UnitedHealthcare Confronts Opioid Epidemic With Oral Health Programs And Policies

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Roughly 5 million Americans will have their wisdom teeth removed this year, including scores of young people in New York State.

The surgery often comes with pain, so more than two-thirds of patients (70 percent) will leave the dentist’s office clutching a prescription for a powerful opioid pain medication. In fact, dentists and oral surgeons write 12 percent of all opioid prescriptions, including 45 percent of opioid prescriptions for adolescents.

Opioids such as oxycodone or Vicodin, though sometimes necessary, come with a high risk of misuse and addiction.

In the past three years in New York, drug deaths increased 35 percent from 10.6 to 14.3 deaths per 100,000 population, reveals the UnitedHealth Foundation’s 2018 America’s Health Rankings Annual Report. It should also be noted that, NY ranks 6th in the country (74.4) in terms of the number of practicing dentists per 100,000 population.

More than 130 Americans die each day from opioid overdoses, while the economic cost of the epidemic exceeds $500 billion annually, reveals a study by the Council of Economic Advisers. Teens are especially at risk. A study published in December by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that adolescents who get their first opioid prescription from a dentist or oral surgeon are at greater risk of falling victim to addiction. 

UnitedHealthcare, a UnitedHealth Group company, has introduced oral health strategies to confront the opioid epidemic, building on a companywide approach to address the epidemic from all angles. The oral health approaches include:

Pharmacy Policy

All first-time opioid prescriptions written by dental health professionals for people age 19 and under are now capped at three days and fewer than 50 morphine milligram equivalents per day, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). Among the first dental plans to take this step for plan participants age 19 and under, this policy helps limit access to often unnecessarily large prescriptions and helps facilitate patient engagement to reduce the risk of misuse.  

Dental Plan Participants

All UnitedHealthcare dental plan participants with dependents ages 16 to 22 will receive information by mail about the risks associated with opioids, specifically in connection to wisdom teeth extractions. More than two-thirds (70 percent) of wisdom teeth extractions for people ages 16 to 22 result in at least one opioid prescription, so providing this information will help parents and young people better identify pain management alternatives and strategies to manage the frequency of use, dosage and proper disposal of unused opioids. A recent study from Stanford University found that teens and young adults can end up in a battle with opioid addiction following wisdom teeth removal.

Dental Health Professionals:

Dental health professionals identified as among the top 10 percent of highest opioid prescribers in UnitedHealthcare’s network—as measured by the number of days per supply and/or morphine milligram equivalents per day—last year received information about their status. Following UnitedHealthcare’s outreach, prescribing patterns improved by 17 percent. This informational campaign has now been expanded to include network dental health professionals that are in the top 20 percent of the highest prescribers in the UnitedHealthcare network.  

Public Service Announcements (PSAs):

TV and radio PSAs—in collaboration with Shatterproof, a national nonprofit confronting the opioid epidemic—are now airing across the country, helping parents and health professionals understand the connection between oral health and the opioid epidemic.      

“Oral health is an important facet in the fight against the opioid epidemic and in helping reduce the misuse of these drugs, which is why UnitedHealthcare has introduced these programs,” said Tom Wiffler, CEO of UnitedHealthcare Specialty Benefits. “Working together, we can help address this important national public health issue.” 

The economic cost from the opioid epidemic exceeds $500 billion annually, according to a study from The Council of Economic Advisors.

UnitedHealthcare is also collaborating with health care providers and communities and using powerful data and analytics to prevent opioid misuse and addiction, tailor ways to treat people who are addicted and support long-term recovery.

More information about UnitedHealthcare’s efforts to address the opioid epidemic is available here.

—Submitted by UnitedHealthcare

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