Flattening the second curve

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As we combat the physical effects of COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are simultaneously confronted with deep feelings of stress, fear and anxiety. We are facing profound loss, economic uncertainty, social isolation, and worry for the health of those we love. This time of mental and emotional crisis is the ‘second curve’ of the pandemic, and we must work together to flatten this curve, too. 

If you are struggling, please know — you’re not alone. 

In times of great need, there will always be great helpers and heroes - those who go above and beyond to keep others safe and comfortable, heal sickness, and provide access to essential services and resources. In the wake of this pandemic, these helpers and heroes have missed sleep, lost jobs, mourned loved ones and become infected themselves — all while staying committed to helping and serving others. These helpers need help, too. 

To answer that call, CVS Health is stepping up our commitment to supporting those who care for us by connecting them with mental wellbeing resources and counseling services designed to address their needs during this unprecedented and difficult time.  

We’re proud to now offer expanded services and resources to support our most significantly impacted groups — our frontline health care workers, our essential workers, our seniors, and our furloughed and laid-off workers. Read on to learn more.

Maintaining mental wellbeing right now is more important, and more challenging, than ever. We can help.

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Impacted? We’re here to help.


Frontline health care workers

Through support from CVS Health and the Aetna Foundation, we are working to address the needs of the health care workforce by offering access to no-cost mental health counseling via the Crisis Text Line and Give An Hour.

  • The Crisis Text Line For the Frontlines provides 24/7 direct mental health support for health care workers who are dealing with stress, anxiety, fear, depression or isolation associated with COVID-19. Need urgent support? Text FRONTLINE to 741741 for assistance

  • Give An Hour offers personalized counseling to hospital-based clinical and non-clinical employees, and loved ones of essential hospital workers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to help manage trauma responses including, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress. Access support from Give an Hour.

Aetna’s signature Resources For Living (RFL) program is also offering a variety of wellbeing resources and support options to those in need, whether or not they’re covered in Aetna insurance plans. Individuals who do not have RFL as an insurance plan benefit should call 1-833-327-AETNA (1-833-327-2386) for assistance. RFL resources include:

  • In-the-moment phone support to help cope with the emotional impact of the event

  • Guidance for frontline workers on how to cope with the traumatic stress effects of COVID-19


Essential workers

CVS Health is committed to helping essential workers, including grocery, pharmacy and service employees, who are also on the frontlines of the pandemic.

Aetna Resources For Living (RFL) is providing mental wellbeing services, in addition to identifying resources to support basic needs such as meals, childcare, eldercare, and financial guidance. Services are available to all even if your insurance plan benefits do not include RFL.

  • Get real-time phone support to help cope with the emotional impact of the pandemic. Call 1-833-327-AETNA (1-833-327-2386)

  • Listen to podcasts about relevant topics such as grief, loss, resiliency, self-care, and empathy

  • Discover ideas for things to do with your kids while you’re together at home

Urgent support is also one text away. The Crisis Text Line is available 24/7. Text FRONTLINE to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor.


Seniors

Staying connected during social distancing can be challenging, especially for seniors who are most at risk for social isolation. We’re here to help.

Aetna Resources For Living (RFL) is providing wellbeing and emotional support for seniors, expanding social connectedness outreach. Additionally, through RFL, seniors can access support for basic needs including food, prescription, and meal delivery services. If you need assistance, call RFL at 1-833-327-AETNA (1-833-327-2386).


Furloughed or unemployed

A job loss can take a toll on your mental wellbeing. Resources are available to help you address fears and anxiety.

Aetna Resources For Living (RFL) is providing support for basic needs. Resources include emotional support for coping with job loss, family meals, and financial guidance. To speak to someone, call 1-833-327-AETNA (1-833-327-2386).

Need urgent support? A crisis counselor with the Crisis Text Line is available 24/7. Text HOME to 741741.


CVS Health colleagues

Resources are also available to help CVS Health colleagues build mental health resilience, cope with uncertainty, reduce stress and stay connected.

