The Opioid Epidemic: What You Need to Know

Information about opioid abuse, and what Blue Cross and Blue Shield is doing to help.

What are Opioids?
Opioids are powerful and addictive painkillers. They are often prescribed after a surgery, injury, or for certain health conditions. Examples of opioids include oxycodone (also known as OxyContin or Percocet), hydrocodone (also known as Vicodin), morphine and fentanyl.  Heroin is a non-prescribed, illegal opioid. 

Opioids carry a severe risk of physical and mental dependence. If overdosed, they can cause slowed breathing, coma and sudden death.

What is the Opioid Epidemic?
The opioid crisis not only affects our members, but also everyone from all different backgrounds. As insurers, opioid abuse affects the nation’s overall health and places a huge burden on the U.S. healthcare system. It’s also a civic and moral issue, especially since we are committed to the health and well-being of our members and communities.

It is a widespread problem that has devastated families and communities across the United States. In 2015 alone, an estimated 12.5 million people misused prescription opioids. Interestingly, pain levels in the U.S. have remained relatively constant since 1999, but the number of prescriptions to treat pain has quadrupled.

The problem is so extensive, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) refer to it as an epidemic as statistics indicate that 91 people per day die from opioid abuse.  This number is greater than the number of those who died during the peak of the HIV crisis. 

The epidemic has also led to the largest rise in heroin use in 20 years. This is because people addicted to prescription opioids are 40 times more likely to turn to heroin.

Financially, the crisis costs the United States more than $78.5 billion a year.

What are we doing to help?
The Blue Cross and Blue Shield Federal Employee Program (FEP®) is committed to addressing this opioid crisis by establishing initiatives to identify problem prescribers and overutilizing members, developing programs to promote patient safety and pain management, educating members and stakeholders, and implementing benefit changes as necessary.

Many BCBS companies have programs to help families and communities cope. Together, we are working to:

  • Educate the public about the risks of opioid use
  • Help people suffering from opioid misuse disorder get the care they need
  • Prevent fraud and misuse of prescription painkillers

In partnership with Harvard University, we are working to understand the root cause of the epidemic. This includes research as to why and how providers choose to prescribe opioid medications. In addition, the FEP Special Investigations Unit (FEP SIU) has launched the “Blue Opioid” Initiative, which is a comprehensive effort to identify the top prescribers who may be contributing to the opioid epidemic, and bring any potential offenders to the attention of law enforcement and regulatory agencies.

With all this in place, we hope to reduce opioid prescriptions and treat more people compassionately and successfully for substance misuse. We are committed to bringing an end to this epidemic. 

Prescription painkillers, such as oxycodone, spilled from a bottle onto a table with out of focus bottles.

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