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JAMA Netw Open. 2018 Jun 1;1(2):e180235. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.0235.

Prescription Drug Coverage for Treatment of Low Back Pain Among US Medicaid, Medicare Advantage, and Commercial Insurers.

Author information

Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland.
Department of Epidemiology, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland.
Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, US Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, DC.
National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland.
Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia.
Department of Health Policy and Management, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland.
Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland.
Division of General Internal Medicine, Johns Hopkins Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland.



Despite unprecedented injuries and deaths from prescription opioids, little is known regarding medication coverage policies for the treatment of chronic noncancer pain among US insurers.


To assess medication coverage policies for 62 products used to treat low back pain.

Design, Setting, and Participants:

A cross-sectional study of health plan documents from 15 Medicaid, 15 Medicare Advantage, and 20 commercial health plans in 2017 from 16 US states representing more than half the US population and 20 interviews with more than 43 senior medical and pharmacy health plan executives from representative plans. Data analysis was conducted from April 2017 to January 2018.

Main Outcomes and Measures:

Formulary coverage, utilization management, and patient out-of-pocket costs.


Of the 62 products examined, 30 were prescription opioids and 32 were nonopioid analgesics, including 10 nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, 10 antidepressants, 6 muscle relaxants, 4 anticonvulsants, and 2 topical analgesics. Medicaid plans covered a median of 19 opioids examined (interquartile range [IQR], 12-27; median, 63%; IQR, 40%-90%) and a median of 22 nonopioids examined (IQR, 21-27; median, 69%; IQR, 66%-83%). Medicare Advantage plans covered similar proportions (median [IQR], opioids: 17 [15-22]; 57% [50%-73%]; nonopioids: 22 [22-26]; 69% [69%-81%]), while commercial plans covered more opioids (median [IQR], 23 [21-25]; 77% [70%-84%]) and nonopioids (median [IQR], 26 [24-27]; 81% [74%-85%]). Utilization management strategies were common for opioids in Medicaid plans (median [IQR], 15 [11-20] opioids; 91% [74%-97%]), Medicare Advantage plans (median [IQR], 15 [9-18] opioids; 100% [100%-100%]), and commercial plans (median [IQR], 16 [11-20] opioids; 74% [53%-94%]), generally relying on 30-day quantity limits rather than prior authorization. Step therapy was especially uncommon. Many of the nonopioids examined also were subject to utilization management, especially quantity limits (24%-32% of products across payers) and prior authorization (median [IQR], commercial plans: 2 [0-3] nonopioids; 9% [0%-11%]; Medicare Advantage plans: 4 [3-5] nonopioids; 19% [10%-23%]; Medicaid plans: 6 [1-13] nonopioids; 38% [2%-52%]). Among commercial plans, the median plan placed 18 opioids (74%) and 20 nonopioids (81%) in tier 1, which was associated with a median out-of-pocket cost of $10 (IQR, $9-$10) per 30-day supply. Key informant interviews revealed an emphasis on increasing opioid utilization management and identifying high-risk prescribers and patients, rather than promoting comprehensive strategies to improve treatment of chronic pain or better integrating pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic alternatives to opioids.

Conclusions and Relevance:

Given the effect of coverage policies on drug utilization and health outcomes, these findings provide an important opportunity to evaluate how formulary placement, utilization management, copayments, and integration of nonpharmacologic treatments can be optimized to improve pain care while reducing opioid-related injuries and deaths.

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