States Share Innovations to Tackle Their Opioid Epidemics

Mary McIntyre, MD, Alabama’s chief medical officer (left) and Ana Novais, executive director of Rhode Island’s Department of Health.
Mary McIntyre, MD, