Painkillers certainly aren’t to blame for all opioid addictions, but the doctor’s office is a starting place for enough people who struggle with drug abuse that the state and health officials are now closely monitoring prescriptions and advocating alternatives.
One of their latest efforts would ask commercial insurers to report on which therapies they cover, whether yoga or acupuncture, aromatherapy or chiropractic. The idea is to nudge the insurance market into expanding choices, thus increasing alternatives for doctors and patients. Yet something so simple is finding resistance, in this case from insurers who fear reporting is a first step toward mandates of what they must cover.
In light of the opioid and heroin scourge gripping our communities, a reporting requirement seems a light request. It should be approved by lawmakers with no hesitation. Our hope is that the plan has its desired effect, too, and that a spirit of competitiveness and meeting public need in the face of a health crisis will drive insurers to expand their offerings.
“This opioid crisis is getting worse, and we need to do everything we can to cut down on addiction,” says Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, who is part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers sponsoring the plan. Others include Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, D-Methuen, and Sen. Barbara L’Italien, D-Andover.
Opioids are a legitimate remedy for millions of people coping with pain. Unfortunately, they’re also a dangerous one.
As many as one-quarter of patients receiving opioid treatment struggle with addiction, according to studies cited by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of 2014, more than 2 million Americans were addicted to painkillers.
The bill on Beacon Hill doesn’t look to take away opioid remedies from doctors who prescribe and monitor them carefully. “We are not advocating removing opioids from the market for people who need them for chronic pain,” said Dr. Scott Sigman, an orthopedic surgeon who lives in Andover and advocates the use of alternative treatments.
Separately, the state has moved to track the use of opioid painkillers more closely. A bill last year requires health officials to keep tabs on prescriptions and keep an eye out for doctors who prescribe an inordinate number of addictive pain pills.
But that’s only part of a broader approach to a problem that also must include encouraging doctors and patients to look for other ways to address pain. For doctors such as Sigman, one answer is use of non-opioid painkillers. He describes injecting patients with non-narcotic drugs during surgery — a tactic that has found success with people undergoing knee replacements.
There are other approaches. The Massachusetts Medical Society offers training for doctors in how to manage pain using opioids and with other methods. And more people dealing with chronic pain are seeking non-drug treatments on their own. Studies by the CDC and National Institutes for Health show growing numbers of patients who receive acupuncture, chiropractic and massage treatment — even if it means paying out of pocket.
Insurers are following the demand. A spokesman for the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans notes that many cover some, if not all, of the costs of those treatments.
So, a little more transparency about what’s available and what isn’t under those plans shouldn’t be too much trouble, especially if that can help people experiencing pain find relief without the need of an opioid.