The U.S. Supreme Court sided with hospital groups June 15 in a case challenging HHS’ 340B payment cuts.
The case centered around whether CMS has the authority to make cuts to the program under its Medicare Outpatient Prospective Payment System. Under the payment rule, HHS cut the reimbursement rate for covered drugs by 28.5 percent in 2018, but it later lowered the reimbursement rate cut to 22.5 percent.
Under the 340B program, eligible hospitals can buy outpatient drugs at a discount. A hospital typically pays 20 percent to 50 percent below the average sales price for the drugs through the program.
The Supreme Court reversed a federal appeals court’s 2020 ruling that HHS had the authority to make the $1.6 billion annual reimbursement cut.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh, writing the opinion for the court’s unanimous decision, said that absent a survey of hospitals’ acquisition costs, HHS may not vary the reimbursement rate for 340B hospitals.
“HHS’s 2018 and 2019 reimbursement rates for 340B hospitals were therefore contrary to the statute and unlawful,” he wrote. The American Hospital Association, Association of American Medical Colleges and America’s Essential Hospitals said in a joint statement emailed to Becker’s following the decision that they look forward to working with HHS and the courts to develop a plan to reimburse 340B hospitals affected by the cuts while ensuring other hospitals are not disadvantaged as they also continue to serve their communities.
The Biden administration recently signaled that it will extend the federal COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE), which has been in place for nearly two-and-a-half years, beyond its current July 15 expiration date. As shown in the graphic above, a number of key pandemic-era policies would end if the PHE were discontinued. Hospitals, already experiencing financial challenges, would face an immediate 20 percent reduction in Medicare reimbursement for each hospitalized COVID patient.
Combined with the end of funding for treating uninsured COVID patients, and with millions of Americans expected to lose Medicaid coverage when eligibility checks restart, the cost of treating COVID patients will fall more heavily on providers. More treatment costs will also be passed on to patients, as most private insurers no longer waive cost-sharing for COVID care.
On the telemedicine front, Congress has temporarily extended some Medicare telehealth flexibilities (including current payment codes and coverage for non-rural beneficiaries) for five months after the PHE ends, while CMS studies permanent coverage options. But further Congressional action will be required to keep current Medicare telehealth coverage in place, and these decisions will surely influence private insurers’ telehealth reimbursement policies.
Although the Biden administration promises that it will provide sixty days’ notice before terminating the PHE or letting it expire, providers must prepare for the inevitable financial hit when the PHE ends.
Medicare currently pays for Hospital at Home using a top-down (hospital-centered) payment—the payment is made to hospitals, and the amount is based on Medicare’s payment system for acute inpatient admissions. An alternative, bottom-up approach could generate a payment amount on the basis of existing home-based care payment systems, with additions for the expanded services needed for the more acute patients in a Hospital at Home model. Because home care providers are typically reimbursed at lower rates, this approach to payment would be less expensive and could capitalize on the existing in-home care expertise these providers have, while expanding their reach to a higher-acuity patient population. The co-authors have compared payment options for home hospitalization programs under both the top-down and bottom-up approaches.
The Hospital at Home delivery model faces three significant and related challenges to expansion—generating a sufficient volume of patients to keep local programs in business, achieving cost efficiencies, and defining appropriate patients (not so sick that the patients will fail to heal or be in danger but not so healthy that they don’t need Hospital at Home).
Any health care innovation needs patient volume to be viable. A Hospital at Home program requires teams that can immediately access and deliver all needed care, including diagnostics, monitoring, pharmaceuticals, and nursing services. It also requires physicians adept at working with home-based patients while coordinating all aspects of care. Patient intake and discharge must be handled promptly, including care plans for the patient during their Hospital at Home “stay” and transitioning the patient to their regular providers after the acute phase. Much, but not all, of this infrastructure exists in home health agencies, but Hospital at Home patients typically have more time-sensitive and intense needs than the usual home health patient, which will require some staff expansion by a home health agency seeking to run a Hospital at Home program. A few patients a day will not likely generate enough revenue to maintain the staff expertise or the infrastructure needed to deliver all the different services Hospital at Home patients need.
