Op-ed: Doctors helping opioid crisis

“…In Pennsylvania, you are now nearly four times more likely to die of drug overdose than a car accident.”

By Dr. Richard Snyder

Thousands of people are impacted by substance use disorder each day.

Last year in Pennsylvania, 4,642 people died as a result of fatal drug overdoses. Of those, 907 people passed away right here in Philadelphia County, with nearly 400 additional drug-related deaths in neighboring Montgomery and Bucks counties.

To put this into perspective, in Pennsylvania, you are now nearly four times more likely to die of drug overdose than a car accident.

Opioids, including heroin and prescription painkillers, accounted for approximately 80 percent of these drug-related deaths. The opioid epidemic is so expansive that President Trump deemed it a public health emergency last week.

As complex as the opioid crisis is, one thing we know is that substance use disorder has no boundaries and does not explicitly start on the streets.

In many cases, addiction starts at home when patients receive prescriptions at high dosage or for too long a duration. Research shows that children and teens who first abuse prescription drugs often obtain them from the medicine cabinets of family or friends who did not properly dispose of unused or outdated medication.

Because of the excess amount of opioids currently available, most experts agree that prevention is critical to combating opioid addiction. To address this, the Drug Enforcement Administration hosts a series of National Take Back Day events across the country, where people can safely dispose of unused or expired prescription medications.

While government-led initiatives have been leading the force toward prevention, the opioid epidemic is too vast and growing too quickly for them to do it alone. We need to act together.

As the region’s largest health insurer, Independence Blue Cross is committed to serving, protecting and advocating for our members. This is why we recently tightened our existing opioid prescribing policy, restricting initial low-dose opioid prescriptions to no more than five days — while allowing longer use for members suffering from cancer-related pain and hospice patients.

Our opioid limitation policy is one of the strictest in the country — and we are proud of that. We believe it will prevent multiple opioid prescriptions from being filled at different pharmacies and reduce the risk for addiction.

Additionally, we expanded our standard medication-assisted treatment options to include coverage for methadone treatment, the oldest and best-researched treatment for addiction to heroin and prescription pain relievers. These are just a few of the many ways we are making proactive changes that will allow us to play a role in facing this epidemic head on. ••

Dr. Richard Snyder is chief medical director at Independence Blue Cross.