Insurer Reports Soaring Rates of Opioid Addiction

By Pat Anson, Editor

The number of Blue Cross and Blue Shield (BCBS) customers diagnosed with opioid addiction has soared by nearly 500 percent in recent years, according to a new report that found only about a third of the addicted patients were getting medication assisted treatment.

The Health of America Report analyzed prescription data for over 30 million BCBS customers from 2010 to 2016. The report focused mainly on patients who use legally prescribed painkillers, while virtually ignoring addicts who use heroin, illicit fentanyl and other illegal opioids, who are now the driving force behind the nation’s opioid crisis.

"Opioid use disorder is a complex issue, and there is no single approach to solving it," said Trent Haywood, MD, senior vice president and chief medical officer for the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, which represents 36 independent insurers that provide health coverage to over 100 million Americans.

“Opioid use disorder” is a broad and somewhat misleading term that includes illegal drug addicts, as well as chronic pain patients who take opioids responsibly, and develop a tolerance or dependence on them.

The BCBS report found that patients who filled prescriptions for high doses of opioids had much higher rates of opioid use disorder than those on lower doses. Women aged 45 and older had higher rates of the disorder than men. Women of all ages were also more likely to fill an opioid prescription.

The BCBS report found that patients who filled prescriptions for high doses of opioids had much higher rates of opioid use disorder. Women aged 45 and older had higher rates of the disorder than men. Women of all ages were also more likely to fill an opioid prescription.

Less than one percent of BCBC customers (0.83%) were diagnosed with opioid use disorder in 2016, a rate much higher than in 2010 (0.14%). The rise was attributed to “an increased awareness of the disorder,” suggesting that doctors were simply more likely to diagnose opioid addiction then they were in 2010.    

While the diagnosis of opioid use disorder rose by 493 percent during the study period, there was only a 65 percent increase in the number of BCBS customers who were prescribed addiction treatment drugs such as Suboxone (buprenorphine).

BCBS customers in the South were more likely to be diagnosed with opioid use disorder. Alabama led the nation with a diagnosis rate of over 1.6 percent, twice the national average.

The report noted that New England leads the nation in the use of medication-assisted treatments, even though the region has lower levels of opioid use disorder than other parts of the country. In Massachusetts, 84% of BCBS customers diagnosed with addiction were getting treatment with medication.

That prompted Blue Cross Blue Shield Association of Massachusetts to issue a press release claiming the state was “ahead of the nation when it comes to combating the opioid epidemic.” The insurer was one of the first in the country to take steps to significantly reduce access to opioids by its customers. As a result, only 2% of Blue Cross Blue Shield members in Massachusetts are receiving high doses of opioids, far less than the national average of 8.3 percent.

However, restricting access to pain medication has failed to stop a surge in opioid overdoses in Massachusetts, most of which are now caused by illicit fentanyl.  Over 2,000 people died of opioid overdoses in Massachusetts last year, almost three times the number of deaths in 2012, when Blue Cross Blue Shield began restricting access to painkillers.

MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH

MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH

Prescription opioids were involved in only 9% of the overdose deaths in Massachusetts at the end of 2016. In addition, the most recent report from the state's prescription drug monitoring program identified only 264 of the 288,519 people receiving Schedule II opioids as having “activity of concern” that could indicate they were misusing the drugs. That minuscule rate of 0.0915% hardly suggests that legitimate pain patients are the source of Massachusetts’s drug problem.

This week the largest health insurer in the Philadelphia area, Independence Blue Cross, announced plans to limit the prescribing of opioids in its network to just five days for acute pain -- making it one of the first insurers in the country to adopt such a strict limit.