One day in 2014, before most people could even spell “opioids” (two “i’s), the CEO of a company named Healthentic asked me to review a white paper based on the output of its new analytics tool. Healthentic’s tool is far more focused on the “80” of the “80-20” rule than competing tools are. So, rather than drowning readers in data, the tool is supposed to help certain figures jump off the pages and lead to action.
As my role in life appears to be the thankless task of finding errors in other people’s work, I was pleasantly surprised that Healthentic called me to plausibility-check the tool early in the process, rather than disseminate it and wait for me to publish “highlights” of my analysis after the fact, as I am wont to do.
As usual, I noticed some highly suspect information. In this case, it was prescriptions for Tramadol, Oxycontin and Hydrocodone. With my usual charm, grace and humility, I said: “These figures can’t possibly be right. This isn’t an NFL team in constant pain. If these figures were correct, it would mean that 40% of their employees filled a prescription for a synthetic opioid in a single year.” We rechecked the figure and the raw data several times. And yet the original statistic refused to bend. It was accurate.
See also: Paging Dr. Evil: The War Over Opioids
Ironically, the particular Healthentic customer profiled in the white paper was obsessed with employee health. Its staff could recite how many employees had high blood pressure or high cholesterol, participated in the “steps challenge” or the “biggest loser contest” or didn’t buckle their seat belts. But opiates and synthetic opioids — the elephant in the room capable of magnitudes more damage to employee health and productivity than any of the wellness vendor siren songs — had been completely overlooked.
In the days that followed, we talked through four possible scenarios and ruled out three:
- Employees were being injured due to safety hazards and accidents — but the company’s OSHA reports were clean and, in any event, those prescriptions would have shown up in workers’ compensation, not group benefits;
- Certain local doctors were prescribing way too many of these pills — but the prescriptions seemed to be coming from many different doctors;
- Employees were reselling their prescription meds — but if that were the case they’d have enough sense not to purchase these pills through the PBM;
- A sizable number of employees were at-risk or already addicted to opiates.
It was definitely the last. Little did we know this was the leading edge of the belatedly discovered synthetic opioid epidemic.
Healthentic analysis consistently finds that opioids are some of the most prescribed drugs for all employers. “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning” has become: “Take some Oxy and text me in the morning.” It wasn’t hard for a person with a few dental or medical procedures to have several months’ supply of the drug.
Pain is no laughing matter. It is human nature to ease suffering. But the cost and consequences of treating chronic pain so freely with opioids is shockingly high. Not a week goes by without more national news being made on the topic, such as Prince’s death. Of course it isn’t just famous people who are susceptible. Opioids — synthetically designed cousins of heroin — are so addictive there’s a Super Bowl commercial for another drug to treat constipation from chronic use. Obviously a market has to be quite sizable to merit a Super Bowl ad.
See also: Progress on Opioids — but Now Heroin?
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Pursuing early detection of a large supply of opioids and putting treatment goals in place will help a great deal in avoiding chronic use and addiction. Employers can help to head off chronic use before it turns into addiction. Independent analysis of your data should identify the three key risk factors for this population:
- a 45-day or greater supply;
- 10 or more prescription refills; or
- overlapping synthetic opioid and benzodiazepine prescriptions.
As brokers and employers, you can flag this population to the medical carriers and providers. You yourselves won’t be aware who is at risk, in conformance with the new CDC guidelines.
I emphasize the word “independent” because of how far behind the curve the payers are. One insurance carrier told an employer not to worry about the 150 people Healthentic had tagged for being at risk for chronic opioid use. “We know about these people. They are in our medication compliance program. Most are on palliative care.” That would be an obvious whopper even if these employees had worked at Chernobyl, and a quick analysis confirmed there wasn’t a single palliative care referral in the group.
Employers’ obsession with wellness, and carriers’ unwillingness to run the data, is great for my business, and for Healthentic’s. Unfortunately, it is not so great for employees at risk for opioid addiction. The only good news is that at least they won’t be constipated.