  • Colleagues on the frontline who are dealing with stress, isolation, and fear associated with the pandemic can text FRONTLINE to 741741 and receive assistance from the 24/7 Crisis Text Line For the Frontlines

  • Additionally, 7 Cups provides free, on-demand emotional health support services that make behavioral health care accessible through community, trained volunteer listeners.

Need help now?

Connect with an expert.

Visit Crisis Text Line or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor for 24/7 support.

Give An Hour provides mental health counseling services at no cost.

If you live in New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut, learn more about Give An Hour’s services.

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Quarantined seniors face unseen dangers

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With an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that adults 60 and older "stay at home as much as possible." But, studies show that isolation and loneliness can cause seniors physical and mental harm. In fact, it can be more harmful to a person’s well-being than obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Why loneliness is lethal

The first step in finding solutions is to understand that loneliness and social isolation are related, but different problems, says Dr. Christopher Lim, M.D., Senior Clinical Advisor, Aetna Medicare. Isolation is objective and can be measured by factors like the size of a person’s social network. In contrast: Loneliness is a subjective and personal feeling. Both are common among older adults.

A 2020 study found that nearly a quarter of Americans aged 65 and older are socially isolated, and some 43% of adults aged 60 or older report feeling lonely. Add on the isolation felt with the pandemic, and these people face increased risk for heart attack, stroke, or even reduced antiviral protections that are so important right now.

“Loneliness is not a normal state of being for a human,” says Lim. “Biologically, we depend on others to survive in the world.”

Making connections

Fortunately, there are ways we can all help older adults stay connected while respecting social distancing:

  • Resources For Living consultants call at-risk seniors identified by the Social Isolation Index to offer customized local solutions, such as food delivery.

  • SilverSneakers, now offers members age-appropriate online video workouts from home.

  • Papa, Inc. program connects college students and seniors through “Assistance from a Distance” to encourage positive thinking, help with ordering groceries and medicines and explaining telehealth tools.

  • Through an Aetna Foundation grant, the Meals on Wheels program is developing a training curriculum to teach seniors how to use technology to make online connections.

Dr. Robert Mirsky, Chief Medical Officer, Aetna, talking with an older woman outdoors.
Dr. Robert Mirsky, Chief Medical Officer of Aetna.

“We are continuing to look holistically at our social connectedness offerings to build out a variety of approaches to identify and support our members who are lonely or isolated,” says Dr. Robert Mirsky, Chief Medical Officer for Aetna Medicare.

You can help, too. Consider adding your neighbor’s shopping list to your own. Call your elderly relatives to remind them they aren’t alone. Schedule a virtual visit between your children and parents. The connections you make during this time could be lifesaving.

Help older adults stay connected

  • Make a plan how to social distance and sanitize their home. Update phone numbers for pharmacy and other home deliveries.

  • Schedule regular phone calls and video chats.

  • Organize a virtual game night using online board games or set up identical game boards and use a speaker phone. 

  • Create a virtual book club or have grandparents read bedtime stories.

  • Host a long-distance dinner party with meal delivery and phone or video conversation.

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Women’s heart attacks aren’t like men’s

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"I’ve always lived a healthy lifestyle," says Tasya Lacy from Columbus, Ohio, who has been teaching hula-hoop fitness classes for years. Yet, the day before Easter 2016, at age 50, she had a heart attack.

"I was exhausted and felt like I pulled muscle in my back," Tasya, now 54, recalls. "My husband rubbed my shoulders and felt my heart racing. He told me we we're going to the hospital. I didn’t think I needed to.”

Doctors found 99% blockage in Tasya’s main coronary artery, requiring three stents.

It’s common for women to miss signs of a heart attack because they present differently from men. A man is more likely to have chest pains, a woman may experience flu-like symptoms: nausea and vomiting, excessive sweating, exhaustion, or pain in their arm or back.

Listening to your body could be the difference between and life and death. Literally. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), cardiovascular disease is the No. one killer of women, causing one in three deaths each year. Often because they ignored the symptoms. And, 20% of women age 45 or older who have who have a heart attack will have a second heart attack within five years of their first.

