Category Archives: Utilization

Identifying potentially overutilized medications

Often lying off the radar screen of many insured populations is the high number of prescriptions for opioid analgesics (or narcotic analgesics). These drugs are prescribed for pain relief for a wide range of conditions and the potential for abuse of these medications has grown over the past several years.

High utilization patterns of these prescription drugs do not always attract attention because, compared to other classes of medications, they are relatively inexpensive. As seen in Figures 1 and 2 below, based on a 50,000-patient commercial dataset, when sorted by total allowed charges, opioid analgesics rank 13 in terms of highest total cost, but when we sort by number of prescriptions, this therapeutic class jumps in rank to 2.

There are several methods for analyzing utilization of drug classes to identify opportunities for intervention. For a broad class of drugs, such as opioid analgesics, it is useful to drill further into the therapeutic classes. In Table 1, we see that the highest number of prescriptions were filled for hydrocodone combinations (including drugs like Vicodin), followed by opioid agonists (a category of very strong analgesics including morphine and Oxycontin) and codeine combinations (including drugs such as Percocet and Percodan.)

Analysts may want to analyze utilization by network or geographic areas to determine if specific markets have higher utilization rates compared to others. Table 2 displays prescription utilization by plan, revealing that Plan 3 had the highest utilization rate for these drugs.

Identifying possible cases of abuse typically involves drilling down to the provider or patient level. Table 3 illustrates an example analyzing utilization by primary care physician (PCP).

A complete analysis would include additional reports to better understand the prescribing physician specialties, the types of conditions they treat (chronic use of pain medications for periods of time may be appropriate for some conditions such as cancer), days supplied, and refill rates. At the patient level, it may also be important to quantify how many different providers have prescribed these drugs, as one physician is not likely to know what other physicians have prescribed for that patient, if the patient has not disclosed that information.

Analgesics are not the only class of drugs that have the potential for abuse. Generic Engineering & Biotechnology News recently “put together a list of 14 top abused prescription drugs, as listed by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration], and nongovernment nonprofit sources on public websites.”

Their list is as follows (listed by drug brand name):

1. Oxycontin
2. Concerta
3. Ambien
4. Zoloft
5. Ritalin/Focalin
6. Adderal XR
7. Lunesta
8. Opana ER
9. Xanax XR
10. Vicodin
11. Fentora
12. Percocet
13. Valium
14. Ativan

This article first appeared at Milliman MedInsight.

Utilization in Indiana

A new article in Modern Healthcare looks at the Healthy Indiana Plan, a Medicaid expansion program that has yielded some interesting results. Here’s an excerpt from the Modern Healthcare piece:

While the jury is still out on how well the health savings account and preventive-care incentive are working, analysts have looked at utilization trends among the newly insured and found that those signing up for the program are sicker and more frequent users of healthcare than those enrolled in commercial, employer-sponsored health plans.

The Healthy Indiana Plan “population used more care than the typical commercial population in Indiana with the same age and gender characteristics,” says Rob Damler, principal at Milliman, a consulting and actuarial firm. Damler is the consulting actuary to the state of Indiana on the health plan.

Childless adults enrolled in Healthy Indiana, for instance, had nearly three times as many inpatient services as private plan members in the first year. And pharmacy use was nearly 50% higher than a typical commercially insured population.

This newly enrolled group was also sicker than the general population. Their relative morbidity was 65% greater than their peers covered by private health insurance. The earliest enrollees to the program also proved to be the sickest, with the highest healthcare costs, Damler says.

This phenomenon is called anti-selection, where the least healthy population seeks healthcare coverage available to them, driving up the costs to insurers and the population covered.

The Healthy Indiana Plan offers some considerations for national reform, Damler says. “One of the issues that needs to be understood is pent-up demand,” he says. “We need to be prepared that the newly insured may cost more in the first 12 to 24 months than the insured population.”

Not surprisingly, insurance companies say that without a federal law requiring everyone to carry health insurance, national healthcare reform won’t work because the chronically ill will sign up for coverage in large numbers, driving up costs, while the healthy will stay on the sidelines.

“It only works if everyone’s covered,” says Alissa Fox, senior vice president of policy at the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association.

Healthy Indiana Plan: Enrollee utilization

The Healthy Indiana Plan (HIP) is a Medicaid expansion program that offers perspective on the cost and utilization patterns of the uninsured as they enroll for coverage and access care. What follows is an analysis of the experience data from this program.  


Illustrating cost patterns during initial period of enrollment

The HIP populations also followed a particular pattern of utilization during the initial enrollment period. Figures 7 and 8 show measurements of inpatient, outpatient, pharmacy, and physician expenditures relative to average PMPM costs, first for caretakers and then for non-caretakers (for explanation of these populations, see the full paper). The 100% line measures the average PMPM for the first year of coverage for the population represented.


Figure 7: Caretakers



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Tighter cost management for physicians

The American Medical News today published an article looking at how medical management and more intense negotiations are affecting doctors. Here is an excerpt:

As medical costs continue to rise, physicians can expect tighter medical management by health insurers, including scrutiny of diagnostic testing and tighter controls on prescriptions, analysts said.

Kate Fitch, principal and health care consultant for Milliman, said health plans have recently been very focused on tracking and trying to drive down what they see as medically unnecessary or preventable hospital admissions and readmissions. They also have been able to cut costs by aggressively managing high-tech imaging costs.

However, trying to cut spending by cutting payment rates is less favored than it once was, Fitch said. “With providers really becoming more savvy at negotiating rates, that’s not really as impactful as it has been in the past.”

As we’ve noted before, controlling utilization has tremendous potential in the larger effort to bend the cost curve.

The utilization puzzle

Health cost are up 7.4%, but the increase is far more complicated than this single number.


Look first at the hospital components of this cost trend.

  • The inpatient cost trend increased from 7.1% to 7.7% this year. Utilization remained flat and the increase was instead driven by unit costs.
  • The outpatient cost trend increased from 9.4% to 10.2%, again largely due to an increase in unit costs.
  • The physician cost trend decelerated, though physician costs remain the biggest piece of the puzzle.
  • Pharmacy costs saw a deceleration in the cost trend but still increased higher than other components of care at 7.9%, with just under 40% of that due to increased utilization. The increased use of generics over previous years complicates this cost trend.


Over-utilization clearly plays a role in the overall cost of healthcare, but as these dynamics illustrate, utilization as a cost driver is a complicated entity.