Insurers Promise More Cuts in Rx Opioids

By Pat Anson, Editor

Less than two weeks before its final report is due, President Trump’s opioid commission held its fourth and final public meeting Friday – hearing testimony from top government officials and insurance industry executives about the nation’s worsening overdose crisis.

“Insurance companies are going to be a very, very important part of whether we will be able to stem the tide here or whether we’re not,” said commission chairman Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.

It was clear from their testimony that many insurers are planning to tighten access to prescription opioids even more than they already have.

Aetna’s chief medical officer told the commission the insurance giant was planning to reduce “inappropriate opioid prescribing” to its members by 50 percent within the next five years.  He did not explain what would be considered inappropriate.

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Aetna has already sent warning letters to hundreds of physicians and dentists identified as “super-prescribers,” urging them to reduce the number of opioid prescriptions they write.

“We’re now re-running our analysis and planning more aggressive interventions for those providers who haven’t improved their opioid prescribing habits over the past several months,” said Harold Paz, MD.  

The chief medical officer of Cigna said his company was close to achieving a 25 percent reduction in coverage of opioid prescriptions, a priority it set last year.

“That’s only the first of our goals,” said Alan Muney, MD.

Insurer Harvard Pilgrim said its coverage of opioid prescriptions has declined by over 20 percent since 2014.

“That’s not enough.  This feels like a balloon where you tap on one end and it comes out somewhere else. So it doesn’t mean we’re even close to solving this,” said Michael Sherman, MD, chief medical officer of Harvard Pilgrim.

Insurers clearly have the ear of the federal government when it comes to opioids. As PNN has reported, an obscure federal advisory group composed of insurers, law enforcement, and federal and state regulators has discussed eliminating opioid prescriptions for acute pain, as well as paying doctors not to prescribe opioids.

The Healthcare Fraud Prevention Partnership also wants access to the “personally identifiable and protected health information” of 57 million Medicare beneficiaries to see if they are abusing opioids.

Reducing Opioids a ‘Win-Win’

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta said reducing opioid prescriptions was important to get unemployed Americans back into the workforce. He cited a recent study that found that about a third of unemployed men aged 25 to 54 were using prescription painkillers.   

“Reducing the amount of opioids is a win-win across the board. It’s a win for the individual who doesn’t want to get hooked,” Acosta said. “It’s a win for the insurance companies who don’t want to be paying for medicines that people don’t need. And it’s a win for the American workforce, because if we can get people back to work and paying taxes and participating fully, that’s a win for them and it’s a win for the country.”

Acosta cited no studies that might indicate how many Americans currently taking opioids would become unemployed or disabled if their pain medication was reduced or taken away. 

No pain patients, patient advocates or experts in pain management were asked to appear before the commission. No one from the pain community has testified during any of the commission’s public meetings, although thousands have submitted written comments.

An interim report released by the opioid commission in July focused on expanding access to addiction treatment and developing new ways of treating pain without opioids. Since then, the commission has increasingly focused on limiting opioid prescriptions. The final report from the commission is expected November 1.

The interim report also strongly urged President Trump to declare a national emergency to speed up efforts to combat the overdose crisis, something he has yet to do.  “We’re going to be doing it in the next week,” Trump told reporters on Monday.  However, there appears to be little consensus in the administration about what actions to take after an emergency is declared or how to pay for them.

"Everyone wants opioids to be a priority, but there's a lot of resistance to calling it an emergency," a senior administration official told Politico.

Cigna Won’t Pay for OxyContin in 2018

By John Burke, Guest Columnist

A major health insurance company -- Cigna -- announced this week that they it is removing OxyContin from its list of approved medications and replacing it with another extended release oxycodone product.

“Our focus is on helping customers get the most value from their medications — this means obtaining effective pain relief while also guarding against opioid misuse," said Jon Maesner, Cigna's chief pharmacy officer.

OxyContin is the only opioid-based prescription painkiller that Cigna is removing in 2018 as "a preferred option" from its formulary, a list of medications that its health plans will pay for.


On the surface, this declaration might appear to be a great stride toward reducing prescription drug abuse. Cigna is replacing OxyContin with Collegium’s product, Xtampza ER, which is also an abuse deterrent extended release oxycodone product. 

My problem with this announcement is that OxyContin, along with the other abuse deterrent formulations (ADFs), have very little abuse issues. OxyContin certainly did up until its reformulation in August 2010, but that was over 7 years ago! Since then, there is much documentation from a variety of sources that show the diversion of OxyContin has fallen extensively.


Xtampa ER and the other abuse deterrent formulations also have little to no abuse issues since they have been on the market. 

If Cigna wants to change drugs, that’s likely a financial decision and one they should make, but please don’t tout your move as striking a blow for reducing drug diversion.

It will do nothing to reduce drug diversion, since the clear majority of diversion falls into the immediate release opioids, primarily oxycodone and hydrocodone. 

What is even more concerning to me is the vilifying of any drug that hundreds of thousands of legitimate pain patients take to live a semblance of a normal life, especially when that drug does not have a recent history of abuse and diversion. It also tends to make suspect any and all abuse deterrent products, which is deceptive at best. 

One thing the abuse deterrent formulations have done is to help narrow their focus to legitimate pain patients. Those seeking to get “high” moved to immediate release opioids or black market heroin/fentanyl combinations, not the ADF products. That’s why the FDA is now considering requiring companies that produce generic opioids to develop ADF properties for their drugs. 

No matter what Cigna declares, the bottom line is that ADF’s have been successful. They are not an end all to diversion and abuse, but they do help pain patients get easier access to pain medication. I am hoping that is everybody’s ultimate goal. 


John Burke recently retired after nearly 50 years in drug and law enforcement in southwestern Ohio.

John is a former president of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators and current president of the International Health Facility Diversion Association.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.