Community efforts to fight Philadelphia’s opioid epidemic

April 28, 2017 GMT

Opioid drug abuse in the United States has reached a tipping point. In small towns and major cities across our nation, people struggle to cope with addiction, which is destroying lives and ripping apart families. In Philadelphia, the situation gets worse each day. Since 2009, the city has seen a 43 percent increase in drug overdose deaths — an alarming 900 deaths in 2016 alone. That’s more than triple the homicide rate. Opioids, including heroin and prescription pain killers, accounted for approximately 80 percent of drug-related deaths in 2016. Of those in prison in Philadelphia, 70 percent suffer from substance use disorders.

As complex and challenging as this epidemic is, most experts agree that prevention plays an important role in combating opioid addiction. Prohibiting unauthorized or illegal access to prescription opioids is a strong first step. It’s been shown that children and teens who first abuse prescription drugs often obtain them from the home medicine cabinets of family or friends who do not properly dispose of unused or outdated medication.

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To address this issue, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) regularly hosts National Take Back Day across the nation, where people can safely and conveniently dispose their prescription drugs and learn about the potential for drug abuse. Last year, Pennsylvania collected nearly 44,000 pounds of unwanted medicines. That’s over 20 tons of dangerous drugs that were safely eliminated. The next National Take Back Day is Saturday. More information about participating locations can be found at Prescription Drug Take-back sites.

In January, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney formed the Mayor’s Task Force to Combat the Opioid Epidemic with the objective of developing a comprehensive and coordinated plan to reduce opioid abuse, dependence and overdose. As chief medical officer for Independence Blue Cross (Independence), I’m proud to have served on that task force along with a number of public health and opioid use disorder experts, local and federal law enforcement, State and City administrators and advocates. A summary of the Task Force’s comprehensive report will be shared with the public in the near future.

Additionally, the DEA recently announced it is implementing its “360 Strategy” program in Philadelphia, which not only focuses on defeating drug traffickers, but also encourages community education and enforces responsible prescribing practices throughout the medical community.

But government and law enforcement can’t fight this battle alone.

As the region’s largest health insurer, Independence has an unwavering commitment to serve and inspire our members and our communities and to advocate for their well-being. We take substance abuse very seriously and have many initiatives and programs to help prevent substance use disorder.

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Independence already restricts the quantity of opioids a physician can prescribe, and will soon further restrict prescriptions to no more than five days for initial low-dose opioids, while allowing longer use for members suffering from cancer-related pain and hospice patients. This safeguard prevents multiple opioid prescriptions from being filled at different pharmacies and reduces the risk for addiction while addressing legitimate pain treatment.

Independence currently covers some forms of medication-assisted treatment (MAT), including the most commonly prescribed medications. Soon we will provide coverage for methadone treatment. We will also do everything we can to help members with chronic pain through programs that include other methods of pain management in a variety of settings.

We regularly promote new Centers for Disease Control (CDC) prescribing guidelines and safe practices to doctors. In fact, after providing more than 600 of our network doctors a list of patients who were prescribed more than the CDC-recommended doses of opioids, 65 percent of those physicians stopped inappropriate prescribing. Since 2014, Independence has reduced inappropriate opioid use among members by nearly 30 percent.

Independence fully supports the new Pennsylvania Prescription Drug Monitoring Program which requires physicians to check whether patients are already using opioids before prescribing, and requires pharmacies to document purchases of opioids whether by insurance or cash. We hope to see this effort strengthened by creating connectivity with other states. We also believe that it’s vital to develop and expand access to a statewide database of available treatment services, which can be used by clinicians and consumers.

The Independence Blue Cross Foundation, through its Supporting Treatment and Overdose Prevention (STOP) Initiative, aims to increase awareness and access to effective community-based opioid treatment and prevention. Among the programs it supports are the Moyer Foundation for Camp Mariposa, which helps children who have lost loved ones to drug addiction and help stop the cycle of addiction.

As we continue to face this epidemic head on, prevention and access to quality treatment will be pivotal. Law enforcement, doctors, nurses, behavioral health providers, health insurers, academics and citizens must work together as a community to truly make a difference. The time to act is now.