While it might seem logical that Hospital at Home programs would be sponsored and operated by individual hospitals, many hospitals would not generate sufficient volume to support their own program. In 2019, the national average discharge rate per hospital bed was about 33 per year, and about half were Medicare beneficiaries. A large hospital with 1,000 beds might have 15,000 Medicare discharges per year. On average, we found about 5 percent of Medicare discharges would be eligible for Hospital at Home—only about 15 per week for a 1,000-bed hospital. A program sponsored by a particular hospital might not receive referral patients from competing hospitals because the competing hospitals would be losing patient volume and revenue, and except for extremely large hospital systems, most hospitals would not generate sufficient volume to support the program. A program that serves multiple hospitals will likely have advantages of scale.
When it comes to cost, hospital-based services are well-known to bear facility overhead expenses, which can make hospital-based services more expensive than services delivered from other sites. Medicare pays for hospital inpatient services mostly using diagnosis-related groups. Medicare pays a pre-set amount for each kind of admission, regardless of the actual cost accrued by the provider for a particular patient. But as our analysis shows, starting with Medicare’s home care reimbursement saves the payer more than 50 percent of an acute patient stay, when considering all facility, professional, and ancillary services. Of course, the lower price is appealing to a payer, such as a Medicare Advantage plan, but it could also save a patient money in reduced cost sharing.
Identifying the right patients for medical interventions has been a challenge for decades.The goal is to strike the right balance: avoiding unnecessary care but not skimping on needed care. To promote efficiency and outcomes, private payers and Medicare apply utilization management reviews and quality monitoring. Even for patients appropriate for Hospital at Home, hospitals may dislike the programs, as they fail to see the value of home-based care delivery in the face of many unfilled inpatient beds. On the other hand, home health agency-based Hospital at Home programs could see financial gains and tend to over-use such programs. All of this must be balanced with patient perceptions and acceptance of such programs. Participants who have piloted both top-down and bottom-up models have found substantially higher patient acceptance in models that allow entry to a Hospital at Home admission without an emergency department visit, which is typically required of top-down models. Clearly, use and quality management programs will be needed to achieve the right balance of these competing interests, and value based programs can help align incentives as well.
Most research and proposals for implementing home hospitalization programs assume they are an extension of hospital operations and assume hospital costs and reimbursement. But there are cost and other advantages to building home hospitalization on the foundation of home-based care providers, whose expertise includes keeping patients safe and healthy at home. Policy makers who design reimbursement for home hospitalization programs and set conditions for providers to participate in them should consider whether home-based care providers should be eligible to manage, or play a foundational role in, these programs. This could simultaneously save payers money, create operational efficiencies, and increase patient access. Physicians and hospitals sponsoring these programs should similarly consider the roles home-based care providers could play within current home hospitalization programs. Simply extending the reach of hospitals into patients’ homes is unlikely to allow the promising scale or cost savings stakeholders hope for from home hospitalization programs. Each year, hundreds of thousands of Medicare patients could benefit.
The bill is coming due for federal loans given to hospitals early in the COVID-19 pandemic, adding to their financial woes, Oregon Public Broadcastingreported May 28.
The Medicare Accelerated and Advance Payment program offered hospitals short-term interest- free loans, according to the report. These loans are coming due as hospitals’ costs are rising quickly and revenue from patient stays and surgeries is growing more slowly.
The idea behind the program was that hospitals would be able to pay back the advance once the pandemic passed and operations returned to normal, according to the report. Hospitals are still dealing with the effects of the pandemic, but the federal government wants to recoup the money to keep Medicare funded.
In March 2021, HHS began recovering those cash advances by paying hospitals 25 percent less for Medicare reimbursement claims, according to the report. Earlier this year, HHS began paying hospitals 50 percent less for reimbursement claims.
Hospitals lobbied for the loans to be forgiven, but were unsuccessful, according to the report.
The momentum behind Medicare Advantage is only growing as more baby boomers age into eligibility, and experts don’t expect the energy around the program to slow down any time soon.
A recent analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that a record 3,834 plans were available for the 2022 plan year in MA, which represents an 8% increase over 2021 and the largest number on the market in a decade.
Open enrollment for Medicare ended Dec. 7, and enrollment numbers will begin trickling out as the year winds down. In 2021, 26 million Medicare beneficiaries, or about 42% of those eligible for the program, were enrolled in an MA plan.
“As Medicare Advantage enrollment continues to grow, insurers seem to be responding by offering more plans and choices to the people on Medicare,” the KFF analysts said.
