Article written by Keith Griffin, as seen in Hartford on May 20, 2016

Bloomfield health insurer Cigna has announced its plan to curb the country’s opioid epidemic, starting with cutting the use of those drugs among its own customers by 25 percent over three years.

The company said in its announcement drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S., with 47,055 lethal drug overdoses in 2014. Opioid addiction is driving this epidemic, with 18,893 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers, and 10,574 overdose deaths related to heroin in 2014. The use of narcotic painkillers has quadrupled in the past 10 years.

Cigna said one of the first steps that needs to be taken is eliminating the stigma associated with substance use. The insurer said that would encourage people to seek the help they need – and recognizes that for many, substance use disorder is a chronic disease such as diabetes.

Among the steps the company is taking:

  • Reducing its customers’ opioid use by 25 percent – which would return to 2006 levels, before the drug crisis. To achieve this goal, Cigna will tap into its prevention, wellness and chronic disease management programs, and work with clients, physicians and others to develop ways to increase prevention and treatment of substance use disorders.
  • Encouraging the rapid adoption of the new Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines on opioid use, prescribing opioids for the shortest time possible to treat acute pain, and talking with patients about all options and risks before beginning long-term therapy.
  • Further, Cigna is supporting efforts to require prescribers to check state Prescription Drug Management Program databases when prescribing more than a 21-day supply of a painkiller such as oxycodone or morphine.
  • Limiting the quantity of painkillers when appropriate, and exploring additional controls for high-risk customers identified by Cigna’s data on its customers. Cigna continually enhances its tracking programs to flag possible inappropriate use and to inform prescribers when an issue is identified.
  • Treating substance use like other chronic diseases – holistically and using an evidence-based approach. Cigna is working with its network to ensure medication-assisted therapy – which combines behavioral therapy and medications to treat substance use disorders – is readily available and provided as part of a comprehensive treatment program.
  • Cigna also supports efforts by the administration and Congress to increase the patient limit for qualified physicians who prescribe buprenorphine, which will make medication-assisted therapy more accessible.