Opioid addiction programs by health care providers see results

Dr. Sarah Kawasaki, director of addiction services at Penn State Health’s Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute in Harrisburg, explains the steps that the system is taking to treat opioid addiction in the region during a press conference on Wednesday. (Photo: Ioannis Pashakis) –

Over-prescribing opioids have been targeted as a driving force behind the nation’s opioid addiction crisis. For the past year, two Pennsylvania health systems have taken efforts to slow the problem.

In their first year as a shared health care network, Highmark Health and Penn State Health, enacted a suite of programs in 2018 to fight the state’s ongoing opioid crisis.

Pittsburgh-based Highmark Health’s strategies helped overall opioid prescriptions drop by 15 percent for its insured members.

Those strategies include:

  • Working with providers to offer services like physical and occupational therapy to individuals who could manage their pain without opioids
  • Monitoring members’ prescribing patterns to identify unsafe use of the drugs
  • Linking those members with the correct treatment

Meanwhile, Penn State Health grew its Pennsylvania Coordinated Medication-Assisted Treatment program with a $750,000 grant from Highmark. The program helps the system provide medication like Suboxone and Methadone to treat patients with opioid addiction while also providing care to address both physical and mental health issues.

“Our approach (to treating opioid addiction) is focused on primary prevention, safe prescribing and management of pain, high quality and accessible addiction treatment and community support. You need all of those to make this work,” said Dan Onorato, executive vice president of corporate affairs for Highmark Health, at a news conference Wednesday.

Penn State Health CEO Dr. Craig Hillemeier said that the multi-faceted approach to reducing opioid abuse has worked in the past year because Highmark’s contributions have made the efforts more sustainable.

Other efforts between the two entities included nearly $500,000 donated toward community organizations and programs focused toward fighting opioid addiction in Pennsylvania and a program using Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center’s pain specialists that guided more than 600 patients on the use of opioids in 2018.

“As individuals, we all know someone whose life has been upended by opioid addiction,” Hillemeier said. “As health care providers, we see the impact of this crisis every day in our emergency rooms, our psychiatric hospital, our outpatient practices and sadly, even our morgues.”

Penn State Health and Highmark Health’s actions are a part of a nationwide attempt to battle an epidemic that began in the health care space.

It’s an epidemic that Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said during a press conference Tuesday was caused partly by pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma which he said deceived health care providers into pushing the use of opioids.

In a lawsuit filed in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, the office alleges that Purdue, the manufacturer of OxyContin, had approved its sales representatives to deceive doctors with information that claimed the drug wasn’t harmful to patients.

The suit alleges that representatives told doctors that if their patients were showing signs of addiction, it was a symptom that the patient was having continued pain and should be treated with more OxyContin.

“Purdue marketed to doctors a symptom they fabricated called pseudo addiction,” Shapiro said. “We allege that Purdue misrepresented their products as non-addictive and omitted scientific contrary evidence.”

Caesar DeLeo, vice president and executive medical director of strategic initiatives at Highmark, agreed that physicians were tricked into overprescribing medication and said that Highmark and Penn State Health’s programs are looking to fix the harm that was done.

“Physicians believed opioids were safe and effective and not addictive based on poor science funded by some of the companies,” DeLeo said. “We tried to eliminate pain by overprescribing and that was the wrong thing to do and now we have to reel this in.”