CVS Health is the national presenting sponsor of Go Red for Women — the American Heart Association’s heart health movement to end heart disease and stroke in women.

MinuteClinic® offers chronic care management and preventative care all year long, including measuring risk factors for heart disease. “We’ve expanded our available health care services for patients with certain chronic conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure,” shares Angela Patterson, Chief Nurse Practitioner, MinuteClinic. “Our providers are able to screen, assess, treat and monitor these conditions, as well as order lab tests, recommend lifestyle changes, prescribe medications and educate patients about their conditions.”

There's one more risk factor exclusive to women: menopause.

"The combination of estrogen and progesterone before menopause seems to provide a protective element against heart disease in women," explains Allan Stewart, MD, Medical Director for HCA East Florida’s Miami-Dade Cardiovascular Surgery Programs. However, once a woman goes through menopause, her risk of heart attack increases significantly.

Tasya was post-menopausal when she had her heart attack. Now she knows a simple truth about her health — when in doubt, always seek medical care.

Get proactive with preventive care

Visit a MinuteClinic to learn your personal health numbers — a starting point for a discussion with your health provider on your risk for heart disease:

  • total cholesterol
  • blood pressure
  • blood sugar
  • body mass index (BMI)

Visit www.cvshealth.com/GoRed to learn more.

For more information about CVS Health’s efforts to improve care across the nation, visit our News & Insights page and the CVS Health Impact Dashboard.

To stay informed about the latest updates and innovations from CVS Health, register for content alerts and our Leaders in Care newsletter.

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Addressing social isolation among seniors

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With studies showing social isolation can be as damaging to your health as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, loneliness can be just as dangerous as high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

That's why addressing social isolation is a major focus for Aetna’s Medicare business and care managers, who are taking a more holistic view of senior health to help get them on a path to better health.

With studies showing social isolation can be as damaging to your health as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, loneliness can be just as dangerous as high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
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“The most common challenge with our senior patients, honestly, is that so many of them have no one,” says Aetna Field Case Manager Sarah Fischer, RN. “So many of them don’t have families. One lady said to me, ‘I’m the only one left.’"

Watch the video to see how case managers are introducing seniors to benefits such as the SilverSneakers fitness program, community volunteering and other opportunities for social connection.

“We get them involved, get the area office on aging involved. There are senior newspapers, things like that,” says Sarah. “We just bring these benefits to the member and say, ‘Let’s get you involved in something.’”

For more information about CVS Health’s efforts to improve care across the nation, visit our News & Insights page and the CVS Health Impact Dashboard. To stay informed about the latest updates and innovations from CVS Health, register for content alerts and our Leaders in Care newsletter.

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For diabetes patients, a Care Coach is just a click away

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CVS Health pharmacist Matthew Scarnecchia could see the concern on the face of his patient. Richard, a 59-year-old man who suffered not only from Type 2 diabetes but also high blood pressure and high cholesterol, was alarmed by the results of his latest blood-sugar test. His A1c was 7.5 percent — above his goal range of below 7 percent.

With a few questions, Scarnecchia learned that Richard was worried about also getting low blood sugar from his diabetes medication. It turned out that Richard was taking his diabetes medication in the morning, but not eating until he was at his workplace after a long commute. “I recommended that he take his Glipizide with his breakfast at work to see if that would help,” Scarnecchia says. It did. Just a few months later, Richard’s A1c had dropped to 6.3 percent and he was no longer having low blood sugar readings.

Nearly as satisfying, this one-on-one consult took place without either man leaving his desk, even though they were 2,000 miles apart – one in Arizona, one in Florida. Through his insurance provider, the patient had signed on to CVS Health’s Medication Therapy Management program and met with Scarnecchia face-to-face via an online app that can be accessed through any computer or mobile device.

Personal Consultations from Anywhere

Once enrolled in the program, patients can slot in a video consultation from anywhere. In addition to their regular doctor’s appointments, they can talk with a specialized pharmacist who can advise on medication compliance, interactions and side effects, and, most importantly, suggest some everyday adjustments, such as diet and exercise, that can make an immense difference in controlling diabetes.

