By Pat Anson, Editor
A new report from health insurance giant Blue Cross Blue Shield highlights a little-known and rarely reported aspect of the opioid crisis: Addiction to opioid pain medication is declining, not increasing.
Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) said 241,900 of its members were diagnosed with opioid use disorder (OUD) in 2017, a rate of 6.2 for every 1,000 BCBS members. The rate fell to 5.9 in 1,000 members in 2017, a decline of nearly 5 percent. The insurer said it was the first drop in the eight years BCBS has tracked diagnoses of OUD.
"We are encouraged by these findings, but we remain vigilant," said Trent Haywood, MD, senior vice president and chief medical officer for BCBS said in a statement.
"More work is needed to better evaluate the effectiveness of treatment options and ensure access to care for those suffering from opioid use disorder."
BCBS attributes much of the decline to a 29% drop in opioid prescriptions for its members since 2013. A longtime critic of opioid prescribing hailed the findings as a sign of change.
"It means that there's light at the end of the tunnel," psychiatrist Andrew Kolodny, MD, the founder and executive director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP) told BuzzFeed.
"Unfortunately though, the genie is out of the bottle," said Kolodny, a former medical director of the addiction treatment chain Phoenix House. "Millions of Americans are now struggling with opioid addiction. Unless we do a better job of increasing access to effective treatment, overdose deaths will remain at record high levels and we'll have to wait for this generation to die off before the crisis comes to an end."
Admissions for Addiction Treatment
The BCBS numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, since they include all types of opioid addiction, including those linked to heroin, illicit fentanyl and prescription opioids. A more accurate way to track addiction to opioid medication would be admissions to publicly-funded treatment facilities for “non-heroin opiates/synthetic abuse” – a category that excludes heroin, but includes hydrocodone, oxycodone, fentanyl and other painkillers.
A database maintained by the Substances Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) shows that treatment admissions for prescription opioids peaked in 2011 at 193,552 admissions and fell to 121,363 by 2015 – a significant decline of over 37 percent. It seems likely that admissions for painkiller abuse have fallen even further since 2015, as opioid prescriptions have continued to plummet, and more pain patients are abandoned or denied treatment.
The SAMHSA data also reveals another trend: While the number of people seeking treatment for painkiller, alcohol and marijuana abuse has declined, admissions to treatment facilities for heroin addiction have soared. In 2010, there were 270,564 admissions in which heroin was identified as the primary substance of abuse. By 2015, that number had grown to 401,743 admissions – an increase of nearly a third.
ADMISSIONS TO ADDICTION TREATMENT FACILITIES
Admissions for heroin addiction now surpass those for other substances, yet much of the nation’s spending and law enforcement resources remain targeted on opioid prescriptions. Many public health officials also cling to the myth the heroin epidemic was triggered by opioid overprescribing, even though heroin admissions outnumber painkiller admissions by a 3 to 1 margin.
“Epidemiological data show that as widely prescribed opioids became less accessible due to supply side interventions, heroin use skyrocketed,“ psychiatrist Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, recently told OpioidWatch. Volkow was an early supporter of the CDC opioid guideline, one of the first supply side interventions, a strategy that she now characterizes as "naive."
“Expecting that declines in rates of prescribed opioids could, by themselves, stem the tide of the opioid crisis is naïve and an oversimplification of the complex nature of the crisis," Volkow said. "Legitimate questions have been raised about whether some pain patients might now be undertreated, and whether tightened prescribing practices over the last few years has contributed to the surge in overdose deaths from heroin and especially fentanyl.”
A recent study by SAMHSA found that deaths linked to illicit fentanyl and other synthetic opioids surpassed overdoses involving pain medication in 2016. The study also found that drugs used to treat depression and anxiety are involved in more overdoses than any other class of medication.