For the past few years, insurance carriers have been trying to address the opioid crisis with campaigns targeting inpatient and outpatient programs, mental health counseling, etc. But more recently, efforts have focused on prevention as opioid awareness has grown. Opioid-related deaths have precipitated a host of lawsuits against drug manufacturers and the addiction treatment industry is booming.

UnitedHealthcare (UHC) has a new focus, dental care, in a more recent effort to address the opioid epidemic. Analysis from UHC found that dentists prescribe around 12% of opioids nationwide – and they prescribe 54% of the opioids that end up being dispensed to young people age 19 and under. UHC’s clinical director of national dental opioid policy finds that for most adolescents, their wisdom teeth extraction is their first exposure to opioids, and this comes at an impressionable time of their lives. This age group is especially vulnerable to addiction. So, what is UHC doing to further mitigate the potential fallout?

UHC implemented a new pharmacy policy that curbs first-time opioid prescriptions for teenagers that exceed three days of use and 50 morphine milligram equivalents per day, resulting in an 89% decrease in such prescriptions. Any prescription for individuals 19 or younger that exceeds these guidelines is immediately flagged for UHC to follow up for a clinical explanation from the dentist. UHC took this analysis a step further to track which dentists were consistently prescribing opioids outside of those guidelines. They also launched a toolkit to better inform providers and patients about the risks of taking opioid painkillers. All in hopes to educate kids at their first point of exposure and urge providers to find alternatives.

Viewpoints from Briana Loff

It was a bit shocking for me to read about the role dental care plays in the opioid crisis. I vividly recall getting my wisdom teeth removed. I was given painkillers for a few days with no incidence. But I can see how the exposure could be a trigger for others and how adolescents are more at risk to develop a dependency.

In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a drop in drug overdose deaths for the first time in 28 years. This is likely a result of initiatives to cut back on opioid prescriptions and make addiction treatment more accessible stemming from a combination of 2010 healthcare reform and carrier efforts. 2020 Presidential candidates are also targeting this as a national crisis, one for which we seem to be making progress.

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Briana Loff

Account Manager, Employee Benefits – New York, NY