(Reuters) – Health insurer Cigna Corp. has discontinued its policy of requiring doctors to seek authorization before treating opioid addicts, as part of a fight against an epidemic of opioid abuse, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said.
The policy change will apply nationally, said Schneiderman, who has been pushing for easier access to treatments for an estimated 2.2 million American addicts. Preauthorization requirements can lead to significant delays in treatment, and other health insurers are encouraged to follow Cigna’s lead, Schneiderman said.
The abuse of opioids, a class of drugs that include heroin and prescription painkillers, has long been a concern. An overdose can cause euphoric highs and even disrupt parts of the brain that control breathing.
Lawmakers across the country are seeking ways to stem the epidemic, which kills 78 Americans every day. Fewer than half of addicts are receiving help, according to the U.S. Centers for Human and Health Services.
The two drugs predominantly used to treat opioid addiction are methadone, which is dispensed only in government-endorsed clinics, and the less-addictive buprenorphine, which exists as a pill, a strip of film, or as part of an implant. These treatments are generally administered along with behavioral therapy and recovery support.
Drugmakers including BioDelivery Sciences International Inc., Indivior Plc, and privately owned Braeburn Pharmaceuticals have approved buprenorphine treatments for opioid dependency and are developing more.
“Reducing red tape like this is exactly the kind of thinking we need to see from all stakeholders,” Braeburn CEO Behshad Sheldon told Reuters.
Evidence suggests that the use of these drugs as part of the overall treatment program is more effective than short-term detoxification programs aimed at abstinence, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Cigna previously required doctors to submit a prior-approval form for medication-assisted treatment requests, answering questions about the patient’s current treatment and medical history. Waiting for days to obtain medication to treat opioid addiction represents an unnecessary risk for a deadly outcome, said Kelly Clark, president elect of the American Society of Addiction Medicine.
Under current law, a doctor can treat a maximum of 275 addicts at a time, and only after obtaining certification and procuring a special Drug Enforcement Administration license. This is done to minimize the risk of illicit drug redistribution, but opponents argue that the approach has left the healthcare system unable to cope with the rising number of addicts.