Amid Opioid Crisis, Insurers Restrict Pricey, Less Addictive Painkillers

ProPublica and The New York Times analyzed Medicare prescription drug plans covering 35.7 million people in the second quarter of this year. Only one-third of the people covered, for example, had any access to Butrans, a painkilling skin patch that contains a less-risky opioid, buprenorphine. And every drug plan that covered lidocaine patches, which are not addictive but cost more than other generic pain drugs, required that patients get prior approval for them.

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In contrast, almost every plan covered common opioids and very few required any prior approval.

The insurers have also erected more hurdles to approving addiction treatments than for the addictive substances themselves, the analysis found.

Alisa Erkes lives with stabbing pain in her abdomen that, for more than two years, was made tolerable by Butrans. But in January, her insurer, UnitedHealthcare, stopped covering the drug, which had cost the company $342 for a four-week supply. After unsuccessfully appealing the denial, Ms. Erkes and her doctor scrambled to find a replacement that would quiet her excruciating stomach pains. They eventually settled on long-acting morphine, a cheaper opioid that UnitedHealthcare covered with no questions asked. It costs her and her insurer a total of $29 for a month’s supply.

The Drug Enforcement Administration places morphine in a higher category than Butrans for risk of abuse and dependence. Addiction experts say that buprenorphine also carries a lower risk of overdose.

UnitedHealthcare, the nation’s largest health insurer, places morphine on its lowest-cost drug coverage tier with no prior permission required, while in many cases excluding Butrans. And it places Lyrica, a non-opioid, brand-name drug that treats nerve pain, on its most expensive tier, requiring patients to try other drugs first.

Ms. Erkes, who is 28 and lives in Smyrna, Ga., is afraid of becoming addicted and has asked her husband to keep a close watch on her. “Because my Butrans was denied, I have had to jump into addictive drugs,” she said.

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