Part of the appeal of MA to an increasingly savvy consumer base is that it offers additional benefits beyond those afforded people in traditional Medicare, such as vision and dental coverage as well as supports for members’ social needs.
Sachin Jain, M.D., CEO of SCAN Health Plan, told Fierce Healthcare that people are increasingly shopping around for plans, building greater awareness of MA as a whole as well as of the different types of benefits beneficiaries could select.
“We’re seeing that consumers are more sophisticated today than they were a decade ago,” he said. “I think people are realizing that fee-for-service Medicare doesn’t cover a lot of things.”
The KFF report shows that more than 90% of non-group MA plans offer some kind of vision, hearing, telehealth or dental benefits and that most (89%) include prescription drug coverage as well.
Elena McFann, president of Medicare at Anthem, told Fierce Healthcare that throughout the open enrollment period, plans built with benefits that target the social determinants of health and promote whole-person care resonated strongly with members.
Anthem, for example, offers plans that include a slate of essential extra benefits that members can choose from based on what they need the most. Options include grocery cards, transportation benefits and in-home supports.
She said that the grocery benefits and flex cards that allow members to purchase additional hearing, vision and dental coverage have proven particularly popular in this enrollment season.
“What those all point to is the concept of flexibility and helping them lead healthier lives where they really need the help where they are in their journey,” McFann said.
As these benefits prove popular, an increasing number of plans are offering them in tandem. The Better Medicare Alliance released a survey late last month that found the number of plans including supplemental benefits grew by 43% for the 2022 plan year.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has issued additional flexibilities that allow MA plans to address members’ social determinants of health as the program’s enrollment continues to swell.
Jain said SCAN has seen similar interest in supplemental benefits, and that flexibility afforded to MA plans to adapt to seniors’ needs and expectations is a critical factor in the program’s success.
“When you’re in the business of serving seniors, a lot of what you have to do is anticipate needs that those seniors may not anticipate that they have, give them things they didn’t know they needed,” he said.
McFann said that beneficiaries value plans like these that unite brands they trust and recognize and that partners like Kroger enable insurers to more effectively meet seniors where they are. In its co-branded plans, members can access benefits like Healthy Grocery Cards and stipends to purchase over-the-counter health items.
She said that there has been significant “excitement” around those plans, which are available in four states, during the current enrollment period.
“It gives the Medicare eligibles a sense of familiarity and a sense of comfort, again meeting them on their terms,” McFann said.
However, while many established insurers have set ambitious growth targets in this market and new startups enter the space regularly, they still have plenty of work to do if they want to catch up with the market’s dominant forces: UnitedHealthcare, Humana and Blues plans.
UHC and Humana together account for 45% of the MA market in 2021, according to the KFF analysis. Humana offers plans in 85% of counties and UHC in 74% for 2022.
That means, 89% of Medicare eligibles have access to a Humana plan and 90% have access to a UHC MA plan if they choose, according to the report.
Competition is continuing to grow, though, and both McFann and Jain said they don’t feel the momentum around MA slowing down anytime soon.
“It is those extras and social drivers of health solutions that really have caught on with the Medicare-eligible segment and we expect to see that expand even further,” McFann said.
A recent piece in JAMA argues that policymakers need to be proactive in addressing how the rise of MA enrollment will affect the Medicare program as a whole, including its role in national quality and utilization measurement, rural healthcare access, and graduate medical education. The ability to monitor care delivered to the traditional, fee-for-service Medicare beneficiary population has been critical for assessing cost growth and shifting care patterns, distributing subsidies, and basing MA payments—all things that will become increasingly difficult as traditional Medicare becomes both smaller and less representative of the entire Medicare population.
The Gist: Traditional Medicare has been a springboard for national healthcare policy goals and industry-wide innovations. However, consumers’ preference for, and policy shifts supporting, the growth of Medicare Advantage are proving to be unstoppable.
Providers must prepare for a future in which a shrinking minority of beneficiaries are enrolled in traditional Medicare. If current trends continue, Medicare policymakers must bolster ongoing support for medical education, and build a higher standard of transparency and quality reporting for MA carriers and providers to maintain the sustainability of one of the country’s greatest healthcare data resources.
Hospitals’ labor costs rose by more than a third from pre-pandemic levels by March 2022, according to a report out Wednesday from Kaufman Hall.
