In the wake of President Trump declaring the opioid epidemic “a national emergency,” Express Scripts, the nation’s largest pharmacy benefit manager (PBM), has rolled out a new opioid management program that will limit the number and strength of opioid drugs to first-time patients.
According to the CDC, drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S., with 52,404 lethal drug overdoses in 2015. Opioid addiction is driving this epidemic, with 20,101 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers, and 12,990 overdose deaths related to heroin in 2015.
Express Scripts’ Advanced Opioid Management solution is expected minimize early exposure to opioids while helping prevent progression to overuse and abuse, while ensuring access to medication patients need.
In a pilot study, the PBM observed a 38% reduction in hospitalizations and a 40% reduction in emergency room visits after educating patients about the risk of opioid use. An educational letter was also sent out to providers who showed high prescribing patterns and held counseling calls. Among this subset, a 19% decrease in the day’s supply of opioid dispensing during six-months of follow up, was observed.
Meanwhile, the American Medical Association (AMA) has found fault with the program, saying that treatment decisions should be left to physicians and their patients.
Here are 7 things to know about Express Scripts’ program to limit opioids:
1. It could create barriers to access for patients who may benefit from opioids. “While over-prescribing of some opioids is part of the problem, it risks introducing barriers to access for patients who may benefit from opioids, particularly those with long-term, chronic pain for which alternatives have not been adequate,” says Mark Sirgo, PharmD, president and CEO of BioDelivery Sciences. “In the case of Express Scripts and others, the restriction is specific to short-acting opioids.”
BioDelivery Sciences currently markets Belbuca (buprenorphine) buccal film (CIII), which contains buprenorphine and is considered a long-acting opioid, and thus is not impacted by these restrictions. As a Schedule III product, Belbuca results in a lower risk of abuse and addiction compared to the vast majority of opioids, which are Schedule II, according to Sirgo.
“While restricting access is one approach to managing the current opioid crisis, many healthcare providers consider buprenorphine to be an approach to treating chronic pain to delay or negate the need for Schedule II products,” he says. “Unfortunately, now we see a number of managed care plans that require the more addictive Schedule II products to be used prior to getting access to Belbuca or other buprenorphine products.”
2. It relies on the expertise of the pharmacist. “Patients rely on doctors and doctors often rely upon the expertise of the pharmacists to help limit the deleterious effects of opioid prescriptive medication, which includes gastrointestinal [GI] bleeds, strokes, overdose death and risk of addiction,” says Stephani Higashi, DC, chief executive officer of the integrated healthcare practice HEALTH ATLAST. “Preventing these effects is cost saving and lifesaving. The cost of a lifetime of GI problems, overdoses or addiction is too costly to simply ignore and allow it all to continue.”
Higashi hopes that these limitations will also open minds of doctors to provide patients other alternatives to pain management such as therapy, chiropractic, acupuncture, massage and nutrition as real solutions without the risk of addiction.
Michael Thompson, president and CEO of the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions (formerly NBCH), shares a similar viewpoint. “The opioid crisis is a national emergency and pharmacy benefit managers are in a unique position in the system to identify where potential excesses are occurring. These efforts could be fundamental to identifying potential issues proactively and working with doctors and patients to curb them,” Thompson says.