The health insurance company Cigna announced a new initiative last week in which it is “intensifying its commitment to curtail the opioid epidemic by focusing new drug prevention and treatment efforts in targeted US communities.” Cigna said its goal was to reduce the number of opioid overdoses among its customers in these communities by 25 percent by December 2021:
Initially, Cigna will focus its local efforts in areas where a sizable number of Cigna commercial customers reside and where there are higher than average overdose rates, including communities in the states of Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia and in the metropolitan areas of Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The goal is to reduce prescription and illicit opioid overdoses in these areas, and Cigna will advance initiatives that impact both Cigna customers and the communities at large. To support this initiative, Cigna and the Cigna Foundation will expand and accelerate the impact of community-based organizations that are leading localized programs. Cigna intends to learn from initial efforts during the three year time period and expand to other communities over time.
The main channel for these efforts is through health care providers, with whom Cigna is working to limit the prescription of opioid pain medication, address warning signs of opioid addiction, and guide patients toward less dangerous pain management options. Most US adults receive health insurance coverage through their employers, so partnerships with employers are also a key component of this effort, Cigna added:
Employer-sponsored insurance covers nearly four in ten non-elderly adults with opioid addiction, and the costs of treating opioid and other drug addiction and overdose are significant, rising to more than $2.6 billion in 2016 from $0.3 billion 12 years earlier, a nearly nine-fold increase. Cigna partners with employers to make health plan benefit design decisions including, integrating medical, pharmacy and behavioral benefits and offering dedicated programs that help prevent prescription drug misuse and help people struggling with addiction.
Cigna has expanded an existing program that uses predictive analytics to identify customers who are most likely to suffer from an opioid overdose and prompts interventions to help prevent the overdose from happening.
The new initiative comes after Cigna revealed in March that it had achieved a 25 percent reduction in prescription opioid use among its commercial customers, a year ahead of schedule. Despite this achievement, however, the insurer’s claims data shows that overdoses continue to rise. Government data from earlier this year showed that a growing number of Americans were dying at work from drug- and alcohol-related causes. In April, US Surgeon General Jerome Adams urged employers to stock naloxone, an opioid receptor antagonist used to treat overdoses of heroin and other opiates, at worksites and to train employees in how to use it as part of their standard emergency preparedness plans.
Employers have other roles to play in helping to combat the opioid crisis. This could mean paying closer attention to their prescription drug policies, adding or augmenting behavioral health coverage to ensure employees have access to treatment for addiction, or training supervisors or HR to spot the signs of drug dependency and intervene before an employee’s drug problem leads to catastrophic consequences. Yet it could also mean reconsidering their zero-tolerance approach to drug abuse and focusing more on helping employees who suffer from addiction recover, as some companies have been doing in areas hit particularly hard by the opioid epidemic.