CVS Health’s Medication Therapy Management program provides patients with one-on-one care with a specialized pharmacist who can help them better manage their chronic condition from the comfort of home.
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A video meeting benefits patients and pharmacists alike. A patient can show his or her latest blood-sugar results or other medical reports without needing to mail them. If a patient is having issues injecting insulin, the pharmacist can point to possible alternative injection sites on a visual model. The one-on-one view also allows pharmacists to pick up on nonverbal cues. “I can see if a patient seems confused about their results and give explanations that might be helpful,” says Scarnecchia.

Patients can take advantage of this face-to-face coaching even before they might need medication. With diabetes tied to so many other health concerns — high blood pressure, nerve damage, heart disease — it’s especially vital to try to halt or slow down the condition’s progress.

Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference

When an A1c of 5.8 percent tipped him into the prediabetic range, 60-year-old Jeff welcomed the chance for video chats with pharmacist Brian O’Halloran, and has kept those appointments every three to four months. “During our visits, we’ve discussed healthy lifestyle changes,” says O’Halloran. “Jeff decided to stop drinking diet sodas, and reported, nine months later, that he’d stayed off them.” 

Small but attainable goals are easier to meet, explains O’Halloran.

“In March 2018, Jeff said he wanted to lose 5 pounds before his next time we talked. I told him ‘Don’t shop the aisles.’ That’s where grocery stores stock all the processed foods. Instead, I suggested he shop the perimeter — where he could pick up fresh vegetables and meats. When we spoke again in July, he’d lost 6 pounds.”

Both pharmacists find that patients look forward to the on-screen sessions, which often last for 30 minutes. Even a patient’s family member may stop by to wave hello, says Scarnecchia. Patients can also contact the pharmacist in between scheduled sessions. When a patient shares good news about improved bloodwork, O’Halloran warmly congratulates them on their success.

For diabetes patients, a video visit is part of the “big picture” of managing of their condition. Patients can ask questions that may not have occurred to them while in their doctor’s office. “It’s more like a conversation,” says O’Halloran, “and more comfortable for the patients.”

To learn more about our enterprise-wide approach to diabetes management and care, visit our Managing Diabetes with CVS Health page.

To stay informed about the latest updates and innovations from CVS Health, register for content alerts and our Leaders in Care newsletter.

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Helping patients better manage diabetes

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As CVS Health’s Senior Director of Transformation Stella Wong explains, diabetes is a difficult condition to manage. There are a number of things patients need to do on a routine basis, such as checking blood glucose levels, eating right, exercising, or taking the right medications at the right time.

“The list is literally hundreds of items long,” Stella says.

CVS Health is in a unique position to help. From new, innovative programs to in-store screenings at MinuteClinics and HealthHUB locations, learn how we’re helping people with diabetes better manage their condition and lead healthier lives.

From new, innovative programs to in-store screenings at MinuteClinics and HealthHUB locations, watch this video to learn how CVS Health is helping people with diabetes better manage their condition and lead healthier lives.
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“Our tremendous reach into people’s communities (and) our focus on new technologies will allow us to add an entire other layer of support and care for patients,” says Dr. Alan Lotvin, Chief Transformation Officer. “We have the opportunity and the ability to fundamentally reshape and augment the care delivery system in the United States.”

Watch the video above to learn more.

To learn more about our enterprise-wide approach to diabetes management and care, visit our Managing Diabetes with CVS Health page.

To stay informed about the latest updates and innovations from CVS Health, register for content alerts and our Leaders in Care newsletter.

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The importance of bringing diabetes care into the community

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This article was written by Dr. Dan Knecht, Vice President of Health Strategy & Innovation at CVS Health.

1.5 million: That’s the number of Americans who are diagnosed with diabetes each year. 327 billion: That was the total cost of diagnosed diabetes in the United States in 2017, according to the American Diabetes Association.

