The workers’ compensation (WC) system provides the perfect prescription for opioid addiction. There are three types of injured workers that fall into this lair: active addicts, recovered addicts who relapse after taking medications following a work injury, and the neophyte who becomes addicted following their work injury. Thus, the system, although well-intentioned, creates and perpetuates dependency and addiction.

A WC claim can provide a lifetime funding source for medication and temporary and permanent disability benefits. One of the most frequent claims is a back claim. Pain cannot be objectively measured. The injured worker complains of pain that is aggravated by work. His physician prescribes opioids and restricts him from working. He is paid for his lost wages. The system for rating permanent impairment automatically qualifies him for an impairment rating after six months of medically documented pain, which then translates to an award of permanent disability benefits often worth as much as –one to two years’ of income.

It is well known that workers with opioid abuse have higher claim costs.

While estimates vary, it is believed that the top 5 percent of opioid users likely account for more than half of total opioid use.

When those individuals find their way into the WC system, insignificant injuries turn into nightmare claims. These often involve multiple medical procedures, permanent total disability, and sometimes drug overdose and death. These are difficult and expensive to settle due the thresholds established by Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services requiring that a Medicare Set-Aside fund be established as part of a settlement to ensure Medicare does not have to pay for any medical treatment that it deems to be the responsibility of WC. The lifetime projected cost of the opioid medication alone can often cost half a million dollars.

 In the late 1990s, it was thought that doctors were undertreating pain and that opioid analgesics could safely ease the suffering. Following the increase in opioid prescriptions, deaths began to escalate. In response, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released new guidelines concerning prescribing opioids for chronic pain in March 2016. According to the CDC, from 1999 through 2014, more than 165,000 people died from opioid-related deaths in the U.S.  

In 2012, health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioid medications. That is one prescription for every adult in the U.S.

The guidelines have caused some backlash from physicians and patients who believe the government is interfering with the patient-physician relationship. However, there is a fundamental agreement that more oversight and education is needed at all levels.

Long-term opioid use can be counterproductive in workers’ compensation and can be a contributing factor in an injured worker not returning to the workplace. The use of opioids for acute pain and cancer pain is accepted, where symptom relief rather than functional outcome is the goal. However, the use of opioids for chronic pain is controversial; it could be contraindicated and may “do harm.” Opioids cause known side effects of hyperalgesia, constipation, hypogonadism, dizziness, drowsiness, overdose potential, etc. The CDC guidelines[1] note that opioid use disorder “is manifested by specific criteria such as an unsuccessful effort to cut down or control use resulting in social problems and a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home.”

The Colorado Division of Workers’ Compensation (CDOW) issued amended medical treatment guidelines (MTG) for Chronic Pain Disorder and for Chronic Regional Pain effective November 30, 2017. CDOWC relies heavily on the CDC guidelines. The guidelines, though not binding on any physician, are peer-reviewed by both experts in the field and industry stakeholders.

 The MTG suggest that chronic use of opioids is not recommended if the patient has an active or previous history of substance abuse or for workers in safety-sensitive positions. Opioids for chronic pain should not be prescribed unless there was a failure of pain management alternatives by a motivated patient including active and cognitive behavioral therapies. A full physical and psychological assessment must be performed. The physician must consider risk factors, including history of severe post-operative pain, opioid tolerance, chronic pain, sleep apnea, being off work for over six months, depression, anxiety, psychiatric disease or disorder, history of substance use disorder, complaint of all-over body pain, opioid sensitivities, and history of intrathecal pump use or spinal cord stimulator.

When opioids are prescribed, the physician should continue prescriptions only if “meaningful improvement” in pain and function outweighs the risk of continued use. The guidelines recommend that the patients demonstrate a 30 percent improvement in pain scores and function to justify continued opioid use. In other words, opioids must be used as a method to improve function rather than just sustain the status quo condition. The physician should actively review patient history of controlled substances, document improved function, consult the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, and conduct random drug screenings.  

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[1] The CDC guidelines can be found at www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/wr/mm655051e1.htm.

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Karen Gail Treece, a trial lawyer with over 36 years of litigation experience, is recognized as one of the premier workers’ compensation defense lawyers in the State of Colorado. Ms. Treece has been recognized by Best Lawyers – U.S. News and World Report in the field of workers’ compensation since 2012 and as a “Lawyer of the Year” in employers in Denver for 2015 and 2018.