This giant insurance company has a plan to fix the opioid epidemic, but there's a catch

On Thursday, health insurance giant Cigna announced it was taking major steps to prevent and treat addiction.

While the company is specifically targeting addiction to opioid painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin — it highlights a far bigger problem as well.

There are currently no standards of medical care for treating addiction in this country.

“Unlike what we see in other chronic conditions, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, there currently exists no roadmap of evidence-based best practices for physicians to follow to effectively and efficiently treat substance use disorders like opioid addiction,” Douglas Nemecek, Cigna’s chief medical officer of behavioural health, told Business Insider.

Opioid painkillers
kill more Americans than heroin, according to the CDC, and may also have played a role in Prince’s death.

Cigna plans to slash its customers opioid painkiller use by 25% over the next three years. The program would make Cigna one of the largest insurance companies to put such a plan in place.

Still, without a roadmap like the kind Nemecek described, physicians are powerless to help patients who are struggling with addiction.

Between 2000 and 2014, nearly half a million Americans died from overdoses involving these drugs. And the rates of these deaths jumped 14% from 2013 to 2014, according to the CDC.

Opioid painkillers aren’t the only problem. Studies suggest many prescription drug users who become addicted switch to the illegal drug heroin because of its cheaper price tag.

But the issue extends to other perfectly legal drugs like alcohol and nicotine as well. An estimated 7.6 million Americans, or one in every 12 US adults, suffers from alcohol addiction, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Inc. And cigarette smoking kills 480,000 Americans each year, including nearly 42,000 from secondhand smoke exposure, according to the CDC.

In this vein, Cigna is doing something that few other insurance companies have done, which is trying to come up with a roadmap for physicians to use to treat addiction to opioid painkillers.

As part of the company’s announcement to curb opioid painkiller use rates by 25%, Cigna earlier this month announced a new partnership with the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) to “verify what works in the treatment of patients with addiction, make the medical community aware of proven strategies, and hasten the adoption of these successful methods,” the company wrote in a press release. Cigna will be sharing

two years’ worth of insurance claim data with ASAM covering medical, behavioural, and pharmacy claims.

“We know there are too many prescriptions being written for these drugs today that are not necessary and our goal is really to eliminate those,” said Nemecek.

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