These are big numbers, but they don’t tell the whole story. In addition to my day job as Vice President of Health Strategy and Innovation at CVS Health, I practice as a physician at Mount Sinai West Hospital in New York City. During my weekend rotations, I see firsthand the very real and negative impacts of uncontrolled diabetes on my patients. Diabetes can cause vision loss, kidney failure and neuropathic pain, in addition to accelerating and worsening cardiovascular disease.

Thankfully, the news is not all bad. As the number of people diagnosed with diabetes rises, so are the resources and treatment options available to them.

CVS Health recently partnered with Morning Consult to better understand the needs of people living with diabetes and the providers who deliver diabetes care. What we heard from patients and doctors is a desire to:

  • Expand access to local care
  • Better manage and predict out-of-pocket costs
  • Provide additional lifestyle support in the form of nutrition, exercise and social services

In honor of Diabetes Awareness Month, I sat down with fellow diabetes experts Dr. Steve Edelman, M.D., founder and director of Taking Control of Your Diabetes, and Joy Pape, R.N., a nationally known family nurse practitioner and certified diabetes educator, to discuss how we can address some of these needs through real action.

Watch our full CVS Health Live discussion above.

Read Dr. Knecht’s full article on LinkedIn.

For more information about CVS Health’s efforts to improve care across the nation, visit our News & Insights page and the CVS Health Impact Dashboard. To stay informed about the latest updates and innovations from CVS Health, register for content alerts and our Leaders in Care newsletter.

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Multi-Dose Packaging Is Making It Easier to Take Medications

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Lee Ann Pace was having trouble keeping up with her multiple prescriptions, sometimes running out of her medications before she got them refilled.

She’s not alone. Taking medications as prescribed is one of the best ways to control chronic diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol, but with dose changes, regimen changes, manufacturer changes and other barriers, keeping up with multiple medications can be a challenge.

That’s why we offer no-cost multi-dose packaging, making it easier for customers and members to take their medications and stay on their path to better health.

“Everything they need for each time of day is there packed together with their name, the information about the medication, the prescriber, lot numbers, expiration dates…all there for the patient,” says Lynn Parker, CVS Pharmacy manager.

Watch the video to learn more.

For more information about CVS Health’s efforts to improve care across the nation, visit our News & Insights page and the CVS Health Impact Dashboard. To stay informed about the latest updates and innovations from CVS Health, register for content alerts and our Leaders in Care newsletter.

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Free Screenings, Helpful Advice and a Visit from Pro Athletes at Project Health

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A customer receives a free health screening.
This Project Health event in Atlanta was one of nearly 600 targeting underserved communities.
A customer receiving a free health screening.
More than 87 percent of patients who attend Project Health events report following-up with their primary care physician.
A CVS Pharmacy store with Project Health sign.
Nearly 600 Project Health free health screenings were held in CVS store locations across the country.

Jean Peterson dropped by the City Line Avenue CVS Pharmacy in West Philadelphia to pick up pictures she’d dropped off at the photo department. Moments later, she also came away with a better picture of her own health — and the chance to snap a selfie with two local heroes: former Villanova basketball star Donte DiVincenzo and state Rep. Morgan Cephas.

Peterson had happened upon one of the many free screenings that CVS Health is offering across the country. During the next four months, nearly 600 Project Health events will take place in multicultural communities with a large number of uninsured or underinsured Americans. At each event, participants receive on-the-spot assessments of weight, blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol levels – tests that can help detect risk for chronic conditions such diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.

Since its founding in 2006, Project Health’s free health and wellness screenings have delivered more than $127 million in free health care services to nearly 1.7 million Americans.

One of those Americans was Peterson. The 70-year-old retired nurse learned that her blood sugar was a bit high, most likely due to medications she was given after a recent back surgery. “I always take advantage of things like this,” she said. “It doesn’t hurt and it keeps me in touch with what I need to take care of.”

Know Your Numbers

Sometimes, the people who think they need the testing the least are the ones who benefit the most.

