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Highmark hosts DDAP Secretary Gary Tennis to discuss opioid epidemic in Pennsylvania

Highmark Inc.

PITTSBURGH (Nov. 29, 2016) — Many people are aware of the growing opioid epidemic in Pennsylvania, but few realize just how severe the problem has become.

Substance use disorder (SUD) now kills thousands of Pennsylvania citizens every year. "In fact, more than 3,500 people died in the Commonwealth last year as a result of opioid addiction, and the crisis is getting worse," said Gary Tennis, Pennsylvania's Secretary of the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP). He spoke to Highmark employees and administrators about the opioid epidemic on Monday.

"It's important to recognize that despite increased attention and work, the opioid epidemic in the Commonwealth is continuing, and the number of deaths from overdoses is rising in 2016," said Tennis. "You likely know someone who suffers from SUDs or has been affected by an opioid addiction."

"The good news is that the state is working on all fronts in this fight against opioids," said Tennis. "We have strengthened laws with Governor Tom Wolf's help to decrease the number of prescribed opioids, and require doctors and pharmacists to include all prescriptions on a statewide database. We began working with medical school deans over a year ago to build strong pain management and addiction curricula, and now new laws actually require medical schools to teach pain management and opioid education, and require doctors to take continuing education courses on opioids."

Tennis said the number of municipal police forces carrying naloxone to reverse overdoses is expanding, and by the end of 2016, all 67 counties are expected to have some municipal police officers carrying it. Governor Tom Wolf, said Tennis, began working the day after his inauguration to ensure that state troopers carry naloxone.

Highmark has a track record of working with the Wolf administration on this issue and has contributed $75,000 to provide naloxone — used for the treatment of an opioid emergency such as an overdose — to local law enforcement officials across Pennsylvania.

Tennis said that DDAP has expanded the number of drug take-back boxes available in municipal police departments. These 500+ boxes are available for people to deposit unwanted opioids and prescription drugs, resulting in the collection and destruction of more than 100 tons of prescription drugs.

Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S., with more than 47,000 lethal drug overdoses in 2014. Opioid addiction is driving this epidemic, with nearly 19,000 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers, and more than 10,000 overdose deaths related to heroin in 2014. Four in five new heroin users started out misusing prescription painkillers.

"We know the opioid crisis has arisen from the overprescribing of opioids," said Tennis. "As we continue to reduce the prescribing of opioids, there is a risk that those who suffer from addiction to opioids — if they aren't referred to treatment — will begin using heroin, which means the crisis will get worse before it gets better."

Marylou Buyse, M.D., Senior Medical Director at Highmark, also discussed the issue. "This is not an issue that is going away anytime soon. And this is not only a Pennsylvania issue, but a growing national issue," said Dr. Buyse.

In addition to following state guidelines, Highmark has also developed additional programs to assist physicians when prescribing opioid pain medication. One aims to detect patients who might be addicted to opioid pain pills by limiting them to using only one pharmacy. The other program monitors physician prescribing habits within the Highmark network.

About Highmark Inc.

Highmark Inc. and its health insurance subsidiaries and affiliates collectively are among the ten largest health insurers in the United States and comprise the fourth-largest Blue Cross and Blue Shield-affiliated organization. Highmark and its diversified businesses and affiliates operate health insurance plans in Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia that serve 5.2 million members and hundreds of thousands of additional members through the Blue Card program. Its diversified businesses serve group customer and individual needs across the United States through dental insurance, vision care and other related businesses. Highmark is an independent licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, an association of independent Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies. For more information, visit www.highmark.com.

For more information, contact:
Aaron Billger
Highmark Health
412-544-7826
aaron.billger@highmarkhealth.org