Study: Legal opioids easy to get
Many insurers’ rules lack restrictions on some drugs
NEW HAVEN — While insurance plans have increased restrictions on the prescribing of opioids, the highly addictive drugs are still easily obtainable without limits such as requiring prior authorization, according to a Yale University study.
The researchers compared formularies for Medicare plans from 2006, 2011 and 2015 and found that two-thirds of these drugs were subject to restrictions. One-third, however, did not have such limits.
“I think we all know that we’re in a national opioid crisis right now, and we need to know what may be contributing and we need to have all possible strategies at our disposal to help curb this crisis,” said Dr. Sanket Dhruva, a cardiologist at the Yale School of Medicine and member of the research team, on Monday.
The study was published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
The researchers compared Medicare Advantage and Part D formularies for 2006, 2011 and 2015 because Medicare is often a standard other insurers use for their formularies. “Essentially, formularies determine the availability of these medications,” Dhruva said.
“If the drugs are available, the insurance companies can use one of three strategies,” he said. They may require prior authorization from the insurance company before the prescription will be approved. They can implement so-called step therapy, in which “a patient must try drug X before he can receive drug Y,” Dhruva said. Or they can limit the quantity of drugs that may be dispensed at one time.
Connecticut passed a law in 2016 limiting most opioid prescriptions to seven days, with some exceptions.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines in 2016 for opioid prescriptions, but the Yale researchers found these were not always followed.
“Still, a large number of opioids don’t have restrictions imposed on them,” Dhruva said. “We want to make sure that opioids are going to patients that are going to benefit and are not going out in high doses.”
Comparing formularies from 2006 with 2015, “It’s an improvement, but I still think we have a ways to go,” he said.
More than 900 people died in Connecticut in 2016 of drug overdoses, according to the state’s chief medical examiner’s office.
Dr. Dan Knecht, head of clinical strategy and policy for Aetna Inc., said the company has instituted restrictions on all opioid prescriptions. As of Jan. 1, “For an initial prescription written, there will be a seven-day limit,” he said.
“A research study showed that after a patient receives a prescription of more than seven days of opioids, the likelihood of abuse doubles,” he said.
He said the insurer sent letters to the top one percent of opioid prescribers warning them they are “outliers.” “We do intervene on these physicians who are excessive prescribers,” he said.
Knecht also said Aetna encourages other medications for pain relief, such as Tylenol and ibuprofen, before opioids are prescribed. The company also covers treatments such as physical and occupational therapy, acupuncture and chiropractic, “which are proven treatment modalities that do manage pain,” he said.
According to the CDC, opioid prescriptions peaked in 2010 and declined through 2015, but the dosages increased dramatically.
“Once you start, it just opens up the door,” Dhruva said. “Of course, (in) the vast majority it doesn’t, but we’ve got young people dying, we’ve got people addicted. We’ve got a real problem on our hands.”