In September CVS, one of the nations largest pharmacy chains, announced a change in the way they will dispense prescription painkillers, like Oxycontin, hydrocodone, morphine and other opioids. The company’s move will bring them in line with opioid prescribing guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The new prescription policies at CVS go into effect immediately and include some of the following, according to the company’s press release:
- Limiting the supply of opioid prescriptions to seven days, for patients taking the medication for the first time
- The daily dosage of the opioids dispensed will be based on the strength of the opioid prescribed
- Requiring patients use the immediate-release formulations of opioids before extended-release painkillers can be prescribed
“We want to be pro-active in making sure the alternatives are available, versus a sort of blunt, one-size-fits-all approach regarding the number of prescriptions,” the American Medical Association told the Associated Press after the company Express Scripts adopted similar measures to CVS. “The AMA’s take has always been that the decision about a specific treatment alternative is best left to the physician and their patient.”
CVS Health said it would allow doctors to ask for exemptions for some patients, though which patients would qualify for an exemption is not clear. The company also notes that employers or insurers that disagree with the new policies can opt out of their program.
While many health care professionals are cheering CVS’s more restrictive policies, not everyone is pleased. For patients battling chronic pain from, for example, cancer or a severe physical condition, a seven-day supply of painkillers is – pun intended – painfully lacking.
As the controversy over the best approach to solving the opioid epidemic rages, CVS is also pledging to increase opioid disposal options, educate their patients on the dangers of opioid addiction, support community health centers and raise awareness of the ongoing crisis.
Advocates of CVS’s new policies, as well as critics, are likely to agree on one point, however; something has to change or more people will continue to fall prey to the disease of opioid addiction.
“It took us about 30 years to get into this mess. I don’t think we’re going to get out of it in two or three,” Robert Valuck, a professor at the University of Colorado-Denver’s School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences said in an interview with STAT.
The vast majority of Americans who entered treatment for opioid addiction in 2005 first became dependent on the drug through prescription painkillers, according to research. But as state and federal laws made it harder to legally get prescription painkillers, heroin has gotten much cheaper and more available than ever before. Now, healthcare professionals are seeing a growing number of people whose addiction to opioids started with heroin rather than prescription painkillers.
“Management of chronic pain is an art and science. The science of opioids for chronic pain is clear – for the vast majority of patients, the known, serious, and too-often fatal risks far outweigh the unproven transient benefits and there are safer alternatives,” Dr. Tom Frieden, CDC Director, said in a conference call with reporters.
The number of opioids related deaths, including heroin overdoses, quadrupled in the last 16 years. According to a New York Times report, there were a staggering 64,000 deaths in 2016 alone, many of these as a result of heroin laced with the deadly opioid fentanyl. Over the next decade, some experts predict as many as 500,000 people will die from opioid overdoses.