Prescription opioids such as morphine, oxycodone, and hydrocodone provide pain relief to patients with chronic pain. However, these drugs also pose safety risks to patients. Opioid use can cause respiratory depression, resulting in overdose or death. As prescription opioids have been used more extensively for pain control in the past two decades due to changing practice guidelines, overdose deaths surged in both Michigan and the United States.1 Notably, the majority of opioid-related disabilities and deaths result from patients taking opioids as prescribed, rather than from deliberate abuse or misuse.2 Furthermore, opioid-related deaths are frequently associated with concurrent use of prescribed antidepressants or benzodiazepines like Valium and Zanax.3
Pain control is an essential part of patient care, and opioids are one of the primary pain treatments available. While most opioids are used and prescribed appropriately, a small number of patients receive numerous prescriptions from separate prescribers within a short period of time. This lack of coordination increases patients’ risk of accidental overdose and death. This issue brief analyzes accidental deaths from opioid overdoses in Michigan, uncoordinated opioid prescribing among privately insured Michigan patients in 2013, and policy options to improve safe prescribing in the state.
- Uncoordinated opioid prescribing is a critical patient safety issue in Michigan, particularly for patients who receive a large volume of opioids from multiple prescribers. It is essential that patients receive appropriate pain control, which may include the use of opioids, but pain treatment should not jeopardize patient safety.
- Accidental overdose deaths involving opioids (including prescription drugs and heroin) increased sixfold in Michigan between 1999 and 2013 (from 81 to 519 deaths). These opioidrelated deaths represented 38 percent of all accidental drug deaths in 2013, up from 23 percent in 1999.
- Accidental overdose deaths involving prescription opioids represented 43 percent of total opioid deaths in 2013. The remaining 57 percent of deaths were from heroin, which is noteworthy since some patients first become addicted to prescription drugs and then turn to heroin, the strongest form of opioid.4
- In 2013, over 600 privately insured Michigan patients in the study group were defined as having uncoordinated opioid prescriptions (0.3 percent of all patients using prescription opioids). These patients filled at least ten opioid prescriptions from four or more providers within three months. As a result, they ran a higher risk of accidental overdose and death because their providers may not have been aware of all their opioid prescriptions.
- In October 2015, the Michigan Prescription Drug and Opioid Abuse Task Force released its findings and recommendations.5
Key recommendations to address these issues include:
- Expanding provider education on safe opioid prescribing;
- Requiring providers to have a bona-fide relationship with patients before prescribing controlled substances;
- Launching a public awareness campaign;
- Increasing access to the lifesaving overdose reversal drug naloxone;
- Exploring the possibility of limiting criminal penalties for people who report or seek medical attention for overdoses; and
- Improving the state’s database of controlled substance prescriptions and increasing its use by providers and pharmacists.
Pain control is an essential part of patient care. Prescription opioids can be an effective tool in addressing pain for many patients, but they come with substantial risks, including addiction and accidental overdose and death.6 The risk of death increases when opioids are taken in combination with other prescription drugs such as antidepresants or benzodiazepines (e.g., Valium, Zanax).7 Also, some patients experience hyperalgesia, where increasingly higher doses of opioids result in worsening pain.8 For these reasons, patients and providers can consider a variety of pain treatment options that do not involve opioids, such as:
- Non-opioid analgesic drugs like aspirin, ibuprofen, and
- Regional anesthetic treatment;
- Psychological therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy,
biofeedback, and meditation;
- Rehabilitative and physical therapy; and
- Complementary and alternative medicines, including massage
These therapies can be used alone or in combination to relieve chronic pain. In many cases, patients and providers must test multiple therapies and medication dosages to optimize pain treatment.9
In cases where opioids are the most appropriate pain treatment, providers can adopt universal precautions to mitigate the risks of opioid prescribing, including:
- Careful screening for patient risk factors prior to prescribing opioids;
- Effective patient education on safe use, storage, and disposal
- Development of individual treatment plans that include periodic
reassessment of pain and opioid use as appropriate (e.g., pill
counts, urine tests); and
- Use of Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs to monitor
patients’ full opioid use across all providers.
Universal precautions can help providers reduce the risk to patient safety while appropriately treating patients’ pain.10
Accidental overdose deaths involving opioids—including both prescription drugs and heroin— increased sixfold in Michigan between 1999 and 2013 (81 to 519 deaths). Opioid-related deaths represented 38 percent of all accidental drug deaths in 2013, up from 23 percent in 1999. FIGURE 1
Accidental overdose deaths from prescription opioids alone represented 34 percent of the total accidental opioid deaths in 2013. Another 8 percent of deaths involved prescription opioids taken along with illegal drugs like heroin and cocaine, and 57 percent were from heroin (alone or with cocaine). Heroin use rose as prescription opioid use increased, as some patients become addicted first to prescription opioids and then turn to heroin, the strongest form of opioid.