Brenda, a screener technician at the Project Health event in the Kendall neighborhood of Miami, said a lot of very fit people come in to be screened, usually because they want to know their BMI. But other tests are just as important. One of her patients was diagnosed with high blood pressure.

“The guy said, ‘I’m very fit, I go to the gym and stuff like that, I train people, too,’” said Brenda, who is applying to medical school. But they tested him three more times – once manually – and the results were the same. “And the doctor was like, ‘Hey, you need to go to your doctor and follow up. Please.’ We were very shocked. He looked extremely healthy, very muscular.”

Speaking Their Language

Many of our Miami stores sit in Hispanic neighborhoods, emphasizing the importance of having bilingual screeners, says Elena Ferrales, a health screening manager for Project Health.

Cristina, a young mother, wheeled her seven-month-old into the Miami store and signed up to have a screening while her baby slept in the stroller. She had diabetes while she was pregnant, and though her levels have gone down, she tries to check them regularly. After her screening, she sat with the doctor and, conversing in both English and Spanish, they discussed her results and he gave her food recommendations.

Later, a similar conversation with an older man was conducted entirely in Spanish.

A Slam Dunk for Health

As much as anyone, professional athletes understand the importance of good health. They also understand that it’s not always easy for people to access the care they need to achieve it.

“If I wake up feeling something is wrong, I know there’s a handful of people ready to check me out,” says Donte DiVincenzo, a two-time NCAA basketball champ with the Villanova Wildcats, now a point guard with the Milwaukee Bucks. “But I shouldn’t get special treatment just because I’m a pro athlete. Everyone should have these resources.”

A handful of athletes were featured speakers at Project Health events. In addition to DiVincenzo, who appeared in Philadelphia, Los Angeles Clippers forward Mfiondu Kabengele spoke in Anaheim and Heat player Bam Adebayo attended the Miami event.

Kabengele says he learned during his first year with the NBA the importance of undergoing regular checkups. Small everyday steps, he says, can add up.

“When you have poor health, everything dumbs down,” he says. “When you're healthy, your motor is good. Preventive care is a reality check to make improvements.”

Being good sports, the athletes joined the customers to be screened. Adebayo – a player for the Heat – noted how easy it was to get screened inside the store.

“You don’t have the anxiety, you don’t have to have an appointment, you don’t need to be there at 8, the anxiety of waiting around, what if something is wrong with me?” he said. “You just walk in, get it, see how it goes.”

Access for All

Morgan Cephas, a track and field star at Central High School in Philadelphia and now a Pennsylvania state representative, knows the importance of health care from the perspective of both an athlete and a policymaker. As vice chair of the House Democrats’ Women’s Health Caucus, she noted that 10 percent of those in her district are uninsured or underinsured.

“Not everyone is the daughter or cousin or friend of a state representative,” she said. “They shouldn’t have to choose between managing their health and keeping a roof over their heads.”

An Immediate Impact

What happens after the screenings is up to the individual. But for one participant, the consultation had an immediate impact.

Zita James, 68, had been on her way to the nearby coffee shop when she noticed signs outside for the free screenings at the Philadelphia location. After her detour to CVS, she chose to make a positive change to her health.

“It stopped me going next door and getting two jelly doughnuts!” she laughed.

For more information about CVS Health’s efforts to improve care across the nation, visit our News & Insights page and the CVS Health Impact Dashboard. To stay informed about the latest updates and innovations from CVS Health, register for content alerts and our Leaders in Care newsletter.

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A Lifelong Struggle, a Tearful Reconciliation

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In the year since Jeff Balek began working for the Guardian Angels program, where he reaches out to Aetna members who have survived an opioid-related overdose to connect them with support and resources, Balek estimates he has spoken to hundreds of people who nearly died from an opioid overdose, and he has heard hundreds of heart-wrenching stories.

A counselor talking on the phone.
Jeff Balek, a Guardian Angels program clinical lead, works one-on-one with members recently released from the ER following an overdose.

But one story stands seared in his memory above the others: A man in his 40s named Kevin, who struggled with addiction for most his life and was now sober for the first time in decades, whose greatest wish was to try to rectify his greatest regret — his estranged relationship with his mother.

