You don’t have to watch TV or read the paper long before seeing news related to the opioid epidemic in our country. The focus of these stories is often on heroin, but that’s only part of the picture. Prescription drug abuse/misuse is the other part.
Prescription drugs in our society are common and readily accessible, but that does not mean they aren’t dangerous. In Kentucky, deaths from drug overdose went up 4.2 percent between 2013 and 2014, according to the National Vital Statistics System. With 24.7 deaths per 100,000 people, Kentucky had the fourth highest death rate nationally of drug overdose deaths in 2014.
Painkillers — typically prescribed for short term use — are often taken for years after the initial prescription. In fact, research conducted by Anthem’s health outcomes subsidiary found that more than half the people who take opioids for chronic pain are likely to still be taking the painkillers five years later.
Prescription drug abuse is not just a personal problem. Rather, it is a public health problem, requiring everyone to do their part to turn things around. Opioid abuse, just like other substance use disorders and conditions are chronic diseases, is best managed through an integrative approach to care, and requiring evidence-based treatment to maintain stability and recovery.
Role of Health Insurers
Health insurers are in an especially unique position to help individuals avoid dependence and curb prescription drug abuse because we have real-time access to records for medication use that many doctors and pharmacists do not. We can help flag individuals who may be getting prescriptions from multiple doctors or pharmacies, or whose refill patterns fall outside of established norms.
Last April, Anthem and our parent company’s affiliated health plans across the country launched the Pharmacy Home program. Designed to help reduce addiction to opioids and other prescription drugs, the Pharmacy Home program enrolls high-risk members in a pharmacy home, which limits their drug coverage to one member-chosen home pharmacy (select exceptions are made where clinically prudent and in cases of emergency).
Role of Physician
Physicians need accurate information about the risks and benefits of prescription opioids for treating chronic pain. Physicians also need to be re-trained in how they treat patients with all kinds of pain. There are effective alternatives for chronic pain management; providers need to use them and payers need to adequately reimburse for them.
At the individual level, physicians can help curb prescription drug abuse by encouraging their patients to follow instructions when taking prescription drugs, take the minimum amount needed to cope with the pain, call the doctor with questions related to dosage and dispose of unneeded medications properly.
-Deb Moessner is president of Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Kentucky.