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U.S. Insurers Say the Opioid Crisis Might Be Declining

July 12, 2018, 12:53 PM UTC

A silver lining might be appearing on the dark cloud of America’s opioid epidemic.

Members of the health insurance network Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) recorded a 5% decline in opioid abuse diagnoses last year, the BCBS reported yesterday.

The rate of opioid use disorder claims, which had been climbing since 2013, seems to have stabilized in 2016 and 2017, hovering around six claims per 1,000 members. Overdose deaths continue to climb, however, and the finding does not refer to addiction rates in the entire country, just those recorded among the insurance network’s 41 million members.

The number of BCBS members filling opioid prescriptions at all has dropped from about five in 20 members in 2013 to about three in 20 members in 2017. The number of prescriptions they are using has dropped by about 29% in the same period.

Still, only 45% of prescriptions issued last year met Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for dosage and duration. That is a little better than in 2013, when only 39% of prescriptions followed the guidelines. First-time prescriptions are more likely to meet CDC guidelines.

Even if doctors continue to grow less prescription-happy, the echoes of the opioid addiction crisis will last for years. Opioids killed 48,000 people in the U.S. in 2017, up 8% from the year before, according to the CDC.

Top-down measures such as prescription guidelines will be part of the solution, but community-based health interventions also offer promise, Aetna Foundation president and cardiologist Garth Graham wrote last month.