From 2007 to 2014, health insurance claims for those with opioid dependency rose by over 3,200% according to a study conducted by Fair Health. This is to say that for every one person diagnosed with opioid dependency in 2007, there were over thirty within seven years. Robin Gelburd, president of Fair Health, said this study proved opioid dependency to be “in the general mainstream.”
The sharpest increase in opioid dependence occurred in 2011, the year that saw the most attention paid to the growing problem, between monitoring the amount of opioid prescribed by doctors and increasing the amount of opioid training given to doctors. Still, statistics show only about 20% of doctors following correct monitoring protocol. Another major issue concerning the opioid problem is the fact that one in five people prescribed opioid medication share it with a family member or friend.
We have an Opioid Epidemic
Andrew Kolodny, while not involved in the study, is the senior scientist for the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. He spoke with NPR recently about the results, explaining how the dramatic increase of opioid abuse over such a short time period is the definition of an epidemic.
The number of medical services given to patients with opioid dependency in 2007 was approximately 217,000. This includes office visits and lab tests. The number in 2014 rose to seven million. That’s 800 medical services given to addicts per hour for an entire year. “A 3,000 percent increase is enormous,” said Kolodny. The evidence is in the numbers.
How did this happen so fast?
These dramatic increases come from somewhere. Experts such as Kolodny attribute it to doctors prescribing opioids at alarming rates. It turns out 99% of doctors prescribe more opioids than recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The recommendation for opioid-based painkiller prescription is three days’ worth or less per patient. Virtually all doctors prescribe them for 30 days or more. Perhaps this is fostering addiction.
It’s not just those with the prescription becoming addicted. As seen prior, family and friends of those with the pills receive them as well. In fact, half of those prescribed opioid-based painkillers who do not finish them do not discard them properly. This surely must be why two million Americans are addicted to opioids. Forty-four of these opioid addicts die from overdoses every single day.
Another viable explanation for the opioid epidemic is a phenomenon known as “doctor shopping.” This is when an individual in pain receives multiple prescriptions from multiple doctors, jumping from one to the next. If done rapidly, the painkillers can be dispensed before the authorities involved realize it. Some people may do this to obtain drugs for themselves, whereas others may do it to obtain drugs for sale.
What’s being done?
Prescription monitoring programs for both doctors and patients are slowly but surely being put into place nationwide. Recently, leading insurance provider Aetna sent letters to those doctors found to have prescribed more than the average amount of opioids. These letters were essentially warnings to monitor the prescriptions more closely.
The Drug Enforcement Administration recently re-classified hydrocodone into a more restrictive category, making it harder to obtain. Also, most US states now allow patient monitoring, which includes a shared database of prescriptions given. This method has already been shown to be effective.
The number of opioid prescriptions given has quadrupled since 1999. Before the epidemic of opioid addiction ends, perhaps less opioids need to be handed out.