Opium poppy An opium poppy. (Credit: Thinkstock)

The health insurers you work with are trying to help tackle the opioid crisis. One way they’re doing that is by assessing what consumers think about opioids, and about pain relief in general.

According to government data, 68,557 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2018, and 47,590 of those deaths involved an opioid. Although, for the first time in decades, the number of deaths was slightly lower than it was the year before, the most recent overdose death total represents a shocking tenfold increase over the number of overdose deaths in 1980.

(Related: The U.S. Opioid Epidemic Is a Deadly and Costly Crisis)

As tragic and sobering as the number of opioid-related deaths is, that figure only hints at the scale of the problem. The number of deaths does not include the lives of families and individuals irrevocably altered by the turmoil and trauma of addiction.

Carriers have publicly committed to working on the problem. Cigna, Aetna, UnitedHealth and the Blue Cross Blue Shield companies are some of the carriers that have taken concrete steps to address the situation.

But the solutions aren’t always obvious, or easy. Insurance companies face a dilemma navigating a space where there may be obvious trade-offs between cost or efficiency and health risks. Opioids are generally inexpensive to cover and easy to provide, while alternative pain treatments may be costlier at the outset (even if they result in long-term savings), and research on the efficacy of non-opioid pain treatments is lacking.

Consumer survey data and data analysis could help insurers close the information gap and develop strategies to address the opioid crisis. My firm recently conducted a nationwide research study, Partnering for a Healthier America, that did just that. We examined consumer attitudes about and preferences for pain treatment options. We also looked at the lives, perspectives, priorities and preferences of people who experience chronic pain and/or use opioid prescriptions.

Unsurprisingly, we found that well over half (58%) of U.S. adults consider opioid addiction to be an extremely significant problem. The study also revealed that nearly two-thirds (63%) of respondents say it is “extremely important” for the health care industry to be involved in solving the problem. Interestingly, the respondents said they are just as likely to consider alternative forms of treatment recommended by an insurance company as they are to consider those based on a doctor’s recommendation.

Insurance companies would be wise to continue to explore ways they can work with providers to make alternative forms of treatment both easier to offer and more affordable for patients. Investigating and understanding provider and member needs, perceptions and behaviors is the first step in that process, and that will be important to creating programs that raise awareness of opioid alternatives. Meanwhile, insurers should review coverage of high-efficacy approaches, together with messaging about alternatives sent to members.

While Partnering for a Healthier America is an important step toward delivering the kind of data that can help lead to meaningful solutions, additional research is needed to help insurers better understand consumers’ preferences, attitudes and behaviors around pain management, and pinpoint areas of opportunity for improving their services and coverage.

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Katy Palmer (Credit: Escalent)

Katy Palmer is managing director of the health division at Escalent, a Livonia, Michigan-based market research firm.