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Everyone has a role to play in addressing opioid abuse

You don’t have to flip through many TV channels or pick up many magazines 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 and misuse is the other part.

Opioids are medications used to relieve pain. Better known by their common or brand names — such as morphine, OxyContin, Vicodin or codeine – you might have one of these drugs in your medicine cabinet right now.

Prescription drugs in our society are common and readily accessible, but that does not mean they cannot be dangerous. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, emergency department visits due to pharmaceutical misuse or abuse grew by 128 percent between 2004 and 2011. At least half of all opioid overdose deaths involve a prescription opioid (CDC, National Center for Health Statistics).

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, HealthCore, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, and the University of Washington found that more than half the people who take opioids for chronic pain are likely to still be taking the painkillers five years later.

More than half the people who take opioids for chronic pain are likely to still be taking the painkillers five years later.

Numbers like these prove that prescription drug abuse is not just a personal problem. Rather, it is a public health problem, requiring everyone from individuals and businesses to governments and community organizations to do their part to turn things around.

At Anthem, we believe 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. This means we can help flag individuals who may be getting prescriptions from multiple doctors or pharmacies, or whose refill patterns fall outside of established norms.

That’s why, this 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).

This program is just one part of our overall strategy to help redirect members to appropriate care, prevent addiction, and hopefully, prevent deaths and major medical problems from overdose and drug interactions. It also represents our commitment to the ongoing evaluation of the safety and efficacy of drug therapies and to continuing to evolve our coverage policies based on new clinical evidence and real life experience.

At the individual level, you can help curb prescription drug abuse by taking two simple actions:

  1. Follow your doctor’s instructions. You should always follow your doctor’s instructions when taking prescription drugs, but be sure to be especially vigilant when the drug you are ingesting is a potentially addictive painkiller. Take the minimum amount you need to cope with the pain, and always call your doctor or pharmacy if you have questions related to dosage instructions or potential conflicts with other prescriptions. Also, talk to your doctor about starting with an over-the-counter painkiller such as ibuprofen. If a weaker drug provides relief, there may be no need to take a prescription opioid.
  2. Dispose of unneeded medications properly. Those extra bottles of prescription drugs you have in your medicine closet? Get rid of them – and do so properly. Hospitals, police and fire departments often host medication take-back days. To find a site near you, visit the Dose of Reality website. Getting unneeded prescription drugs out of the house will not only help a loved one avoid mistakenly taking the wrong medication, it will also keep opioids out of the reach of teens and adults who visit your home.

Neither Anthem’s Pharmacy Home program nor proper disposal of prescription drugs will solve the issue of opioid addiction, but they are good first steps. When developing additional solutions, we must start from a place of compassion. 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.

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Nobile is a 20-year veteran of the insurance industry whose experience includes time with Rush Prudential Health Plans, Aetna, and United Healthcare. Prior to joining Anthem, Nobile served as the Director of Sales and Account Management for the Midwest region at UniCare, a health benefits company based in Chicago and owned by Anthem’s parent company and also ran UniCare’s Eastern Region with offices.

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