If the death rate from the flu quadrupled in Connecticut over a four-year period, there would be outrage and demand for immediate action. But what happened when opioid-related deaths more than quadrupled between 2012 and 2016, from 5.7 to 24.5 deaths per 100,000 persons?
Although the opioid crisis has certainly garnered significant media attention and public recognition, the skyrocketing opioid death rate hasn’t elicited the same outrage we would expect to see from other public health crises, such as deaths from infectious disease.
Stigma plays a large role. You frequently read obituaries for people – particularly young adults – who died “unexpectedly,” which is often code for death from overdose. Sadly, the pervasive stigma attached to drug use and overdose prevents families from being open about their tragic loss. As long as we allow stigma and shame to persist, it will be very hard to solve the problem and save lives.
Cigna is intensifying its fight against opioids through a community-based approach to reduce opioid-related overdoses. We are working with a wide range of supporters – from pharmacists and prescribing clinicians to employers and community-based organizations – to reduce opioid overdoses by 25 percent among our customers in specific geographic areas by the end of 2021. One of these focus geographies is Connecticut, our home state, where the problem is so severe.
One bright spot is that Connecticut has received federal funding to fight opioid addiction. In September, the state announced a $20 million package to expand access to medication-assisted treatment in New Haven. This was in addition to a $10 million federal grant awarded this summer to help the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services assist people with substance-use disorders in the hard-hit communities of Bridgeport, Hartford and Waterbury.
No person of any age, race, gender or socioeconomic status is immune to the opioid epidemic, nor is any community or state. Clearly something has to be done, and Connecticut’s federal grants are a good start. But it’s also up to private industry to take action because no entity acting on its own can win this battle.
That’s why Cigna has been using our expertise, resources and extensive network of health care professionals to address the opioid epidemic. In 2016, we committed to reducing prescription opioid use nationally among our customers by 25 percent in three years. By partnering with more than 1.1 million health care providers across the country, we reached our goal a year ahead of the 2019 target.
We have adopted safety measures to minimize the risk of medications that are more likely to lead to an opioid overdose. This includes limiting the duration of certain opioid prescriptions, consistent with CDC guidelines, and making sure daily dosage measurements do not exceed established safe levels for prescribing quantities.
This year, Cigna also launched a new online campaign offering easy-to-use tools to help people learn about the safe use of opioids for pain management. The goal is to prevent the risk of opioid misuse, even before a prescription is written, by encouraging patients to talk to their doctor, understand all the treatment options available to them, and develop a pain plan with goals for pain relief.
Communities can also take some practical steps to reduce the risk of opioid misuse and overdose, such as expanded availability of Narcan (naloxone), a fast-acting medication that can counteract an overdose; and broad implementation of Mental Health First Aid training to help people recognize the signs of a potential mental health or substance use crisis.
As we pledge to be part of the solution, our team at Cigna is dedicated to innovating and implementing new ways to focus and strengthen our efforts. And because we believe an integrated approach holds the most promise for meaningful and sustained impact, we will continue to bring people and resources together to confront one of the most devastating epidemics our country has ever seen. All of our lives depend on it.
Wendy Sherry is president of Cigna’s business in Connecticut and a board member of the Governor’s Prevention Partnership.