UnitedHealthcare has a new pharmacy policy capping opioid prescriptions written by dentists for first-time users, bringing its standards in line with recommendations from the CDC.
The organization is also expanding an outreach campaign for dental health professionals, targeting the highest prescribers of opioids within that population. And UHC is putting out new information about the risks of opioid use after wisdom teeth extractions.
These changes were announced recently in a package of new policies and programs from UHC aimed at reducing opioid misuse and addiction.
Under the new policy, first-time opioid prescriptions from dental health professionals for people 19 and under will be capped at three days. Prescription sizes are also being limited to fewer than 50 morphine milligram equivalents per day, as recommended by the CDC.
Dr. Ted Wong, chief dental officer with UHC, says young people are more susceptible to opioid addiction, because their brains are still maturing.
Still, it’s noted in a UHC release that 70 percent of people between the ages of 16 and 22 are prescribed opioids after getting their wisdom teeth removed.
Wong says there’s no reason to take opioids for more than three days after a wisdom tooth extraction, as persistent pain can point to a more serious issue, such as dry sockets. And he says taking opioids for longer than that increases the chance of developing an addiction.
UHC’s prevention campaign includes upping outreach efforts to in-network providers that are prescribing larger doses and longer regimens of opioids than the norm.
Wong says many of these providers either didn’t realize they were prescribing more than the norm, or were unaware of the CDC recommendations on limiting opioid prescriptions. Outreach efforts from 2018, as well as a general education campaign for all network providers, led to a 17 percent drop in prescriptions, according to an internal analysis of more than 4 million claims.
That informational campaign is now being expanded further, to cover network dentists that are in the top 20 percent of the network’s highest prescribers of opioids.
Wong explains that providers are always trying to keep their patients satisfied with their care, and that can mean doing everything they can do reduce their pain. He says if UHC can inform patients about the risks of opioids and get them asking questions, then providers will be “more inclined” to reduce their opioid prescriptions.
“If we have to do it, go low and go slow,” Wong said. “What is the lowest effective number of pills that still effectively manages pain but doesn’t result in excess pills left over?”
Progress is already being made, Wong says, as the dental profession has seen a “steady decline in the length and potency” of opioid prescriptions. But he expects the campaign to have a measurable effect on opioid use in UHC’s patient population.
The final piece of the campaign includes advertisements on television and radio, produced alongside Shatterproof, a national nonprofit group based in New York. The ads are now airing across the country.
A 30-second animated TV spot highlights some eye-catching stats from UHC about adolescent opioid prescriptions. A male voice urges viewers to ask their dentists to limit opioid prescriptions to three days, and to try over-the-counter meds as an alternative.
–By Alex Moe