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Opinion

Missouri, the ‘Show Me (the Money)’ State

Up until recently, Missouri was the only state without a Prescription Drug Monitoring Program for opioids. The good news is that’s changing — sort of. Last month, Gov. Eric Greitens issued an executive order creating one.

The governor’s order directs the state Department of Health and Senior Services to build a database, which will be designed to help identify suspicious patterns of prescriptions of controlled substances — including opioids.

Good news? Seems to be, until you look into the details — where the devil resides. In every other state, doctors and pharmacists can access the database as they write and fill prescriptions, to see where else their patients are getting medications. That won’t be the case under Greitens’ order. What’s wrong with this picture?

Under the new system, dispensers will be required to submit information, but the governor’s order doesn’t give them access to the information. According to Alexandra Dansicker, a policy analyst for the Missouri Foundation for Health, “The intent is to help identify the issues from the supply side of the equation, rather than looking at patient demand and doctor shopping.”

That’s a huge problem that’s being called out by many, including U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), “While I certainly welcome the governor’s attention to this crisis, I have serious questions about how meaningful this action will be if doctors writing prescriptions — and pharmacists filling those prescriptions — don’t have access to this database,” she said in a statement. “The welcome mat is still out for drug dealers to shop for prescriptions in our state.” Instead of an executive order, McCaskill said, state lawmakers should “get off the sidelines and pass a robust statewide program into law that gives law enforcement, pharmacies, and doctors the tools they need.”

Seems obvious, right. What’s going on? Where’s the missing piece? The Kansas City Star offers some valuable reportage: The governor’s executive order was announced “at the St. Louis headquarters of Express Scripts, a pharmacy benefits management company (PBM).”

A seemingly innocuous detail? Hardly. What you smell is the whiff of a smoking gun. It seems that Express Scripts wasn’t recipient of just a gubernatorial visit, but also of a no-bid state contract to administer the PDMP. And here’s another important detail: Express Scripts donated $10,000 to the governor’s inauguration — the PBM’s largest contribution this year and the only one it has made in Missouri.

In addition to the no-bid contract for Express Scripts, Greitens appointed Julia Brncic, the company’s vice president and deputy general counsel, to the governing board of the University of Missouri System.

The Kansas City Star pulls no punches: “The secrecy surrounding Greitens’ fundraising has translated into near constant questions about his motives. And to ethics reform advocates, who argue voters have a right know if special interests are trying to curry favor with politicians, the situation has a corrosive effect on the public’s faith in government.”

Cui bono? Why such largesse from Express Scripts? Is it just a nice gesture for their home state governor? Before you sign onto that chimera, consider this — a $10,000 donation results in a $250,000 no-bid contract. That’s a pretty good return on investment and a nice resume-padder for Ms. Brncic.

Ryan Burns, spokeswoman for the state agency that handles contracting, said data held by Express Scripts and the tools that perform analysis of that data are unique to the company. Under these circumstances, Burns said, state law permits a contract to be awarded without a full competitive bidding process.

But, according to Dr. Robert Twillman, executive director of the Academy of Integrative Pain Management, “No one has designed even simple analytics that make any sense in this arena. If they [Express Scripts] succeed, it will be a modern statistical miracle worthy of some kind of prize. But, of course, we won’t really know what goes into their analytic algorithms, because they’ll keep all that secret. They will just show up to arrest docs and pharmacists on the basis of their black box analytics.”

Now consider with whom the governor is doing business. In 2014, pharmacies sued Express Scripts over its “scheme to deny all claims” for certain customized medications. “The scheme is forcing patients to go without treatment,” the suit stated, “jeopardizing their health and causing bodily harm, or forcing them to pay out-of-pocket sums that they may or may not be able to afford for basic health care needs that have been prescribed by their doctors.”

At a 2014 meeting at the Federal Trade Commission, Dr. Steven Miller (senior vice president and chief medical officer, Express Scripts), said he had research showing that physicians don’t want information from pharmacists telling them which patients have filled a prescription. (Miller was unable to cite the source of this data point.) Well, there are a lot of things “physicians don’t want” — like having to adjust to a world where opioids prescribing must better monitored – but that doesn’t mean they need to be iced out of PDMP access. What does Missouri know that the rest of the nation doesn’t?

Why are Express Scripts and Gov. Greitens being complicit in this illogical PDMP design that is so contrary to the public health? Why the disregard and disrespect for physicians? Part of the answer must lie in the PBM’s historic distrust of doctors’ ability to prescribe what’s best for their patients — as opposed to what’s cheapest. Cui bono indeed — and at whose expense? The opioid epidemic cannot be controlled by disrespecting physicians and pharmacists.

Peter J. Pitts, a former Food and Drug Administration associate commissioner, is president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest.

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