Heightened temporary and traveling labor costs were a main contributor, with contract labor accounting for 11% of hospitals’ total labor expenses in 2022 compared to 2% in 2019, the report found.
Contract nurses’ median hourly wages rose 106% over the period, from $64 an hour to $132 an hour, while employed nurse wages increased 11%, from $35 an hour to $39 an hour, the report found.
The new data from Kaufman Hall supports concerns hospital executives expressed while releasing first quarter earnings results, as higher-than expected labor costs spurred some operators, like HCA, to lower their financial full-year guidance.
The ongoing use of contract labor amid shortages driven by heightened turnover was a key factor executives cited for higher costs, and follows the findings from Kaufman Hall’s latest report.
More than a third of nurses surveyed by staffing firm Incredible Health said they plan to leave their current jobs by the end of this year, according to a March report. While burnout is driving them to leave, higher salaries are the top motivating factor for taking other positions, that report found.
Kaufman Hall’s report, which analyzes data from more than 900 hospitals across the country, found hospitals spent $5,494 in labor expenses per adjusted discharge in March compared to $4,009 roughly three years ago.
Costs rose for hospitals in every region, though the South and West experienced the largest increases from pre-pandemic levels as those expenses rose 43% and 42%, respectively.
The West and Northeast/Mid-Atlantic regions saw the highest expenses consistently from 2019 to 2022, according to the report.
“The pandemic made longstanding labor challenges in the healthcare sector much worse, making it far more expensive to care for hospitalized patients over the past two years,” said Erik Swanson, senior vice president of data and analytics at Kaufman Hall.
“Hospitals now face a number of pressures to attract and retain affordable clinical staff, maintain patient safety, deliver quality services and increase their efficiency,” Swanson said.
The report also notes that hospitals are competing with non-hospital employers also pursuing hourly staff, though those companies can pass along wage increases to consumers through higher prices “in a way healthcare organizations cannot,” the report said.
Some hospitals, like HCA Healthcare and Universal Health Services, are looking to raise prices for health plans amid rising nurse salaries, according to reporting from The Wall Street Journal.
Another recent report from group purchasing organization Premier found the CMS underestimated hospital labor spending when making payment adjustments for the 2022 fiscal year, resulting in hospitals receiving only a 2.4% rate increase compared to a 6.5% increase in hospital labor rates.
To match the rates hospitals are now paying staff, an adequate inpatient payment update for fiscal 2023 is needed, that report said.
The CMS proposed its IPPS rule for FY 2023 on April 18 that includes a 3.2% hike to inpatient hospital payments, which provider groups like the American Hospital Association rebuked as “simply unacceptable” considering inflation and rising hospital labor costs.
CELINA, Tenn. — It was about 1 a.m. on April 19, 2016, when a burglary alarm sounded at Dale Hollow Pharmacy in Celina, a tiny town in the rolling, wooded hills near the Kentucky border.
Two cops responded. As their flashlights bobbed in the darkness, shining through the pharmacy windows, they spotted a sign of a break-in: pill bottles scattered on the floor.
The cops called the co-owner, Thomas Weir, who arrived within minutes and let them in. But as quickly as their flashlights beamed behind the counter, Weir demanded the cops leave. He said he’d rather someone “steal everything” than let them finish their search, according to a police report and body camera footage from the scene.
“Get out of there right now!” Weir shouted, as if shooing off a mischievous dog. “Get out of there!”
The cops argued with Weir as he escorted them out. They left the pharmacy more suspicious than when they’d arrived, triggering a probe in a small town engulfed in one of the most outsize concentrations of opioids in a pill-ravaged nation.
Nearly six years later, federal prosecutors have unveiled a rare criminal case alleging that Celina pharmacy owners intentionally courted opioid seekers by filling dangerous prescriptions that would have been rejected elsewhere. The pharmacies are accused of giving cash handouts to keep customers coming back, and one allegedly distributed its own currency, “monkey bucks,” inspired by a pet monkey that was once a common sight behind the counter. Two pharmacists admitted in plea agreements they attracted large numbers of patients from “long distances” by ignoring red flags indicating pills were being misused or resold. In their wake, prosecutors say, these Celina pharmacies left a rash of addiction, overdoses, deaths, and millions in wasted tax dollars.
