Altoona Mirror | By Chris Comisac | January 25, 2018

HARRISBURG — A controversial Workers’ Compensation drug formulary bill was reported out of a House committee Tuesday but not before committee Democrats vented about the proposed changes.

The House Labor and Industry Committee voted 15-11, along party lines, to report out Senate Bill 936, which seeks to require the state Department of Labor and Industry to adopt an evidence-based drug formulary for Pennsylvania’s workers’ compensation program. SB936 was approved by the Senate on Oct. 25 with a vote of 34-16.

Supporters of the measures say they will help combat the opioid crisis, arguing that opioids have been prescribed to injured Pennsylvania workers far more than in other states and with higher dosage amounts, making it all the more likely workers fall prey to addiction and overdose.

SB936’s sponsor, Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, has said the importance of the legislation was evidenced by an October investigatory report by the Philadelphia Daily News that illustrated in detail a new business arrangement between lawyers and doctors, where attorneys representing injured workers have jointly purchased pharmacies with the physicians who treat their clients.

Labor union groups and the state’s trial lawyers organization oppose the legislation, arguing it isn’t limited to simply opioid medications and would limit injured workers’ right to health care and treatment.

“Senate Bill 936 is a shameful attempt to make it easier for insurance companies to profit off of the opioid epidemic by providing inadequate treatment or denying coverage to injured workers. Opioids are not a priority in this bill. Drug formularies prioritize cheaper medications and forms of treatment and might even increase the use of opioid medications in pain management,” said Pennsylvania AFL-CIO Pres­i­dent Rick Blooming­dale and Secretary-Treasurer Frank Snyder in a statement issued Tuesday.

“In a drug formulary, drugs that are not medically-evidenced to have a benefit for the injured worker would be ‘not-recommended’ or ‘n’ drugs,” explained House Bill 18 bill sponsor, Rep. Ryan E. Mackenzie, R-Lehigh, to the committee, noting formularies are commonly used tools that are created by medical professionals.

“Opioids, often times because of their addictive nature, the long-acting effect they can have on somebody and their ability to mask the pain and actually result in longer recovery periods – for all these reasons and many others, opioids are often ‘not recommended,'” Mackenzie said.

“There are other treatments that are medically-effective and have proven to be more beneficial to the injured worker that are ‘recommended,’ and the doctor, still in this system, can make the ultimate determination.”

The committee’s Democrats complained about considering this bill separately from what they said was a larger negotiation on several workers’ compensation issues and legislation, with the minority committee chairman taking the lead criticizing the legislation, calling it “fake” and “a con.”

“This isn’t about opioids, it’s about money,” claimed Committee Minority Chairman Rep. John Galloway, D-Bucks. “It’s about making money for the insurance industry. That’s all it is, pure and simple.”

Galloway said, “Let me state it very clearly: This is not an opioid bill. This bill deals with every prescription that a doctor writes.”

Under additional questioning about how the system would work under SB936, Mackenzie explained he doesn’t see any difference between the current process for non-opioid drugs and the one that would exist under SB936.

Later on Tuesday, House Republicans held a press conference to promote SB936 to help address Pennsylvania’s opioid crisis.

“A June 2017 study by the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute studied non-surgical claims in 26 states, representing two-thirds of the workers’ compensation claims paid nationwide (finding) Pennsylvania is the second-highest state in the amount of opioids per claim (at 258 pills per claim), 87 percent higher than the median state,” said House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny.

Turzai added that same study found Pennsylvania is the second-highest state with regard to opioid dosage per pill, at 10.2 mg.

“We care deeply about the safety and well-being of Pennsylvania families and workers adversely affected by the overprescribing of opioids. We need to stop addiction before it begins, and this measure will further ensure the state is meeting that goal,” Turzai said.

Joe Pritchard, CEO of Pinnacle Treatment Centers – one of the largest providers of opioid abuse disorder treatment in Pennsylvania, having 13 facilities throughout the state — said he wholeheartedly supports the use of drug formularies as proposed.

“Every day, we treat 4,000 individuals whose lives have been devastated through the use of opiates that have now taken control over their lives and everyone around them,” Pritchard said. “With our research, we’re showing that at least 45 percent of those individuals that we treat every day are there as a result of an injury – they were prescribed an opiate and it took off from there.”

“We support this bill because of the devastation in the communities that we work in and serve every day,” Pritchard continued. “Implementation of a drug formulary as part of the Workers’ Compensation system can go a long way to prevent injured workers from even getting to the point of needing the treatment that we provide.”

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