A sign made by a family member to commemorate a Pittsburgh overdose victim at a 2017 event to mark International Overdose Awareness Day at the City-County Building. Photo by Maranie Staab.

The problem is enormous: In a recent survey of Highmark customers, one-third reported having a close friend or family member suffering from opioid addiction.

“So many people across the country, and particularly in the regions that we serve, have been affected in some way by the opioid crisis,” said Deborah Rice-Johnson, the president of Highmark Inc.

“In response, we launched a ‘war on opioids’ in 2018 to address this urgent problem through new programs, policy changes and partnerships that span across the Highmark Health enterprise and extend into the community.”

During a press conference held Downtown today, Highmark outlined their recent successes and laid out their next steps.

“We are pleased with the initiative’s early progress,” said Rice-Johnson. “But we recognize that this war will not be won easily, and that doing so will require a spirit of collaboration.”

Highmark Health has been taking a multipronged approach, with stricter prescription guidelines for in-network caregivers, support for community members, preventative care programs and access to high-quality addiction treatments.

According to new policies adopted in March 2018, issuers of new opioid prescriptions are required to limit their patients to a seven-day supply. Data on members’ prescribing patterns and any potentially unsafe use of opioids is closely monitored by regional offices. In addition, more than 40,000 Highmark caregivers now offer discounts on alternative pain treatments such as massage, yoga, cognitive behavioral therapy and acupuncture.

Looking ahead, Highmark announced a new, $5 million federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) that will go toward enhancing substance abuse screening and funding prevention services by primary care providers in the Allegheny Health Network (AHN), a local Highmark Health organization.

And in keeping with the initiative’s focus on holistic and alternative medicine, AHN and Gateway Health announced the launch of an Enhanced Pain Management Program at West Penn Hospital, which focuses on treating pain through non-addictive means. Project leaders say they plan to roll out similar programs across the network within the next year.

“Every day at AHN, we care for many patients who are living with substance use disorder and are in need of the right services that will help them begin their healing journey,” said Mitchell West, the director of AHN’s Addiction Medicine program. “Our mission is to provide each and every one with high-quality, compassionate medical care and direction to whatever resources they may need to aid and support their recovery over the long term.”

According to statistics released during the press conference, the number of in-network opioid prescriptions dropped by 15 percent in Pennsylvania and 23 percent in West Virginia during 2018.

National data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests the rate of overdose deaths across the U.S. leveled off during 2018, after reaching historic highs in 2017. But healthcare and law enforcement professionals still consider the nation’s opioid epidemic to be at a crisis level.

“We are committed to serving our members and the community throughout this evolving public health crisis,” said Rice-Johnson. “Including through expanded education and outreach initiatives that combat stigma and reframe opioid dependence as a chronic disease, rather than a moral failing.”

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.