Hearing on Medicare Reform: Laying the Groundwork for a Prescription Drug Benefit

Testimony of

Michael R. Cohen, MS, RPh, President, Institute for Safe Medication Practices

before the Committee on Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health

Congress of the United House of Representatives

Hearing on Medicare Reform: Laying the Groundwork for a Prescription Drug Benefit

March 27, 2001

Good afternoon. Madame Chairman and Members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to speak with you this afternoon about important health care quality issues related to the design of a prescription drug benefit program for Medicare beneficiaries. I am Michael R. Cohen, a pharmacist and president of the Institute for Safe Medication Practices (ISMP). ISMP is an independent, nonprofit organization that works closely with practitioners, regulatory agencies, health care institutions, professional organizations and the pharmaceutical industry to provide education about adverse drug events and their prevention. A board of trustees representing the health care community at large governs this interdisciplinary effort by nurses, pharmacists, physicians and health care consumers. Our primary focus has been on proper and safe use of medications. We have a long history of learning about medication errors from health care practitioners and consumers who voluntarily report medication errors and hazardous conditions through a national reporting program operated by the United States Pharmacopeia. All reports are shared directly with the US Food and Drug Administration, Office of Post-marketing Drug Risk Assessment. Dialog with FDA is ongoing when reports relate to drug nomenclature issues (proprietary and nonproprietary names), or pharmaceutical labeling, packaging and medical device design.

Information about medication errors, other adverse drug events, and recommendations for prevention are shared with the medical community through our web site (www.ismp.org); ongoing columns in 16 professional journals that reach nurses, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, physicians, and physician assistants; and a biweekly publication, ISMP Medication Safety Alert! that reaches all US hospitals, and. Currently, we are preparing to launch a similar newsletter for chain and independent community pharmacies. In addition, we reach regulatory authorities and pharmaceutical manufacturers internationally through regular publications in international journals and newsletters. Information from ISMP has been used to effect thousands of improvements in professional practice and commercial drug labeling, packaging and nomenclature. The organization has gained the trust and respect of practitioners and senior officials in health care throughout the nation.


Recommendations to Reduce Error and Improve the Quality of Medication Use

Medications are a blessing, but humans must safely prescribe, prepare, dispense, and administer these drugs. Yet humans are fallible, and as clearly articulated in the recent reports by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), errors and other adverse events occur and cause unbearable human and financial cost. Medication use has been further complicated by the large number of new drugs and technologies introduced every year, an increasing elderly population with chronic and acute conditions requiring complex treatment strategies, and the proliferation of over-the-counter products. In light of this fact, much can and should be done to enhance medication safety.


The current prescription drug benefit legislation is a strong and appropriate vehicle to drive medication safety. Payers bear responsibility for medication errors when they occur because of insufficient support of basic services and lack of quality/safety requirements. As purchasers of pharmacy services through mail and community pharmacies, payers - including Medicare - should require providers to comply with standards most likely to enhance medication safety. They should offer their beneficiaries some assurance of safe pharmaceutical care, which includes important monitoring of the appropriateness of drug therapy and its effects, not just accurate dispensing.

ISMP has identified several focal points that would be most appropriate for legislation related to prescription drug benefits:

  • Continuous quality improvement activities to enhance safety in our nation's pharmacies;

  • Better clinical utilization of community pharmacists and pharmacy beneficiaries; and

  • Expanded use of effective technology.

Achieving and maintaining standards related to these focal points will likely require resources that are not currently available. Thus, legislation must also include changes in the current reimbursement systems to properly support any required safety enhancements.

Continuous Quality Improvement

Data from the ISMP Medication Error Reporting Program reveals that medication-related problems are repetitive in nature. An incident of misuse in one setting is likely to repeat itself in another. Most importantly, the system changes necessary to prevent errors are similar and a growing body of literature is available to guide these efforts. Tragically, too many organizations and individual providers do not believe similar incidents could happen to them. They fail to use information about errors occurring elsewhere as a roadmap for improvement in their own organization or practice. It is not until a serious error hits home that aggressive prevention efforts are implemented. With so much evidence-based information about error prevention at hand, there is little excuse for reacting to errors after they happen instead of preventing them. We need Congress to help shorten the interval between the lessons taught by errors and the widespread corrective action to prevent future errors.

The development and implementation of continuous quality improvement (CQI) efforts should be the highest priority in all pharmacies. Such efforts must be aimed specifically at preventing well-known and repetitive categories of prescribing and dispensing errors, which erode patient confidence in our health care system. For example, in order to participate in the prescription drug benefit program, pharmacies should be required to seek out medication safety information and use it proactively to prevent medication errors. At the same time, safety issues recognized internally and reported by patients must be documented and analyzed, and a process must be established to determine the best strategies to prevent future problems and ensure its implementation. An annual survey to assess consumer perceptions of the quality of pharmaceutical products and professional services might also be required to supply additional information upon which to base improvement strategies.

