Painful stories about the people who overdosed and the people working to prevent such tragedies are part of the Orange County Register’s ongoing and eye-opening coverage of the opioid epidemic by columnist David Whiting and others. No one disagrees that our county is in the midst of a lethal opioid epidemic, and the human toll is too high.
Indeed, the numbers of people dying are distressing. County reports show that drug overdoses have killed 1,769 Orange County residents in the past five years. In 2016 alone, there were more than 400 fatal drug overdoses. More than two-thirds of these involved opioids, including common prescription painkillers such as Percocet, OxyContin and Vicodin. And as controls tighten on these medications, those addicted often turn to heroin and deadly synthetic heroin analogues like Fentanyl.
Given these realities, a strong, unified community response to combat soaring addiction and fatality rates is required. As Orange County’s single largest health plan, and only provider of Medi-Cal coverage, CalOptima is keenly focused on the opioid problem and working in partnership with various agencies to address it. We must — the low-income population we serve is particularly vulnerable.
Yes, it’s true that opioid deaths affect our most affluent coastal communities, but it’s also true that lower socioeconomic groups are impacted more. Nationwide, more than 45 percent of the people who suffer a fatal prescription drug overdose are enrolled in Medicaid, the program for the poor that we call Medi-Cal in California. Over-prescribing of opioids is twice as high for this group, which has six times the risk of overdose death, compared with the general population. It’s no surprise that addiction is closely associated with poverty, homelessness and mental health issues.
Fighting opioid abuse is a strategic priority for CalOptima, and we recently introduced new guidelines and restrictions on combining sleep/anxiety medications with opioids with a high risk for overdose. Additionally, we have held three physician education forums and conducted various outreach activities to reduce opioid overutilization and boost provider office-based addiction treatment.
One notable effort is our Pharmacy Lock-In Program, in which members are “locked-in” to specific pharmacies or providers for drug management and monitoring. This helps to ensure that patients are not obtaining excessive quantities of drugs through multiple visits to physicians and pharmacies. The program was recently recognized as a best practice by a national trade group, the Association for Community Affiliated Plans.
Importantly, CalOptima is also actively participating with countywide public health agencies, hospitals, prescribers, community clinics, emergency rooms, medical associations and law enforcement. A collaborative effort is essential to halt the high level of prescription drug addiction and overdose deaths. Collectively, we are working to increase access to…