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Health care providers and health insurance companies asked to join the fight against opioid addiction

The Washington Health Alliance and The Dr. Robert Bree Collaborative issue call to action for providers and health plans to address opioid prescribing for acute, short-term pain

SEATTLE, January 9, 2017—Two groups representing Washington state health care organizations issued a call to action today inviting health care leaders across the state to join a coordinated response to Washington state’s opioid epidemic. The Quality Improvement Committee of the Washington Health Alliance (Alliance) and The Dr. Robert Bree Collaborative are asking health care practitioners and leaders to stop the epidemic before it begins by reducing the number of people who ever start an opioid prescription.

The call to action recommends that providers use evidence-based prescribing practices for acute, short-term pain, asks health plans to use data to identify patterns of overprescribing and high utilization and encourages patients to ask questions and explore other treatment options when prescribed an opioid. Good pain care for serious injuries and illnesses is important, but the recommendations stress that it is better for everyone’s better health not to start opioids for mild to moderate pain care; and if one starts, to use short-acting doses for a few days at a time, and reassess frequently.

Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the US and in Washington state, and opioid addiction is driving the epidemic. In 2014 alone, more than 14,000 people died from overdoses involving prescription opioids (approximately 425 deaths in Washington state alone). In the first three months of 2016, at least 188 people died due to opioid overdose. The epidemic is growing, devastating Washington families and communities.

According to a report released by the Alliance last August, approximately 1 in 12 adults in Washington state received a prescription for an opioid during the period from July 2013 to June 2014. There was tremendous variation among regions and by age and gender. In some communities as many as one in six middle-aged women received an opioid prescription. Particularly troubling was the variation in rates for opioid prescriptions for children and adolescents. In the highest prescribing regions, approximately one in ten girls and one in thirteen boys ages 12–19 years received a prescription for an opioid in the reporting period. While opioids are effective in helping children and adolescents cope with moderate to severe pain, particularly pain associated with cancer treatments, the numbers suggest that prescriptions go far beyond the palliative care for a major, severe illness.

Call to action aims to reduce the number of people who start taking opioids

There are many factors driving the epidemic. Health care providers and health insurance plans can help reduce the number of people who start taking opioids and help those who may be at risk for addiction.

For health care systems, the call to action encourages providers to register and use the Washington State Prescription Monitoring Program. They also recommend using evidence-informed pain care and opioid prescribing practices, following CDC guidelines for short-term, acute pain.

Dr. Gary Franklin, neurologist and medical director for the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries who raised alarm bells early on about the over-prescription of opioids, says, “Opioid medications are powerful and can be the right choice for treating severe acute pain, but only for a very short time. The CDC recommendation is that most acute pain situations in which opioids may be indicated should be limited to three or fewer days of prescription opioids. This would be crucial in teenagers, whose brains are still developing and are more susceptible to substance abuse.”

For health insurance plans, the call to action recommends including the use of evidence-based prescribing guidelines in provider contracting as a quality and safety goal. It also encourages health plans to use health data to identify individual patients who appear to be high utilizers and identify any patterns of potential overprescribing from clinicians.

“Everyone needs to help turn back the opioid epidemic,” says Dr. Dan Kent, Chief Medical Officer for UnitedHealthCare and incoming chair of the Washington Health Alliance’s Quality Improvement Committee. “Health plans do a lot of work to improve quality; many are helping the Alliance and the Bree Collaborative with this call to action. We should support the new prescribing guidelines from CDC and Washington State. They recommend much more careful prescribing of first opioid prescriptions. We encourage providers to review their own prescribing and acute pain care practices. Let’s be sure we are not starting the next wave of opioid addiction.”

More information

Media Contact:
John Gallagher
Washington Health Alliance
206.454.2957
jgallagher@wahealthalliance.org