Many regions of the U.S. are struggling with an opioid epidemic that take dozens of lives each day, strains emergency services, and causes community turmoil. Recently unsealed documents in West Virginia point to one pivotal point in 2001 that could have slowed, or even prevented the rampant problem, especially in places like the Mountain State.
Every few hours, more than two dozen people die in West Virginia from overdoses, according to STAT. The current opioid crisis grew from oxycodone abuse, which is the only ingredient in the brand name drug OxyContin.
In 2001, officials in West Virginia began to notice an uptick in deaths from improperly using OxyContin and moved to require that insurance companies pre-authorize the drug after a doctor prescribes it based on their client’s medical history and other relevant information. This step is intended to prevent unnecessary scripts and “pill mills.”
The maker of OxyContin, Purdue Pharma, blocked that effort by paying a pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) to ensure that restrictions would not be implemented. A PBM is the intermediary between government officials and a pharmaceutical company.
“We were screaming at the wall,” said former West Virginia public employee insurance agency director Tom Susman.
“We saw it coming,” he continued. “Now to see the aftermath is the most frustrating thing I have ever seen.”
Purdue Pharma did not want restrictions to cut into the profits they were making off of OxyContin. To many, the unsealed documents paint an unflattering picture of corporate greed and disregard for warning signs of the impending health crisis. Purdue Pharma has defended its involvement in thwarting prior authorization, reports Psychology Today.
“We contract with PBMs [Pharmacy Benefit Managers] to ensure legitimate patients have access to the medicines prescribed by their doctors,” said Purdue executive director Robert Josephson. “This practice is the industry standard, whether the medicines are for pain, cancer or diabetes. It is inaccurate and irresponsible to claim that PBM contracts undermine public health.”
It is difficult to prove that actions taken by Purdue Pharma exacerbated the opioid epidemic. However, many health care officials believe they have all the proof they need to draw that conclusion.
[STAT] [Blue Cross Blue Shield] [Psychology Today] [Photo courtesy Associated Press via Charleston Gazette-Mail]