“I hate that this is what put us on the map,” said Tifinee Roach, 38, a lifelong Celina resident who works in a salon not far from the pharmacies and recounted years of unfamiliar cars and unfamiliar people filling the parking lots. “I hate that this is what we’re going to be known for.”
Celina, an old logging town of 1,900 people about two hours northeast of Nashville, was primed for this drug trade: In the shadow of a dying hospital, four pharmacies sat within 1,000 feet of each other, at the crux of two highways, dispensing millions of opioid pills. Before long, that intersection had single-handedly turned Tennessee’s Clay County into one of the nation’s pound-for-pound leaders of opioid distribution. In 2017, Celina pharmacies filled nearly two opioid prescriptions for every Clay County resident — more than three times the national rate — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Visitors once came to Celina to tour its historical courthouse or drop their lines for smallmouth bass in the famed fishing lake nearby. Now they came for pills.
Soon after Weir’s police encounter in 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration set its sights on his two Celina pharmacies, three doors apart — Dale Hollow Pharmacy and Xpress Pharmacy. Separately, investigators examined the clinic of Dr. Gilbert Ghearing, which sat directly between Dale Hollow and Xpress and leased office space to a third pharmacy in the same building, Anderson Hometown Pharmacy. Its owners and operators have not been charged with any crime.
In December, a federal judge unsealed indictments against Weir and the other owners of Dale Hollow and Xpress pharmacies, Charles “Bobby” Oakley and Pamela Spivey, alleging they profited from attracting and filling dangerous and unjustifiable opioid prescriptions. Charges were also filed against William Donaldson, the former pharmacist and owner of Dale Hollow, previously convicted of drug dealing, who allegedly recruited most of the customers for the scheme.
The pharmacists at Dale Hollow and Xpress, John Polston and Michael Griffith, pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy and health care fraud charges and agreed to cooperate with law enforcement against the other suspects.
Ghearing was indicted on drug distribution charges for allegedly writing unjustifiable opioid prescriptions in a separate case in 2019. He pleaded not guilty, and his case is expected to go to trial in September.
‘An American Tragedy’
The Celina indictment comes as pharmacies enter an era of new accountability for the opioid crisis. In November, a federal jury in Cleveland ruled pharmacies at CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart could be held financially responsible for fueling the opioid crisis by recklessly distributing massive amounts of pain pills in two Ohio counties. The ruling — a first of its kind — is expected to reverberate through thousands of similar lawsuits filed nationwide.
Criminal prosecutions for such actions remain exceedingly rare. The Department of Justice in recent years increased prosecutions of doctors and pain clinic staffers who overprescribed opioids but files far fewer charges against pharmacists, and barely any against pharmacy owners, who are generally harder to hold directly responsible for prescriptions filled at their establishments.
In a review of about 1,000 news releases about legal enforcement actions taken by the Department of Health and Human Services since 2019, KHN identified fewer than 10 similar cases involving pharmacists or pharmacy owners being criminally charged for filling opioid prescriptions. Among those few similar cases, none involved allegations of so many opioids flowing readily through such a small place.
The Celina case is also the first time the Department of Justice sought a restraining order and preliminary injunction against pharmacies under the Controlled Substances Act, said David Boling, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Tennessee. DOJ used the civil filing to shut down Dale Hollow and Xpress pharmacies quickly in 2019, allowing prosecutors more time to build a criminal case against the pharmacy owners.
Former U.S. Attorney Don Cochran, who oversaw much of the investigation, said the crisis in Celina was so severe it warranted a swift and unique response.
Cochran said it once made sense for small pharmacies to be clustered in Celina, where a rural hospital served the surrounding area. But as the hospital shriveled toward closure, as have a dozen others in Tennessee, the competing pharmacies turned to opioids to sustain themselves and got hooked on the profits, he said.
“It’s an American tragedy, and I think the town was a victim in this,” Cochran said. “The salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar folks that lived there were victimized by these people in these pharmacies. I think they knew full well this was not a medical necessity. It was just a money-making cash machine for them.”
And much of that money came from taxpayers. In its court filings, DOJ argues the pharmacies sought out customers with Medicaid or Medicare coverage — or signed them up if they didn’t have it. To keep these customers coming back, the pharmacies covered their copays or paid cash kickbacks whenever they filled a prescription, prosecutors allege. The pharmacies collected more than $2.4 million from Medicare for opioids and other controlled substances from 2012 to 2018, according to the court filings.
