Opioid Prescribing History Prior to Heroin Overdose Among Commercially Insured Adults

Published in: Drug and Alcohol Dependence, Volume 212 (July 2020). doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2020.108061

Posted on RAND.org on July 31, 2020

by Pooja A. Lagisetty, Kun Zhang, Rebecca Lee Haffajee, Lewei Allison Lin, Jason E. Goldstick, Rebecca Brownlee, Amy S. Bohnert, Marc R. LaRochelle

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Since 2010, heroin-related overdoses have risen sharply, coinciding with policies to restrict access to prescription opioids. It is unknown if patients tapered or discontinued off prescription opioids transitioned to riskier heroin use. This study examined opioid prescribing, including long-term opioid therapy (LTOT) and discontinuation, prior to heroin overdose.


We used retrospective longitudinal data from a national claims database to identify adults with an emergency or inpatient claim for heroin overdose between January 2010 and June 2017. Receipt of opioid prescription, LTOT episodes, and discontinuation of LTOT were measured for the period of one year prior to heroin overdose.


We identified 3183 individuals (53.2% age 18–25; 70.0% male) with a heroin overdose (incidence rate 4.20 per 100k person years). Nearly half (42.3%) received an opioid prescription in the prior 12 months, and 10.9% had an active opioid prescription in the week prior to overdose. LTOT at any time in the 12 months prior to overdose was uncommon (12.8%) among those with heroin overdoses, especially among individuals 18–25 years old (3.5%, P<0.001). LTOT discontinuation prior to overdose was also relatively uncommon, experienced by 6.7% of individuals aged 46 and over and 2.5% of individuals aged 18–25 years (P<0.001).


Prior to heroin overdose, prescription opioid use was common, but LTOT discontinuation was uncommon and observed primarily in older individuals with the lowest heroin overdose rates. Further study is needed to determine if these prescribing patterns are associated with increased heroin overdose.

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