Physicians, social workers and consumer advocacy groups are putting pressure on the CMS to require all health plans sold on the federal exchange to cover medications used to treat people with opioid addictions.
More than 28,600 people died in 2014 due to overdoses from prescription painkillers, heroin and other opioids, according to a recent analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The federal government has viewed opioid abuse as a “public health crisis” and last month asked healthcare experts if medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid addiction should be included within the healthcare law's mandated insurance benefits to help address the problem.
Numerous hospital associations, psychiatrists, primary-care physicians, executives at drug-abuse treatment centers and recovering opioid addicts supported the idea in comments to the CMS this week, although several large insurers and pharmacy benefit management companies argued the benefit should be left up to their discretion.
The Affordable Care Act requires health insurers to cover 10 essential health benefits, including prescription drugs and substance use disorder services, but it has been unclear whether plans on the federal marketplace had to cover the full range of medication-assisted treatment. Many commercial insurers pay for MAT, a therapy where people take medication and counseling to reduce their cravings for opioids.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and National Institute on Drug Abuse have found MAT to be effective for people suffering from opioid addiction. NIDA said MAT “increases patient retention and decreases drug use, infectious disease transmission and criminal activity,” and it also saves money by keeping people out of hospitals and outpatient centers.
But some physicians and patient advocates say insurance companies have instituted high copays and other barriers that result in inadequate coverage for the treatment. Methadone and buprenorphine, the two most common drugs used in MAT, could cost someone thousands of dollars per year out of pocket.
Travis Simerly and his wife are MAT patients and take methadone daily, according to a comment letter Simerly wrote to the CMS. He said his insurance company, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Tennessee, denied their claim because the company only covers buprenorphine for addiction treatment. Simerly called the coverage discrepancy a “farce” and said all MAT drugs should be held to the same benefits standards. Blue Cross did not immediately respond for comment.
“Our addiction treatment is by far our largest medical expense, and for it to not be covered by the insurance that we are required by law to have is nothing more than a proverbial kick in the teeth,” Simerly wrote.
Dozens of individual physicians submitted letters asking the CMS to mandate that all federal health plans fully cover MAT as part of the essential health benefits.
“There is clinical consensus that MAT is the most effective treatment for opioid addiction,” said Dr. Shelly Greenfield, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. “The use of medications reduces opioid use and overdose rates, and helps retain people in treatment longer, which is associated with better outcomes.”
But the country's largest health insurers, PBMs and lobbying groups want the CMS to punt the proposal. America's Health Insurance Plans, the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, Express Scripts Holding Co., CVS Health Corp. and UnitedHealthcare shared the federal government's concern over the “devastating effect of opioid abuse,” but they argued they should not be forced to pay for the specific treatment that could curb the problem.
“We are concerned that by mandating specific benefits within an (essential health benefits) category, CMS may establish a precedent of imposing essential health benefit mandates in the future,” the BCBSA wrote. “Requiring plans to cover specific drugs within a category and class would conflict with this carefully established balance between coverage mandates and affordability, which in turn would lead to increases in premiums at a time when CMS is seeking to ensure that consumers have access to affordable coverage and that there is stability in the market.”
The companies and groups said the government should instead rely on individual payers and their pharmacy and therapeutics committees to determine coverage for specific drugs.
However, the Association for Community Affiliated Plans—the trade group that represents small, safety net health plans that cover many low-income people—disagreed with the large players, saying the industry should be prodded to fully cover MAT.
“ACAP plans are cognizant of the opioid addiction epidemic and are investing in efforts to address opioid abuse,” the organization said. “We are supportive of CMS adding MAT to the essential health benefits.”