Informational tools like our ISMP Medication Safety Alert! publication, or ISMP's Quarterly Action Agenda, which is a readily available list of medication problems compiled from our nation. s reporting programs, can be a backbone of any CQI effort. The very purpose of the ISMP Medication Error Reporting Program - indeed the purpose of any type of safety reporting program and the expert recommendations that stem from it - is to guide the implementation of quality improvement initiatives by practitioners and organizations. If this is not accomplished, the value of any medical safety-reporting program is diminished. Thus, appropriate funding is needed to ensure that information flowing from error reporting programs are efficiently transformed into learning programs to prevent future errors. Research-based information, anecdotal reports of adverse events, reports from the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organization. s Sentinel Event Newsletter, and information from other sources are also instrumental in this effort. ISMP is prepared to assist the Secretary of Health and Human Services, as well as the nation's professional licensing boards, health departments, accreditation agencies, regulatory authorities, and individual organizations in using such informational tools to develop effective CQI strategies that can successfully stop repetitive medical errors.

Practice sites should also be required to conduct self-assessments to help prioritize improvement projects at least annually. In a cooperative project with the American Hospital Association (AHA), ISMP recently developed and distributed the ISMP Medication Safety Self-Assessment to virtually all US hospitals. This weighted self-assessment instrument provides a list of nearly 200 effective medication error reduction strategies in the general hospital setting. Nearly 1,500 hospitals participated fully in the project, which resulted in a large national database of hospital efforts to improve patient safety with medications. This database will allow health care providers to identify areas of weakness and focus improvement activities upon system elements and characteristics that are known to be effective for preventing patient harm. We will also be able to track improvement efforts in the nation's hospitals over time by repeating the process at a later date.

While 1,500 hospitals completed the assessment and sent data to ISMP, there are approximately 6,000 acute care hospitals in the US. Through 1,000 follow-up telephone calls to a randomized list of hospitals, we learned that many more hospitals would have participated had it not been for advice given them by a national risk management organization to seek legal counsel before returning data to us. This letter instilled a renewed fear of discoverability in a future lawsuit, which had a chilling effect on the ability of hospitals to participate in this extremely valuable project. Unless the basic problem - discoverability of information used in quality improvement projects like this one - is addressed by Congress, we will continue to lose valuable opportunities to address costly (both human and financial) patient safety issues. Records of quality improvement activities must be afforded protection under available state peer review or other protective statutes and thus protected from discovery during civil litigation. It should be noted that Governor Gray Davis of California signed legislation last August to require quality improvement activities following written policies and procedures in the state's pharmacies. A process must be in place to detect and analyze medication errors. Importantly, information that is part of the proceedings and records of review are protected from discovery. Texas and Florida also have quality improvement requirements that include the above protective provisions and several other states are now considering them. This should be a nationwide standard.

Recently, the American Pharmaceutical Association Foundation and the National Association of Chain Drug Stores agreed to fund ISMP to independently develop and implement a similar self-assessment tool for the nation's community pharmacies (chain, independent as well as hospital and clinic ambulatory care pharmacies).

Quality improvement requirements should involve all participants in pharmaceutical care, including claims processors and pharmacy benefit managers. Unfortunately, payment policies actually contribute to error. Underpayment of pharmacists, lack of standards for claims processing, numerous interruptions, and phone calls for prescription reimbursement adjudication and pre-approval have resulted in less time available for drug monitoring and patient education activities. An example is requiring pharmacists to dispense drugs at a dose higher than prescribed and making patients split the tablets - an error-prone process - to decrease the cost of a prescription medication. For example, the manufacturer may similarly price an 80 mg, 40 mg, 20 mg, and 10 mg tablet. Although the physician may prescribe 20 mg tablets to be taken four times a day, the pharmacist is required to dispense the 80 mg tablet and tell the patient to take ¼ tablet four times a day. Some patients may become confused and take the full tablet or inaccurately split the tablet. In many cases, to assure that the patient takes the medication properly, a pharmacist will actually break the tablets into one-quarter size. However, the split tablets may begin to crumble in the prescription vial, leading to inaccurate doses.

I would also underscore the need for Congress to oversee providers and payer activities and that participants agree, as a condition of participation, to periodic visits from appropriate authorities to review documentation of quality improvement activities. Currently, little or no oversight exists from standards organizations such as the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JC) or the Medicare Peer Review Organizations, state professional boards, departments of health, etc. Without oversight, the private sector has not solved problems associated with safe medication use.

