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Delaware Health Law Blog

Medicare Stops Paying for Most Urine Drug Screens

Highmark Medicare Services has issued a Local Coverage Determination (“LCD”) applicable to services performed on or after November 11, 2011, that eliminates coverage for urine drug screens (“UDS”) used by physicians to monitor whether patients are adhering to their medication regimens. The LCD limits coverage of UDS to circumstances where patients present with a suspected drug overdose, with known substance abuse or dependence, or for chronic pain patients suspected of illicit drug use ONLY if there has been an acute change in the patient’s physical or mental status, which the LCD equates with unexplained coma, unexplained altered mental status, severe cardiovascular instability, unexplained metabolic or respiratory acidosis, or unexplained seizures. The LCD expressly provides that drug screening for compliance purposes, diversion, or in asymptomatic patients is not covered.

Many of the leading experts in pain management, as well as the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration, support the use of random UDS to detect drug diversion and thwart drug-seeking behavior. In fact, as recently as last year Michele M. Leonhart, the Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, wrote that pain management specialists who fail to use random urine drug screens to detect misuse of prescription pain medication breach the standard of care in prescribing controlled.

Two factors have led to the broad agreement that urine drug screens are essential for weeding our patients who are misusing prescription pain medication. First, urine drug screens are effective in identifying what is known as “aberrant drug behavior,” which includes misusing illicit drugs and diverting prescription pain medication for sale. One relatively recent study identified a 45% rate of unexpected test results in a pain management practice, including 20% of patients who tested positive for illicit substances in their urine. Second, there are few, if any, reliable ways of predicting aberrant drug behavior. Authors on this subject agree that there is simply no way to obtain information from and about a patient that will meaningfully predict whether that patient will engage in aberrant drug behavior. So periodic urine drug screens act as a deterrent against such behavior and as a tool for identifying it.

Supporters of the LCD will argue that there is less risk of aberrant drug behavior among Medicare beneficiaries than in other segments of the population. Perhaps. But when you talk to pain management practitioners, what you hear is that abuse and misuse is rampant everywhere, even among those covered by Medicare. Many of the leading clinical experts in the field of pain management recommend random urine drug screens for all patients.

Another concern is how other health insurance carriers will respond to this determination. Carriers closely watch Medicare coverage determinations. Will other carriers implement similar coverage determinations?

For now, the focus will be on how to deal with Medicare beneficiaries. As a result of the LCD, Delaware physicians, particularly pain management physicians, who prescribe narcotics for the treatment of chronic pain and follow random UDS procedures to monitor compliance with medication regimens are now faced with a quandary with respect to their Medicare patients—forego random UDS or require those patients to pay for UDS themselves. The first option is hardly viable in our current environment.

Delaware physicians will need to advise their Medicare patients that random UDS are not covered services and, accordingly, the patients will be expected to pay for them. Given that much of the Medicare-covered population is of limited means, it seems that the recent LCD will create an interesting tension between patients and their doctors. Now that Medicare is refusing to pay for these tests, who will?

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