The cups of urine travel by express mail to the Comprehensive Pain Specialists lab in an industrial park in Brentwood, Tenn., not far from Nashville. Most days bring more than 700 of the little sealed cups from clinics across 10 states, wrapped in red-tagged waste bags. The network treats about 48,000 people each month, and many will be tested for drugs.
Gloved lab techs keep busy inside the cavernous facility, piping smaller urine samples into tubes. First there are tests to detect opiates that patients have been prescribed by CPS doctors. A second set identifies a wide range of drugs, both legal and illegal, in the urine. The doctors’ orders are displayed on computer screens and tracked by electronic medical records. Test results go back to the clinics in four to five days. The urine ends up stored for a month inside a massive walk-in refrigerator.
The high-tech testing lab’s raw material has become liquid gold for the doctors who own Comprehensive Pain Specialists. This testing process, driven by the nation’s epidemic of painkiller addiction, generates profits across the doctor-owned network of 54 clinics, the largest pain-treatment practice in the Southeast. Medicare paid the company at least $11 million for urine and related tests in 2014, when five of its professionals stood among the nation’s top billers. One nurse practitioner at the company’s clinic in Cleveland, Tenn., single-handedly generated $1.1 million in Medicare billings for urine tests that year, according to Medicare records.
Dr. Peter Kroll, one of the founders of CPS and its medical director, billed Medicare $1.8 million for these drug tests in 2015. He said the costly tests are medically justified to monitor patients on pain pills against risks of addiction or even selling of pills on the black market. “I have to know the medicine is safe and you’re taking it,” Kroll, 46, said in an interview. Kroll said that several states in which CPS is active have high rates of opioid use, which requires more urine testing.
Kaiser Health News, with assistance from researchers at the Mayo Clinic, analyzed available billing data from Medicare and private insurance billing nationwide, and found that spending on urine screens and related genetic tests quadrupled from 2011 to 2014 to an estimated $8.5 billion a year — more than the entire budget of the Environmental Protection Agency. The federal government paid providers more to conduct urine drug tests in 2014 than it spent on the four most recommended cancer screenings combined.
Yet there are virtually no national standards regarding who gets tested, for which drugs and how often. Medicare has spent tens of millions of dollars on tests to detect drugs that presented minimal abuse danger for most patients, according to arguments made by government lawyers in court cases that challenge the standing orders to test patients for drugs. Payments have surged for urine tests for street drugs such as cocaine, PCP and ecstasy, which seldom have been detected in tests done on pain patients. In fact, court records show some of those tests showed up positive just 1 percent of the time.
Urine testing has become particularly lucrative for doctors who operate their own labs. In 2014 and 2015, Medicare paid $1 million or more for drug-related tests billed by health professionals at more than 50 pain management practices across the U.S. At a dozen practices, Medicare billings were twice that high.
Thirty-one pain practitioners received 80 percent or more of their Medicare income just from urine testing, which a federal official called a “red flag” that may signal overuse and could lead to a federal investigation.
“We’re focused on the fact that many physicians are making more money on testing than treating patients,” said Jason Mehta, an assistant U.S. attorney in Jacksonville, Fla. “It is troubling to see providers test everyone for every class of drugs every time they come in.”