Prosecutors say the pharmacies also paid kickbacks to retain profitable customers with non-opioid prescriptions. In one case, Dale Hollow gave $100 “payouts” to a patient whenever they filled his prescription for mysoline, an anti-seizure drug, then used those prescriptions to collect more than $237,000 from Medicare, according to Polston’s plea agreement.
Attorneys for Weir, Oakley, Donaldson, Spivey, Polston, and Griffith either declined to comment for this article or did not respond to requests for comment.
Ronald Chapman, an attorney for Ghearing, defended the doctor’s prescriptions, saying he’d done “the best he [could] with what was available” in a rural setting with no resources or expertise in pain management.
Chapman added that, while he does not represent the other Celina suspects, he had a theory as to why they drew the attention of federal law enforcement. As large corporate pharmacies made agreements with the federal government to be more stringent about opioid prescriptions, they filled fewer of them. Customers then turned to smaller pharmacies in rural areas to get their drugs, he said.
“I’m not sure if that’s what happened in this case, but I’ve seen it happen in many small towns in America. The only CVS down the street, or the only Rite Aid down the street, is cutting off every provider who prescribes opioids, leaving it to smaller pharmacies to do the work,” Chapman said.
Donaldson, reached briefly at his home in Celina on March 9, insisted the allegations levied against Dale Hollow and Xpress could apply to many pharmacies in the region.
“It wasn’t just them,” Donaldson said.
The Monkey and the Monkey Bucks
Long before it was called Dale Hollow Pharmacy, the blue-and-white building that moved millions of pills through Celina was Donaldson Pharmacy, and Donaldson was behind the counter doling out pills.
Donaldson owned and operated the pharmacy for decades as the eccentric son of one of the most prominent families in Celina, where a street, a park, and many businesses bear his surname. Even now, despite Donaldson’s prior conviction for opioid crimes and his new indictment, an advertisement for “Donaldson Pharmacy” hangs at the entrance of a nearby high school.
“Bill has always had a heart of gold, and he would help anyone he could. I just think he let that, well …” said Pam Goad, a neighbor, trailing off. “He’s always had a heart of gold.”
According to interviews with about 20 Celina residents, including Clay County Sheriff Brandon Boone, Donaldson is also known to keep a menagerie of exotic animals, at one point including at least two giraffes, and a monkey companion, “Carlos,” whom he dressed in clothing.
The monkey — a mainstay at Donaldson Pharmacy for years — both attracted and deterred customers. Linda Nelson, who owns a nearby business, said Carlos once escaped the pharmacy and, during a scrap with a neighbor’s dogs, tore down her mailbox by snapping its wooden post in half.
But the monkey wasn’t the only reason Donaldson Pharmacy stood out.
According to a DEA opioid database published by The Washington Post, Donaldson Pharmacy distributed nearly 3 million oxycodone and hydrocodone pills from 2006 to 2014, making it the nation’s 20th-highest per capita distributor during that period. It retained its ranking even though the pharmacy closed in 2011, when Donaldson was indicted for dispensing hydrocodone without a valid prescription.
Donaldson confessed to drug distribution and was sentenced to 15 months in prison. The pharmacy’s name was changed to Dale Hollow and ended up with Donaldson’s brother-in-law, Oakley. In 2014, Oakley sold 51% of the business to Weir, who also bought a majority stake of Xpress Pharmacy, three doors away, according to the DOJ’s civil complaint.
Under Weir’s leadership, these two pharmacies became an opioid hub with few equals, prosecutors say. From 2015 to 2018, Dale Hollow and Xpress pharmacies were the fourth-and 11th-highest per capita opioid purchasers in the nation, according to the DOJ, citing internal DEA data.
Many of these prescriptions were for Subutex, an opioid that can be used to treat addiction but is itself prone to abuse. Unless the patient is pregnant or nursing or has a documented allergy, Tennessee law requires doctors instead to prescribe Suboxone, an alternative that is much harder to abuse.
But at the Celina pharmacies, prescriptions for Subutex outnumbered those for Suboxone by at least 4-to-1, prosecutors say. In their plea agreements, pharmacists from Dale Hollow and Xpress described stores that thrived on the trade in Subutex, and said Weir set “mandates” for how many Subutex prescriptions to fill and instructed them to “never run out.”
