Impacts of State-Level Opioid Review Programs on Injured Workers and Their Health Care Providers: A Qualitative Study in Washington and Ohio

Early View Original Scholarship

Policy Points:

  • Workers’ compensation agencies have instituted opioid review policies to reduce unsafe prescribing. Providers reported more limited and cautious prescribing than in the past; both patients and providers reported collaborative pain-management relationships and satisfactory pain control for patients.
  • Despite the fears articulated by pharmaceutical companies and patient advocates, opioid review programs have not generally resulted in unmanaged pain or reduced function in patients, anger or resistance from patients or providers, or damage to patient–provider relationships or clinical autonomy.
  • Other insurance providers with broad physician networks may want to consider similar quality-improvement efforts to support safe opioid prescribing.

Context: Unsafe prescribing practices have been among the central causes of improper reception of opioids, unsafe use, and overdose in the United States. Workers’ compensation agencies in Washington and Ohio have implemented opioid review programs (ORPs)—a form of quality improvement based on utilization review—to curb unsafe prescribing. Evidence suggests that such regulations indeed reduce unsafe prescribing, but pharmaceutical companies and patient advocates have raised concerns about negative impacts that could also result. This study explores whether three core sets of problems have actually come to pass: (1) unmanaged pain or reduced function among patients, (2) anger or resistance to ORPs from patients or providers, and (3) damage to patient–provider relationships or clinical autonomy.

Methods: In-depth semistructured interviews were conducted with 48 patients (21 from Washington, 27 from Ohio) and 32 providers (18 from Washington, 14 from Ohio) who were purposively sampled to represent a range of injury and practice types. Thematic coding was conducted with codebooks developed using both inductive and deductive approaches.

Findings: The consequences of opioid regulations have been generally positive: providers report more limited prescribing and a focus on multimodal pain control; patients report satisfactory pain control and recovery alongside collaborative relationships with providers. Participants attribute these patterns to a broad environment of opioid caution; they do not generally perceive workers’ compensation policies as distinctly impactful. Both patients and providers comment frequently on the difficult aspects of interacting with workers’ compensation agencies; effects of these range from simple inconvenience to delays in care, unmanaged pain, and reduced potential for physical recovery.

Conclusions: In general, the three types of feared negative impacts have not come to pass for either patients or providers. Although interacting with workers’ compensation agencies involves difficulties typical of interacting with other insurers, opioid controls seem to have generally positive effects and are generally perceived of favorably.

Padamsee TJ, Montgomery C, Kienzle S, Straughn JB, Elmore A, Fulton-Kehoe DL, Schulman B, Wickizer TM, Franklin G. M. Impacts of State-Level Opioid Review Programs on Injured Workers and Their Health Care Providers: A Qualitative Study in Washington and Ohio. Milbank Q. 2024;102(3):0613.