In 2015, enough opioids were prescribed to medicate every American around the clock for three weeks, Dr. Hal Paz, Aetna’s executive vice president and chief medical officer, told the inaugural HLTH conference May 7, citing Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data.
To underscore the fact that America is in the midst of an opioid crisis, Dr. Paz shared several other statistics during the conference’s “Reality Check” series:
- More Americans died of an opioid overdose in 2016 than at the peak of the AIDS epidemic or members of the armed forces lost during the entire Vietnam War.
- 75 percent of adults 18-to-64 years old with substance abuse disorders are in the workforce. This results in two staggering effects: They are absent from work three times more than the average worker, and they change jobs more often, with 42 percent of those with substance abuse disorders working for more than one employer in the last year. In the general workforce, average turnover rates are about 25 percent.
- Receiving an initial opioid prescription in excess of seven days more than doubles the chances of likelihood of abuse.
“This is an unprecedented epidemic and a national tragedy,” said Dr. Paz.
In order to turn the tide, Aetna has taken a three-pronged approach to mobilize its opioid strategy: Prevent, intervene and support.
This approach occurs on a number of fronts, including encouraging the use of non-opioid painkillers such as Exparel, acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen; limiting the supply of opioids prescribed; and identifying and educating doctors with outlying prescribing habits.
“I’ve personally written almost 2,000 letters to providers telling them that they fall, based on our data, in the top 1 percent of prescribers,” said Dr. Paz of so-called ‘super prescribers.’ “We give them not only their data, but also provide CDC guidelines on the appropriate use of opioids in their practices.”
Dr. Paz also highlighted a new Aetna initiative, launched earlier this year, which provides support for members who have been admitted to the emergency room for an opioid overdose.
“Just today (May 7), we announced a new pilot program called ‘Guardian Angel’ in which a registered nurse who’s a certified mental health first aid instructor engages with members who just had an overdose. She reaches out and helps them find solutions in their community to avoid future overdoses,” said Dr. Paz. “Just in its very short history, this program has had a 40 percent engagement rate, which as many of you know is exceptionally high by industry standards.”
In just the first few months of the Guardian Angel program, Aetna’s registered nurse has assisted hundreds of members, ages 18-to-65, who have suffered from a recent opioid overdose.
Close to 120 Americans die every day from an opioid-related overdose. Although there’s no silver bullet in defeating this crisis, Aetna is committed to finding innovate solutions and breaking down barriers surrounding lifesaving treatments.