Surely, continuous quality improvement activities are better for the health care provider and public since it offers the potential for reducing the number of prescription errors. A new study released in the American Pharmaceutical Association's (APhA) March/April Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association (JAPhA) has updated an analysis of prescription drug use problems in the United States. It estimates that drug misuse costs the economy more than $177 billion each year. The estimated number of patient deaths has increased from 198,000 in 1995 to 218,000 in 2000. Clearly, we must have required quality improvement activities to reduce this unnecessary burden. In the legislation, the Secretary of Human Health and Services should be directed to form a task force to examine these and other suggestions to formulate quality improvement requirements that would accompany the prescription drug benefit program. Funding for these activities must be assured.

Improved utilization of pharmacists and pharmacy beneficiaries

The value of medications used appropriately is immense. But, if pharmaceutical care involves reimbursement for only dispensing activities, the drug safety problem will only worsen. Worse, we are overlooking one of the nation's most valuable allies in assuring proper drug use. A trip to the local pharmacy often provides clear evidence that many pharmacy graduates, now educated at the doctoral level with advanced clinical training, are sorely underutilized in the fight against costly adverse drug events. Instead of performing clinical functions for which they are well trained - overseeing a competent technical dispensing staff, screening new prescriptions for safety concerns, educating patients on proper drug use, monitoring patients for side effects - many are tied instead to dispensing activities, managing pharmacy benefit plans and drug inventories, and performing clerical tasks. Further, with improving technologies (robotics, bar coding of pharmaceuticals and computerized prescriptions) and increasing numbers of certified pharmacy technicians (over 80,000 currently), more of the pharmacist. s time will be available for clinical functions.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) Committee on the Quality of Health Care in America, in their most recent report, Crossing the Quality Chasm: A New Health System for the 21st Century , IOM urges a strong national commitment to improve health care across six broad dimensions of quality: safety, effectiveness, responsiveness to patients, timeliness, efficiency, and equity. The authors suggest that the current health care system is failing to provide safe, high-quality care consistently to all Americans because it is poorly designed and relies on outdated systems. The report envisions a revamped system which is centered on patient needs and preferences, encourages teamwork among health care providers, and makes greater use of evidence-based approaches to care and information technology. The IOM Committee members recognized that, if organizations are expected to change the processes of care, broader environmental changes are also needed. Importantly, examination of current payment methods (e.g., fee for service, capitation, etc.) to remove barriers to innovation and quality, and testing of options to better align payment methods with quality goals. Realigning the payment to recognize pharmacist clinical services fits right into that idea.

To prevent adverse drug reactions, we need better ways to detect problems early. Pharmacists can serve well in this role, also. They could manage the risk of existing technologies by aggressively monitoring the effects of new drugs on the market and identifying the need for special monitoring to prevent serious adverse events. Thus, pharmacists could safely monitor new and useful drugs that might otherwise be removed from the market because they are being prescribed inappropriately. With the new prescription drug benefit program, strong consideration should be given to reimbursing pharmacists for time spent monitoring patients closely to detect and report anticipated or previously unrecognized problems to the FDA. This would result in earlier detection of medication-related problems and their timely resolution.

Further, we should learn from the valuable experience of the HCFA-required drug regimen review process in long term care, which has saved billions of dollars in prescription drug benefits while also protecting residents from preventable adverse drug events. A comprehensive, on site, drug regimen review is conducted initially upon a patient. s admission to a facility and reassessed monthly. As part of drug regimen review, the pharmacist evaluates appropriateness and safety of medication orders and verifies documentation. The pharmacist investigates possible adverse drug reactions in residents who exhibit various identified disorders. A current written diagnosis or identified need and relevant diagnostic data must support medication orders. As needed (PRN) medication orders must include specific written indications for use. Medications selected must be consistent with patients. care plans and shall have a favorable benefit-to-cost ratio reflecting consideration of medical history, the significance of any past drug reactions, and cost. When problems arise, the pharmacist makes recommendations (including identification of the concern, specific means to correct the situation and a determination of how and when improvement will be measured) to appropriate personnel.  Consultant pharmacist-conducted drug regimen review improves optimal therapeutic outcomes by 43% and saves $3.6 billion annually in costs from avoided medication-related problems. (Bootman JL, Harrison DL, Cox E: The health care costs of drug-related morbidity and mortality in nursing facilities. Arch Int Med 1997; 157:1531-36.) The recommendations must be addressed as a condition of participation.

In the ambulatory care setting, beneficiaries themselves should be required to undergo at least a quarterly review of their prescription and over-the-counter medication regimen by a pharmacist. Similar to the above functions, the requirement would establish that presently prescribed drugs are necessary, that possible adverse effects are identified and reported to the patient's primary care provider, that the beneficiary is aware of proper storage requirements, dosing schedules, side effects, and so on. Pharmacists would be paid to monitor patients closely to detect problems with new drugs or for suspected problems. Not only would this improve care and vastly reduce the nearly $200 billion dollar cost of adverse drug events, it would also eliminate the cost of unneeded medications that patients may still be receiving! The savings to Americans would be enormous. We believe that the legislation should not move forward without a provision for this drug monitoring review with logistics determined by the Secretary.