Source: Center for Healthcare Research & Transformation (CHRT) analysis of Michigan Department of
Community Health data.11
In Michigan, nearly 21 percent of all privately insured patients in the CHRT study group filled at least one opioid prescription in 2013.12 Over 600 of these patients filled at least ten opioid prescriptions from four or more providers within three months, representing 0.3 percent of all patients using opioids. These patients ran a higher risk of accidental overdose and death, because their providers may not have been aware of all the medications the patient was taking.
Patients with uncoordinated opioid prescriptions were more seriously ill than other patients using opioids. Over 60 percent of patients with uncoordinated opioid prescriptions were diagnosed with cancer, trauma, or palliative care in 2013—complex, painful conditions that may have required care from multiple specialties. FIGURE 2 By comparison, only 34 percent of all patients using opioids had cancer, trauma, or palliative care diagnoses.
Patients with back pain represented 28 percent of total patients with uncoordinated opioid prescriptions. Treatment guidelines do not support long-term opioid use for patients with back pain, and instead call for pain treatments such as non-opioid analgesic drugs, psychological therapies, and complementary and alternative medicine.13,14 Moreover, research shows that patients with back pain are at higher risk of opioid dependence or abuse than other noncancer patients on long-term opioid therapy.15 FIGURE 2
Patients with uncoordinated opioid use saw an average of six prescribers and received nearly fifteen months’ supply of drugs in 2013—more than one pill per day for a year.16 By comparison, the average patient using opioids received less than two months’ supply of opioids from one prescriber. FIGURE 3
Patients with uncoordinated opioid prescriptions also used more potent opioids than the general population using prescribed opioids, likely due to the higher prevalence of serious conditions such as cancer, trauma, and palliative care. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) classifies opioids as Schedules I to V, which roughly measures the drugs’ potency. Schedule I drugs are illegal substances such as heroin with no medically recognized use. Schedule II drugs such as morphine and oxycodone have appropriate medical uses but high abuse potential, and are the most potent and strictly regulated legal opioids. The potency and abuse potential generally drops with higher drug schedules.17,18.,19
Patients with uncoordinated opioid prescriptions primarily used Schedule II opioids, although they also used large volumes of Schedule III drugs. The volume and potency of these drugs placed the patients at high risk for accidental overdose and death, which was compounded by the uncoordinated prescribing patterns. In contrast, the general population using prescribed opioids purchased far fewer opioids and principally used Schedule III drugs. Schedule IV or V drugs were rarely used in either population. FIGURE 4
Schedule II drugs were substantially more expensive than Schedule III drugs, leading to higher costs for the patients with uncoordinated opioid prescribing who used proportionately more Schedule II drugs: over 80 percent of the $1,838 in opioid spending per patient went to Schedule II drugs. For the general population using prescribed opioids, two-thirds of the total opioid spending was for Schedule II drugs, with total opioid spending at $135. FIGURE 5
Michigan policymakers have prioritized the issue of prescription opioid use in response to the recent increase in accidental deaths. In 2014, Michigan passed two laws to increase access to naloxone, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses, for patients, families, and first responders such as police officers.20,21 Michigan also expanded coverage for Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, resulting in increased coverage for substance abuse treatment.22 In addition, Michigan’s Medicaid managed care plans are authorized to have pharmacy lock-in programs that require individuals with uncoordinated prescription opioid use patterns to use a single prescriber or pharmacy.23 In January 2015, Governor Snyder called for a comprehensive plan to address opioid abuse in the State of the State address, leading to the formation of the Michigan Prescription Drug and Opioid Abuse Task Force in June.24
The Task Force released its report of findings and recommendations for action on October 26, 2015.25
There are several key recommendations that will address issues related to uncoordinated opioid
prescribing and patient safety, including:
- Educating providers on safe opioid prescribing and treatment for opioid addictions.
- Requiring providers to have a bona-fide relationship with patients before prescribing
- Developing a public awareness campaign on the dangers of prescription drug abuse and safe
medication disposal, with a focus on reducing the stigma of addiction.
- Increasing access to the life-saving overdose reversal drug naloxone through potential changes
in dispensing procedures.
- Exploring the possibility of limiting criminal penalties for low-level offenses for those who report
an overdose and seek medical assistance, referred to as “Good Samaritan Laws”.
- Updating or replacing the Michigan Automated Prescription System (MAPS), an electronic
database of all controlled substances dispensed in Michigan. Requiring registration and use of
MAPS by prescribers and dispensers of controlled substances.
The Task Force also recommended improving access to substance use treatment, strengthening
licensing regulations for health professionals and pain facilities, and reviewing best practices to
manage opioid abuse in other states and with local coalitions.