Curtis Barnett, CEO of Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, recently sat down for an extensive interview with Talk Business & Politics editor-in-chief Roby Brock.
Barnett offered wide-ranging thoughts on the future of healthcare from a consumer and business perspective. He also outlined several ways that stakeholders in the state could address the opioid crisis that has been on the rise in the last decade.
The Blue Cross executive said there are partnerships that have been formed to curtail some aspects of the opioid problem, but a Drug Enforcement Agency waiver that would allow more physicians to prescribe a drug called Suboxone could be key. Here is an excerpt from the interview:
Roby Brock: Let’s talk about the opioid epidemic. This is impacting health insurance, it’s impacting people’s lives and the healthiness of their lives. What are we not doing that we need to do in terms of opioids and addressing this issue?
Curtis Barnett: I know in today’s paper we saw an article about opioid prescribing rates here in Arkansas. And we’ve seen a decrease in the rate, but unfortunately we’re still significantly higher than the national average. As a health plan, we see how it impacts our communities and it impacts our members firsthand, and the impact that it’s having on people’s lives. So, it’s something that we’ve been very involved with for quite some time now. We tried to do some things around prevention. We’ve put in system edits, so when opioids are dispensed at a pharmacy, it limits the numbers that can be received at that time. So you don’t have an over abundance that’s available.
We’ve worked with Walgreens on safe medication disposal programs so people have a place to get rid of their opioids when they don’t need them any longer, rather than keeping them in their house. And we provided extensive data sharing to the physicians around the state to show this is what their prescribing patterns are, in a way to, hopefully, give them the information they need to make changes.
We’ve shifted really more to treatment. More recently we worked with the State Drug Director Kirk Lane on Narcan kits. And our foundation, we’ve purchased kits for law enforcement and first responders throughout the state to help treat somebody who may be having an overdose and to provide that to them. We’ve removed the cost sharing that goes with, or the copays or deductibles that are charged, when somebody has Naloxone or Narcan prescribed for them or dispensed. Because we don’t want there to be a financial barrier to somebody getting this lifesaving drug.
But I think the area where we can do more is really around medication assisted treatment. And what medication assisted treatment is, is really using medications, along with counseling and behavioral therapy, to help somebody who’s dealing with an opioid use disorder. The U.S. Government now has said that medication assisted therapy is the most effective way, or treatment is the most effective way to treat, somebody who has that disorder.
And really what it is, for example, there’s a drug called Suboxone. And so when Suboxone is offered in combination with someone receiving counseling and therapy, then the possibility for sustained success with treating that is greatly enhanced because of what the Suboxone does: it helps control the cravings that the individual has. It allows them to not feel those cravings so that they have a better chance as they go through therapy to have a much more successful treatment plan.
Brock: Sort of aa nicotine patch for opioid abuse?
Barnett: That’s probably a little, simplified way to see it, but it is a way to look at it. It’s to help them with that. I think the issue that we have in our state is, is that in order to prescribe Suboxone, you have to have a DEA waiver. And for a physician to have a DEA waiver, there’s some training that goes along with that. So in our state, we have a relatively low number of physicians who have the DEA waiver that’s necessary to prescribe Suboxone.
That’s an area I think where we can have a big impact. And it’s an area that where I would like to see all of us who are involved in the healthcare system come together. Can we establish a goal and work towards meeting that goal, that by a certain date, we’re going to have a certain number, a certain percentage of physicians in our state who have that DEA waiver so they can prescribe Suboxone, or these other medications, and make medication assisted treatment much more prevalent than it is today.
Editor’s note: You can watch Barnett’s full interview in the video below.