Another important component is improving patient understanding of their important role in safe medication use and error prevention. About 25% of medication errors reported to our program and FDA's MedWatch program stem from confusion between proprietary and nonproprietary names. An educated patient or caregiver can be a crucial last check on the safety of any medication. For example, if patients are aware of the name and purpose of their medication, they are better able to recognize if a pharmacist misread the prescription and dispenses a different medication for an unexpected purpose. Legislation should require that the medication's purpose and full instructions be written on each new prescription so that pharmacists can educate patients properly and prevent errors if the purpose and prescribed drug do not match. Listed indications for the drug will also help patients and pharmacists ensure that their interpretation of the prescription is consistent with the prescriber's intent.

Regrettably, the requirement for patient counseling in OBRA 90 legislation is vastly underutilized. Few patients take advantage of the pharmacist's offer to counsel. Instead, they rush the pharmacist to fill a prescription and may not read accompanying drug information material that could prevent adverse events. The new legislation must address the issue by insisting that patients and caregivers have full explanations of new medications while in the doctor's office or pharmacy.

Further, legislation should facilitate health care practitioners. access to crucial information about the patient. Harvard researchers (Leape LL et al. Systems analysis of adverse drug events. JAMA 1995; 274:35-43) showed that over 40% of adverse drug events can be tied to insufficient information about the patient or drug at the time of prescribing, dispensing and administration of medications. The most recent IOM report notes that clinicians operate in silos without the benefit of complete information about the patient. s conditions, medical history, treatment received in other settings, or medications prescribed by other clinicians. The report encourages cooperation among clinicians to exchange appropriate information and coordinate care.

Indeed, the same researchers (Leape LL et al. Pharmacist participation on physician rounds and adverse drug events in the intensive care unit. JAMA 1999;282:267-270) showed that pharmacists could prevent 66% of adverse drug events if given access to clinical information to screen and adjust doses and suggest other interventions when clinical indicated.

For example, if a physician fails to adjust the dose of a potentially toxic medication that is excreted through the kidneys in a patient with poor renal function, costly hospitalization, dialysis, transplant, or death may result. While renal function and other important clinical information may be residing in hospital or physician office records, it is often inaccessible to community pharmacists. But with better access to clinical information such as laboratory data, chronic diseases, organ function, allergies, and weight, the pharmacist can screen drug orders appropriately and prevent untold numbers of errors, injuries, and associated costs. The use of web sites or "smart cards" where patients could voluntarily maintain confidential clinical information accessible to their health care practitioners could significantly improve access to information.

Improved use of technology

Health care remains relatively untouched by information technology that has transformed so many other aspects of society. Patient information, including medication prescriptions, is still dispersed on paper, poorly organized, often illegible, and difficult to retrieve. Yet, research shows (Bates DW et al. Effect of computerized physician order entry and a team intervention on prevention of serious medication errors. JAMA 1998;280:1311-16) that over half of all medication errors can be prevented through computerization physician order entry (CPOE). An ISMP survey (ISMP Medication Safety Alert! February 10, 1999 - www.ismp.org) of our nation's computer systems shows that fewer than 13% of US hospitals even have the capability for CPOE. Even fewer ambulatory care physicians are using electronic prescribing technology (estimated to be under 5%). Nevertheless, our survey shows that most in-use prescribing software today does not alert users to errors in an accurate and efficient manner. System vendors and organizations must jointly accept responsibility for designing and implementing systems that offer clinical support to providers and warn about potentially unsafe prescriptions.

Most of the technology software problems stem from the lack of interface and compatibility standards to allow stand alone systems to be fully integrated with each other to ensure that appropriate patient and drug information is available to providers. For example, standards are needed to ensure that any physician can send a prescription to any pharmacy electronically. This eliminates the risk of misinterpreting a handwritten prescription while increasing the detection of potential adverse drug events. We also need to address regulatory and legal barriers that prevent use of electronic prescribing. For example, in many states, verified electronic signatures are not acceptable, thus prescribers must physically sign each prescription. Further, incentives should be provided to reward health care practitioners and organizations that adopt technology known to reduce medication errors, such as electronic prescribing and bar code technology.

Bar coding technology can greatly enhance the accuracy of drug dispensing and administration. Although the use of such technology is expanding in ambulatory care pharmacies, mainly through robotics, the pharmaceutical industry must join in this effort by assuring that all drug packages have a standardized, readable bar code or other machine-readable code.