a lack of resources for law enforcement officials to address every fraud case that comes through the system.

Potential Legislative Solutions

Throughout the hearing, members on both sides of the aisle promoted bipartisan legislation to address the opioid epidemic. Representative Judy Chu advocated for Ensuring Access to Quality Sober Living Act of 2017 (H.R. 4684), a bill she sponsored in hopes to develop a set of best practices for sober living communities. Chu also highlighted details of the Acupuncture for Heroes and Seniors Act of 2017 (H.R. 2839), a bill she sponsored in an effort to advocate for alternative treatment options, particularly acupuncture, to be covered through Medicare.

Meanwhile, Representative David Schweikert spoke in support of the Comprehensive Opioid Abuse Reduction Act of 2016, which was signed into law in 2016. He claimed the bill would act as a mechanism to standardize the prior authorization process and promote the use of pharmaceuticals with less addictive tendencies.

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