Federal charges against Derby nurse Heather Alfonso center on a powerful and addictive painkiller called Subsys, which has been heavily marketed by the Arizona-based manufacturer Insys Therapeutics, federal officials confirmed Wednesday. Alfonso, 42, of Middlebury, pleaded guilty Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Hartford to receiving $83,000 in kickbacks from January 2013 until March 2015 from a pharmaceutical company that makes a drug used to treat cancer pain. In pleading guilty, Alfonso admitted that the money she was paid influenced her prescribing of the drug, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Connecticut, which is prosecuting the case. Receiving kickbacks in exchange for billing charges to a federal health care program is illegal. While the company and drug are not named in the indictment, a prosecutor revealed in court Tuesday that the case involves Subsys and Insys Therapeutics.
The medical director of a pain clinic in Derby was reprimanded and fined $7,500 on Tuesday by the state Medical Examining Board for writing prescriptions for patients based on assessments of their appearance or behavior conducted by unlicensed medical assistants. Dr. Mark Thimineur, medical director of the privately run Comprehensive Pain & Headache Treatment Centers, LLC, housed at Griffin Hospital, signed a consent order on June 1 agreeing to the punishment. In the order, he did not contest the findings by the board and the state Department of Public Health. The consent order states that from 2011 to the present, Thimineur failed to meet the standard of care when treating one or more patients for chronic pain. It said he wrote prescriptions for patients based on assessments by unlicensed medical assistants of the patients’ physical appearance, behavior, pain levels or lab test results.
Ten Connecticut prescribers, including a Derby nurse practitioner who is under investigation by the state, were responsible for more than 22 percent of the state’s Medicare spending on potent narcotics in 2013, new federal data show. More than 4,300 Connecticut clinicians, mostly physicians, wrote Medicare prescriptions for oxycodone, morphine and other Schedule II drugs, which have a high potential for abuse and addiction, at a total cost of $40 million. But a handful of those providers accounted for the largest share of those prescriptions, an analysis of the data show. Topping the list, in both the number of prescriptions and cost, was Heather Alfonso, an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) at the Comprehensive Pain & Headache Treatment Centers, LLC, in Derby, who wrote out 8,523 prescriptions, at a cost of $2.7 million. Statewide, the average number of prescriptions per clinician was 104, and no other prescriber had more than 5,000 Schedule II claims. The average cost per prescriber was $9,138; the next closest individual cost was $1.8 million.
A Derby nurse practitioner whose prolific prescribing of potent narcotics was the subject of a February story by C-HIT has surrendered her state and federal licenses to prescribe controlled substances and is the subject of an “open investigation” by the state health department, officials said Monday. Heather Alfonso, an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) at the Comprehensive Pain & Headache Treatment Centers, LLC, in Derby, surrendered her controlled substance registration after a recent probe by the Drug Control Division of the Department of Consumer Protection, a spokeswoman for the department confirmed. “The controlled substance registration of this provider has been turned in,” said the spokeswoman, Claudette Carveth. She said the agency had no further comment. Meanwhile, William Gerrish, a spokesman for the Department of Public Health, said his agency has an ongoing investigation into Alfonso’s APRN license, which is separate from her prescribing registration.
A Derby nurse practitioner was among the top 10 prescribers nationally of the most potent controlled substances in Medicare’s drug program in 2012 – an anomaly in a state where Medicare records show nurse practitioners rarely prescribe such drugs, which have a high potential for abuse. Heather Alfonso, an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) at the Comprehensive Pain & Headache Treatment Centers, LLC, wrote out 8,705 prescriptions for opioids and other Schedule II drugs in 2012 – the most prolific prescriber among all Connecticut practitioners, including pain specialists and other physicians, according to Medicare data compiled by ProPublica. She wrote out more prescriptions for the opioid Exalgo than any other Medicare provider in the country, and was the seventh highest prescriber nationally of Oxycontin, writing out more than twice as many prescriptions for that narcotic as the next highest prescriber in Connecticut. She also was the 10th highest prescriber nationally of Avinza, a morphine product. There is no indication that Alfonso’s unusual prescribing frequency drew scrutiny from state or federal officials.
