What you should know about opioids and what we’re doing about this epidemic

Security Health Plan is concerned about opioid abuse. We are taking steps to prevent prescription drug abuse, and help those who are chemically dependent.

“We realize the dangers posed by opioid overuse and abuse and we’re in the process of updating and strengthening our Opioid Management Program,” said Security Health Plan Pharmacy Services Director Sue Wilhelm. “Already we have established quantity limit restrictions to ensure safe doses. We watch for fraud, waste and abuse of opioids by monitoring prescribing and dispensing patterns for potentially inappropriate use.”

Security Health Plan also has social work care managers who can help adult members who may have developed an addiction to opioids, and are trying to stay drug-free.

The extent of the problem and the fact that it extends to every age and socio-economic group, would surprise many people, said Security Health Plan Social Work Care manager Amy Wilde.

“Breaking free is hard, whether it’s dependence on a pain medication or an illegal drug,” said social work care manager Amy Wilde. “We work with members who are transitioning back into the community and help them connect with community services that can support them and help prevent a relapse.”

Working with Security Health Plan Pharmacy Director Sue Wilhelm, we have prepared a primer that answers basic questions about opioids.

Q. What are opioids and how do I know them by common name?

A. Opioids are medications that your doctor can prescribe to treat severe long-term or short- term pain. Medications that fall within this class include hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin), oxycodone (e.g., OxyContin, Percocet), morphine (e.g., Kadian, Avinza), codeine, and related drugs.

Q: What are the common uses of opioids?

A: Hydrocodone products are commonly prescribed for a variety of painful conditions - including dental and injury-related pain. To alleviate severe pain, before and after surgical procedures, morphine is often used. On the other hand, for mild pain codeine is often prescribed.

In addition to their pain relieving properties some of these drugs, codeine and diphenoxylate (Lomotil) for example, are used to relieve coughs and severe diarrhea.

Q: How do opioids work?

A: Opioids work by blocking pain signals in the brain. This leads to a decrease in the way you feel pain and your reaction to pain, by increasing your tolerance for pain.

Q: Why are opioids so addictive?

A: Some people experience a “happy” response to opioid medications. Those who abuse opioids may seek to intensify their experience by taking the drug in ways other than those prescribed. For example, OxyContin is an oral medication used to treat moderate to severe pain through a slow, steady release of the opioid. People who abuse OxyContin may snort or inject it, thereby increasing their risk for serious medical complications, including overdose.

Q: If my doctor prescribes an opioid, should I ignore the recommendation?

A: No. Opioids taken as prescribed can help manage pain safely and effectively. Properly managed, short-term medical use of opioid pain medications rarely causes addiction.

Q: What about storing these type of drugs?

A: All opioids should be stored in their original packaging inside a locked cabinet, lockbox or location where others cannot easily access them. Carefully note when and how much medicine you take, in order to keep track of how much is left.

Q: How do I dispose of opioids?

A: Many communities have medicine take-back programs that allow the public to take unused medications to a central location for proper disposal. Call your local law enforcement agency or waste management company to see if they sponsor medicine take-back programs in your community.

If you do not have access to a take-back program, the FDA recommends:

1. Remove personal information from the prescription label and keep the medicine in its original container.
2. Add water to the container for solid pills.  Also add a nontoxic and unpalatable substance, such as coffee grounds or kitty litter to the container.
3. Seal the container with duct tape
4. Place inside a second, unmarked container.
5. Place in the trash.

Q: What treatment is there for opioid addition?

A: Prescription medications can be effective in treating opioid addition. These medications block the effects of the drug on the brain and behavior. These treatment medications relieve withdrawal symptoms, help overcome drug cravings or treat an overdose. Research shows that a combined treatment with medication in addition to behavioral therapy may be best.

Q: What role can pharmacy services play in watching for abuse or overuse?

A: Pharmacy services monitor opioids for safe use. Security Health Plan has quantity limit restrictions to ensure safe doses. Security Health Plan also monitors for fraud, waste and abuse of opioids by monitoring prescribing and dispensing patterns for potentially inappropriate use. In addition, prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs), which require physicians and pharmacists to log each filled prescription into a state database, can assist medical professionals in identifying patients who are getting prescriptions from multiple sources. 

Q: Where can I find more information?