The problem was that he had no idea how to find her. Or whether she even wanted to see him. He searched desperately for six months to locate her, and when he did, the news was staggering. She was living out her final days in hospice care, more than a thousand miles away in Florida.

Could he find the money to arrange the trip? Could he get there in time? And, most importantly: Would she welcome him if he did?

“All I want is to at least have a chance to make things right,” he told Jeff.

Closing the Gap Between Overdose and Much-Needed Treatment and Support

Kevin’s story is a poignant example of the devastation that opioids can wreak on a family, but also of the redemptive opportunities for people who seek and receive help.

Those opportunities are why Aetna launched the Guardian Angels program as pilot in 2018. The company’s data showed hundreds of people were visiting emergency rooms each month with opioid-related overdoses. They all had complex needs for treatment and recovery, but the ER doctors’ job was limited to helping them survive an overdose. Once they survived, they were on their own again. It was like being treated for frostbite but then sent back outside into frigid temperatures. Without a coat.

Guardian Angels is part of our company-wide commitment to help address the abuse and misuse of prescription opioids, which includes everything from a safe medication disposal program in Ohio to Pharmacists Teach, an outreach program that’s reached more than 450,000 students and parents since 2015.

“We noticed patients would be discharged with minimal ongoing support,” says Daniel Knecht, MD, Aetna’s vice president of health strategy and innovation.

The Guardian Angels program was designed to close that gap. Clinicians who specialize in addiction recovery call members after they’ve been discharged to lend support, to offer education, and to connect them to community resources.

To date, the program has helped more than 600 members and their families, and the Guardian Angels staff has gone from a single person to two — Balek works alongside clinician Ramona Zarate — and is looking to expand again.

“We reach out when the individual is most needing help and most susceptible to intervention,” Balek says. “They had a near-death experience. Their defenses are broken down. They’re on the brink of emotional deterioration.”

“Talking about substance use is difficult,” Zarate says. “It’s important to give the person a safe space to discuss their experiences, their fears and their hopes for the future.”

There is no shortage of need. More than 70,000 people in the United States in 2017 died from drug overdoses, and that number continues to grow. Balek estimates that he and Zarate each talk to as many as 10 people a day. Outreach and perseverance are key; it sometimes takes up to eight calls just to reach someone.

Once the connection is made, the angels’ conversations with the members can stretch for months. The idea is to continue providing support until the patient reaches what they call “early remission,” which usually takes about three months. But Balek says he never cuts anyone off. As long as they’re willing to talk, he’s willing to listen. There’s always a goodbye, eventually, but Balek wants to make sure it’s “goodbye for a good reason.”

A Second Chance

In Kevin’s case, Balek stayed in touch for almost a year, as he struggled with facing the pain of his estrangement, as he searched for his mother, and as he wrestled with doubts about whether to approach her.

In the end, with Balek’s help and support, Kevin took the leap of faith and visited. To his relief, she welcomed him with open arms, glad to see him, and thrilled that he had shed his demons, at least for now. They shared the few good memories they had, back before addiction dug its claws into his life. They shared tears.

“The joy in his voice was incredible,” Balek says.

A few weeks later, Kevin’s mother died.

As he does with most of his patients, Balek eventually lost touch with Kevin. Last he heard, Kevin had found a job and a girlfriend, and had moved to Florida — almost as if he wanted a way to feel closer to his mother, as if her love and acceptance before she died made Florida feel like a safe, welcoming place.

Last Balek heard, Kevin was still sober.

Recently, Balek found notes from his last conversation with Kevin. These were what turned out to be the final words Kevin said to him: “I really didn’t think my Mom would see me doing well again. She got to see me looking good and clear-eyed and smiling. She got to see the real me, who always loved and cared for her.”

For more information about CVS Health’s efforts to improve care across the nation, visit our News & Insights page and the CVS Health Impact Dashboard. To stay informed about the latest updates and innovations from CVS Health, register for content alerts and our Leaders in Care newsletter.

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