Medicare patients had more than 600,000 hospital stays in 2012 that lasted three nights or more but did not qualify them for follow-up nursing home care, according to a new report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General (OIG). Although the report does not include historical data, it indicates that hospitals in the U.S. increasingly are designating multi-day stays as outpatient or “observation status” visits, rather than inpatient admissions. In all, Medicare beneficiaries had 1.5 million hospital stays in 2012 that were classified as observation visits, with more than a third of them lasting two nights or more. The “observation status” designation – which often deprives Medicare recipients of coverage for follow-up nursing home care – is being challenged in a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Hartford and in legislation proposed by Democrat U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, who represents the 2nd Congressional District. Many Medicare beneficiaries who come to hospitals in emergencies are classified as observation patients, even though the care they receive may be indistinguishable from the care received by patients classified as inpatients. Under current rules, Medicare will not pay for a stay in a skilled nursing facility after hospitalization unless the beneficiary has been classified as an inpatient for at least three consecutive days.
At the Governor’s House Rehabilitation & Nursing Center in Simsbury, 17 of the nursing home’s 73 beds sat empty this spring – a 23-percent vacancy rate that would have been unlikely five years ago. The home’s occupancy has fallen despite its above-average health care quality scores in the federal government’s rating system. “There are a lot of factors – a lot of initiatives out there now to keep people out of nursing homes,” said Keith Brown, the home’s administrator. “And with the increase in home care, we’re seeing a more frail resident population. So we have fewer residents, with higher acuity.”
The Simsbury home is not unique: Nearly a third of Connecticut’s nursing homes are less than 90 percent occupied, with Litchfield and Tolland counties bearing the highest vacancy rates, an analysis of state data shows.
Roberta Baxter, a 78-year-old retired instructional assistant for the Killingly school system, dislocated her kneecap after a fall in her bathroom last September. Following treatment at a local hospital, she spent seven weeks at a nursing home for rehab so that she could walk again. While she was recovering, she and her husband Bill received the first of several bills from the nursing home. That’s when the couple learned Medicare wouldn’t cover the $16,000 cost because Roberta didn’t spend at least three consecutive days in the hospital as admitted patient, or inpatient, as Medicare requires. Instead, the four days she spent in the hospital was for “observation care.”
“I thought it was surely a mistake,” she said. “Nobody ever said I wasn’t admitted.”
Last Friday (5-3), lawyers representing 14 seniors, including 7 from Connecticut, appeared in U.S. District Court in Hartford to ask a judge to eliminate the observation care designation because it deprives Medicare beneficiaries of the full hospital coverage they’re entitled to under Medicare, including coverage for follow-up nursing home care. The judge did not rule on the case. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), which runs the Medicare program, pays for doctor visits, hospitalization, nursing home care, prescription drugs and other benefits for nearly 50 million older or disabled Americans, including about 586,000 in Connecticut.
Connecticut has saved an estimated $5.4 million in Medicare costs since 2010 by reducing re-hospitalizations of patients through a collaborative “communities of care” model in place in 14 regions around the state, including Hartford, New Haven, Milford, Meriden and Torrington. The estimate by Qualidigm, the state’s Medicare quality improvement organization, coincides with a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that showed a marked decrease in both hospitalizations and readmissions of Medicare patients in regions where quality improvement organizations (QIOs) coordinate interventions that engage community partners to improve care after discharge. Hospital clinicians and their community partners in the 14 regions of Connecticut have stepped up “to find solutions (so that) patients are benefitting from enhanced coordination among providers across the care continuum,” said Dr. Mary Cooper, vice president and chief quality officer of the Connecticut Hospital Association, which is working with Qualidigm on the “communities of care” model. Readmitting Medicare patients to the hospital within a month of discharge is a frequent—and expensive — occurrence. A new report published this week by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation shows that hospitals and their community allies made little progress from 2008 to 2010 at reducing readmissions for elderly patients.
Twenty-three Connecticut hospitals will forfeit Medicare funds in the next year under a new federal policy that penalizes hospitals with significant numbers of patients who are readmitted within a month of discharge.