Griffith, the head pharmacist at Xpress, said the pharmacy in 2015 created flyers specifically advertising Subutex, then delivered them on trays of cookies to practices throughout Tennessee, including some hours away. In the following two years, the amount of Subutex dispensed by Xpress increased by about eightyfold, according to his plea agreement.
Dale Hollow didn’t need flyers or cookies. It had Donaldson.
After getting out of prison in 2014, Donaldson was hired by the pharmacy he once owned, where he “recruited and controlled” about 50% to 90% of customers, according to the indictment filed against him. The pharmacy also enticed customers by distributing a Monopoly-like currency called “monkey bucks” — an apparent callback to Carlos — that could be spent at the pharmacy like cash, the indictment states.
Prosecutors also allege that, from a desk inside Dale Hollow, Donaldson would sign customers up for Medicare or Medicaid, then use a vehicle provided by the pharmacy to drive them to a doctor’s office to get opioid prescriptions, then back to Dale Hollow where he’d offer to cover their copays himself if they kept their business at the pharmacy. Sometimes, he would text the Dale Hollow pharmacist with instructions to fill specific prescriptions, or just to fill more of them, according to federal court records.
“Y’all have got to get your numbers up. Fill fill,” Donaldson texted Polston in 2018, according to his plea agreement.
By then, however, all those prescriptions had drawn unwanted attention.
In August 2018, Dale Hollow and Xpress pharmacies were raided by DEA agents, who brought with them Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera and a television crew. Six months later, DOJ filed its civil complaint, persuading a federal judge to immediately close both pharmacies.
Today, Dale Hollow Pharmacy sits shuttered, as it has been for the past three years, and a paper sign taped to the door says animals are not allowed inside by order of the DEA. The building that was once Xpress Pharmacy reopened this year as an unrelated pharmacy with a fresh coat of paint. Ghearing’s clinic and Anderson Hometown Pharmacy are closed.
Most of Celina’s opioid prescriptions are gone, too. According to the latest available CDC data, Clay County reported about 32 opioid prescriptions per 100 residents in 2020 — one-sixth the rate of 2017’s.
A bill introduced in Congress would require the government to warn adults 60 and older of penalties associated with late Medicare enrollment, according to a March 2 CNBC report.
The move targets adults before they reach the Medicare-eligible age of 65, especially those who are not auto-enrolled in coverage through Social Security. The number of beneficiaries who must manually enroll in coverage at age 65 has increased 32 percentage points to 40 percent since 2008, according to CNBC.
The bill specifically targets Medicare Part B, which hits enrollees with a penalty equal to 10 percent of the standard premium for each 12 months they should have been enrolled in. The penalties last a lifetime and adjust with premiums.
Roughly 776,200 enrollees face penalties in 2020. Based on current premiums, monthly penalties would be about $46.
Medicare Part D also has a penalty, but its rate is 1 percent of premiums paid, or about 33 cents based on current rates.
On Thursday CMS announced it will replace all versions of its Global and Professional Direct Contracting (GPDC) model, which allowed primary care providers to take full or partial risk on managing cost of care for traditional Medicare beneficiaries, after progressive Democrats raised concerns about whether a growing presence of Medicare Advantage insurers and private equity-backed groups in the model might compromise patient care and access in the traditional Medicare program. GPDC will be replaced with a new three-year demonstration called Accountable Care Organization Realizing Equity, Access and Community Health (ACO REACH), to start enrollment in 2023. The 51 current participants in the GPDC model can move into ACO REACH as long as they meet new requirements, which include developing plans to identify and address health disparities, and ensuring providers control three quarters of governing boards (as compared to a quarter in the GPDC model). Private equity and insurer applicants can still apply, but must demonstrate a track record of direct patient care, delivering quality outcomes, and serving vulnerable populations.
The Gist: ACO REACH is largely a “re-skinning” of the Direct Contracting program, rather than a significant overhaul. Physician, health system, and ACO groups, who were concerned that the program would be canceled altogether, were pleased with the announced changes to the model, although debate continues on whether the new guardrails will effectively address concerns around for-profit insurer and investor participation.
Like Direct Contracting before it, ACO REACH will be an important vehicle for risk-ready providers to move more extensively into full-risk contracting, without launching a plan or partnering directly with a MA insurer.