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Health New England program helps fight opioid crisis

July 30, 2019

Health New England (HNE) is working to stop opioid addiction in western Massachusetts communities before it starts.

The Massachusetts Department of Health estimates more than 2,000 people died from opioid-related circumstances in 2018. To address the widespread issue, Health New England teamed up with leaders of Western New England University’s (WNEU) Pharmacy program. HNE and WNEU are now working together to reduce the number of prescription opioid s in our communities.

Reducing Access to Opioids

Through the Opioid Access Program, Health New England limits short-acting opioid prescriptions to a 7-day supply. HNE seeks to encourage doctors to rethink their prescription practices, and keep unused opioids from piling up.

“The volume of tablets that gets into patients’ medicine cabinets was overwhelming,” said WNEU Associate professor Natalia Shcherbakova. “ It amounts to over 150 tablets, on average, of short-acting opioids (oxycodone, hydrocodone, etc.) for each Health New England member who has filled any short-acting prescription opioid in a given year.”

Many factors have contributed to the current opioid crisis, including social and socioeconomic issues. But ease of access to prescription opioids has been an important enabler. Many people with opioid addiction started with unused pills taken from a medicine cabinet.

“Since the epidemic was facilitated to a great extent by easy availability of prescription opioids through frequent and excessive prescribing practices, it can arguably be contained via the same route – reducing access,” Dr. Shcherbakova added.

Studying the Program’s Effectiveness

Health New England and WNEU’s Pharmacy team worked together to study the program’s results after a year. They found that the number of HNE members filling short-acting opioid prescriptions for more than a seven days’ supply had decreased.

Because of the positive results, Health New England recently refined its access criteria. The program now requires permission for refills of cough syrups containing opioids after the initial fill.

These small changes are big steps in the right direction toward reducing future cases of opioid addiction.