Fewer Pain Meds but More Overdoses in Massachusetts

By Pat Anson, Editor

Opioid prescribing fell by 15 percent for members of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts after the insurer adopted policies that discourage the dispensing of opioid pain medication, according to a new analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report found that 21 million fewer opioid doses were dispensed to Blue Cross Blue Shield members from 2012 to 2015. But the new policies failed to slow the growing number of opioid overdose deaths in Massachusetts, which more than doubled during the same period.

The CDC said it will "take time" before overdoses start to decline.

“Reducing the level of opioid prescribing is a long term strategy to limit exposure to these drugs. Mortality outcomes would not be expected to change for several years after implementation, and impact would be complicated by the increasing supply of illicit opioids,” Courtney Lenard, a CDC spokesperson, said in an email to Pain News Network.  

"Long-term strategies like the one outlined in the report take time to make an impact and therefore no immediate impact can be expected during the first several years of program implementation. Assessing what happened before and after the policy at the mortality level is inappropriate."

Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) of Massachusetts is the state’s largest insurer, with about 2.8 million members.

In 2012, the insurer adopted policies that discourage opioid prescribing by requiring doctors to develop treatment plans that consider non-opioid therapies; requiring pre-authorization for all opioid prescriptions after an initial 30 day supply; and limiting some pain patients to use of a single pharmacy.

The effect was immediate, with an average monthly decline of 14,000 prescriptions for both short and long-acting opioids.

Although cancer patients were exempt from the policies, there was a 9% decline in opioid prescriptions to BCBS members with a cancer diagnosis. The CDC attributed that to a “sentinel effect” in which doctors implement the same policies for all of their patients regardless of diagnosis.

“I think oncologists were becoming more thoughtful and maybe more vigilant about how much narcotics they were prescribing and I think that’s why we saw that decrease in cancer patients,” said Tony Dodek, MD, associate chief medical director for BCBS of Massachusetts. “We’ve only received one complaint about the program in terms of people having access to necessary pain medications.”

Like the CDC, Dodek said it may take years before the stricter prescribing policies start to have an impact on overdoses. So far the signs are not encouraging.

Opioid overdoses in Massachusetts rose from 698 deaths in 2012 to 1,659 deaths in 2015. The trend has continued in the first six months in 2016, with nearly a thousand opioid overdoses reported. Two-thirds of this year’s deaths were related to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is increasingly appearing on the black market. Illicit fentanyl is often combined with heroin and cocaine, or used in the manufacture of counterfeit pain medication.



“It’s not surprising to me that overdoses have not gone down because there is still a lot of drugs in circulation,” said Dodek. “What we did was slow the supply of new medication that’s in circulation. The fact is there is already way too much medication sitting in people’s medicine cabinets at home and that is what was available to start this epidemic.”

The Drug Enforcement Administration has said the U.S. is being “inundated” with counterfeit painkillers and there are anecdotal reports of some patients turning to street drugs for pain relief as opioid medication has become harder to get. But Dodek says it is recreational users – not pain patients – who are resorting to the black market.

“Any pain patient isn’t having access problems to getting opioids,” he said. “Those who may be using it for recreational purposes or for diversion probably are having a more difficult time (getting prescriptions). We still need to figure out what to do about illicit drugs, but I think decreasing the amount of prescriptions drugs will only be a good thing in the end.”

And what about the effect on pain patients as these policies are adopted? The CDC report ends with this telling statement:

“Finally, it is not known from these data how patient pain and function were affected by limiting access to opioid prescriptions.”