Efforts by health insurers, including Medicare, Medicaid and major private insurers, to combat the opioid crisis have been lacking, according to a new study led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The study reviewed 2017 coverage policies for the treatment of chronic back pain, noting that opportunities to steer patients towards safer and more effective treatments than opioid prescriptions are often missed.
“Our findings suggest that both public and private insurers, at least unwittingly, have contributed importantly to the epidemic,” the study's senior author G. Caleb Alexander, MD, MS, associate professor in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Epidemiology and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness said in a statement.
The study will be published June 22 on the Journal of the American Medical Association's Network Open website, providing one of the most comprehensive analysis of insurers pain coverage policies.
The study showed many insurers failed to use evidence-based "utilization management" rules that discourage opioid overuse and attempt to find safer and more effective options.
Researchers also found that the public and commercial insurance plans often make opioids available relatively cheaply to patients.
“Insurers can either be part of the problem, or part of the solution,” said Alexander. “The good news is that an increasing number of health plans are recognizing their contribution to the epidemic and developing new policies to address it. The bad news is that we have a very long way to go.”
The study, titled "Prescription drug coverage for treatment of low back pain among U.S. Medicaid, Medicare Advantage and Commercial Insurers," was funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health, and the Centers for Diseases Control.
The Department of Health and Human services estimates that in 2016 more than 42,249 people died of opioid overdoses, the highest number on record, and more than 2.1 million Americans had an issue with opioid addiction, creating an economic cost as high as $504 billion.