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Prescriptions are down, but opioids remain a public safety threat

Originally published in The Tennessean, September 2018

Several years ago, we saw early flares from the opioid crisis in Upper East Tennessee, where an alarming number of babies were being born dependent on pain medications. We began taking action with community partners in 2013, but it still wasn’t clear just how bad things would get for the people of our state.

At BlueCross, we’ve taken significant steps to help promote safety – and some signs point to hope on the horizon. But the unfortunate truth is: Tennesseans are still dying from opioid addiction in record numbers, even as total prescriptions and dosages have decreased. 

Tennesseans are receiving fewer opioids, but deaths continue to rise.

Knowing our members received 875,000 opioid prescriptions last year, it’s clear there’s still responsible work to be done. And because any of our family members, friends, colleagues and neighbors could be at risk, we’ve put a lot of thought and collaborative effort into asking, “What’s next?”

For three years, we’ve worked closely with an independent panel of external medical experts from across Tennessee. They’ve helped inform our decision making every step of the way to ensure our decisions are based on identified best practices.

Together we’ve taken a deliberate, gradual approach to changing what we cover so we don’t disrupt our members’ care or throw them into crisis.

We recognize many of our members face the daily reality of chronic pain. And many more have episodic pain crises where pain management is part of a necessary treatment plan. We’re also sensitive to the needs of members undergoing oncology, palliative and end-of-life care, so we always approve prior authorizations for those members.

Our 2019 changes continue our multi-year efforts to help ensure the safety and wellbeing of Tennesseans.  

Starting Jan. 1, we are:

  • placing new restrictions on short-acting opioids,
  • changing our covered drug list,
  • reducing daily dosing limits,
  • and putting in safeguards to help protect members against dangerous drug combinations.

Because the potential for addiction increases significantly after just a few days of use, we’re adding a seven-day limit for new short-acting opioid prescriptions. We will also begin requiring a new prior authorization when a short-acting agent is being used for an extended period of time.

Next, we’re replacing OxyContin on our covered drug list with Xtampza and Morphabond. These two drugs use abuse-deterrent formulas, meaning they’re safer and hold less street value. And even though the replacement drugs cost more, we’re keeping member co-pays the same as they were for OxyContin.

Our third change is to reduce the allowed daily limit of opioids, cumulative of any drug combination. We know higher doses lead to higher risks of overdose or death – and higher doses aren’t proven to reduce most pain over the long term.

We’re also adding network providers and benefits to cover acupuncture so members with chronic pain have another treatment option.

Finally, we’re adding safeguards to alert clinical teams and providers about inappropriate or dangerous drug combinations. For example, if different physicians prescribed someone a muscle relaxer and an opioid, that person could be at risk for respiratory issues. Both providers would have been making decisions in good faith, but without all the information they needed.

Beyond our clinical efforts, BlueCross has also sought to address this public health crisis by collaborating with charitable organizations across the state. Since 2013, our Health Foundation has invested more than $5.4 million in efforts to provide prevention and treatment support.

Working together with providers and community partners, we can make a meaningful difference in addressing the dangers of opioids.  And we’ll keep at it because the lives of our family members, friends, colleagues and neighbors depend on it.

About Dr. Andrea Willis, SVP, Chief Medical Officer

A photo of the authorDr. Willis ensures that all clinical initiatives and quality endeavors support the needs of our members, and contribute to the overall health and well-being of our communities.

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