Opioid prescribing nationwide peaked in 2012 at over 80 prescriptions per 100 persons. Between 2012 and 2016, the prescribing rate decreased by almost 20%. Even after this decline, 19% of the U.S. population filled at least one opioid prescription during 2016.
As opioid prescribing declined, many doctors switched to other pain relief drugs. The change in prescribing patterns has potential implications for risk adjustment, because some of the drugs now being used for pain relief were previously flagged in pharmacy-based risk adjustment models as associated with high cost conditions such as multiple sclerosis.
This brief by Christine Mytelka, Melanie Kuester, Colin Gray, and Lucas Everheart provides data on the decline in opioid prescribing and the increased use of other non-opioid pain relief drugs. Additionally, it addresses the corresponding effect that changing prescribing patterns may have on evaluating population health and risk-adjusted payments in risk-based managed care programs.
Over 25 million American adults report suffering from chronic pain on a daily basis, and a range of adverse health outcomes accompanies their pain. Beginning in the early 2000s, opioid analgesics were increasingly seen as a solution to the problem of under-treatment that had been a concern in the 1990s. From 1991 to 2011, the number of opioid prescriptions filled at U.S. retail pharmacies nearly tripled, increasing from 76 million to 219 million per year, though those numbers have started to decrease since the peak in 2011.
Despite the recent decrease in prescriptions of opioids, the human toll of the opioid crisis has continued to intensify. Illegally acquired heroin and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl have become the leading cause of overdose deaths. Opioid overdose deaths are now the single largest factor slowing the growth in U.S. life expectancy, and if current trends continue, opioid overdose deaths could outnumber suicides by 2019.
In this article, Milliman’s Stoddard Davenport and Katie Matthews help explain the scale of the opioid epidemic within the insurance industry.
Based on a sample of over 42 million people with commercial insurance, nearly 1.3 million Medicare beneficiaries, and a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of Medicaid beneficiaries in 49 states, we estimate that over 1.5 million insured Americans were diagnosed with an opioid use disorder in 2015 (the most recent year available). Figures 3 and 4 summarize these findings by payer. These results (and others presented throughout this report) have been age- and area-adjusted to be representative of the U.S. insured population as of 2015 using U.S. Census Bureau data.12
Figure 3: Diagnosed opioid use disorder by payer, 2015 (or most recent year)
We found that about 41.4% of those with diagnosed opioid use disorder were commercially insured, 15.9% were Medicare beneficiaries, and 42.7% were Medicaid beneficiaries. Overall, the diagnosed prevalence rate of opioid use disorder was 3.28 per 1,000 for the commercially insured, 5.39 per 1,000 for those with Medicare, and 8.90 per 1,000 for those with Medicaid. Across all insurance payers, we found that the prevalence of opioid use disorder was 4.91 per 1,000.
Figure 4: National estimates of opioid use disorder diagnosis by payer, 2015 (or most recent year)
||Diagnosed prevalence per 1,000
||Total diagnosed nationally No. (%)
The authors also highlight the rate of opioid use disorder by age and sex.
Rates of opioid use disorder varied widely by age and sex, with men generally experiencing higher rates of opioid use disorder through age 65, and women experiencing higher rates from 66 and older. Rates were quite low through childhood, followed by a marked increase in the late teen years, peaking in the mid-20s at a rate of 5.47 per 1,000 for women (at age 24) and 10.00 per 1,000 for men (at age 25). Rates showed a sharp drop-off in the late 20s, followed by a rise to another peak in the mid-30s of about 3.76 per 1,000 for women (at age 35) and 6.37 per 1,000 for men (at age 36). From the late 30s through age 64, the gap between men and women closed and both experienced prevalence rates hovering between 3.50 to 4.00 per 1,000 through retirement age. Opioid use disorder rates for Medicare beneficiaries were generally higher for women than for men, and tapered off with advancing age. Comparable data for Medicaid were not available.