Initial Opioid Prescriptions Among U.S. Commercially Insured Patients, 2012–2017
Published in: The New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 380, pages 1043–1052 (2019). doi: 10.1056/NEJMsa1807069
The United States is undergoing a crippling opioid epidemic, spurred in part by overuse of prescription opioids by adults 25 to 64 years of age. Of concern are long-duration and high-dose initial prescriptions, which place the patients and their friends and relatives at heightened risk for long-term opioid use, misuse, overdose, and death.
We estimated the incidence of initial opioid prescriptions in each month between July 2012 and December 2017 using administrative-claims data from across the United States (accessed through Blue Cross–Blue Shield [BCBS] Axis); monthly incidence was estimated as the percentage of enrollees who received an initial opioid prescription among those who had not used opioids (i.e., no opioid prescription or a diagnosis of opioid use disorder in the 6 months before a given month). We then estimated the percentage of enrollees initiating opioid therapy who received a long-duration or high-dose initial opioid prescription in each month during this period. We also calculated the number of providers who initiated opioid therapy in any patient who had not used opioids in each month and examined monthly trends in the duration and dose of initial opioid prescriptions in prescriber and patient subgroups. Our study sample included 63,817,512 enrollees who had not used opioids (mean, 15,897,673 per month).
The monthly incidence of initial opioid prescriptions among enrollees who had not used opioids declined by 54%, from 1.63% in July 2012 to 0.75% in December 2017. This decline was accompanied by a decreasing number of providers (from 114,043 in July 2012 to 80,462 in December 2017) who initiated opioid therapy in any patient who had not used opioids. Nonetheless, among the shrinking subgroup of physicians who initiated opioid therapy in such patients, high-risk prescribing (i.e., prescriptions for more than a 3-day supply or for a dose of 50 morphine milligram equivalents per day or higher) persisted at a monthly rate of 115,378 prescriptions per 15,897,673 enrollees who had not used opioids.
As the opioid crisis progressed between July 2012 and December 2017, many providers stopped initiating opioid therapy. Although the number of initial opioid prescriptions declined, a subgroup of providers continued to write high-risk initial opioid prescriptions.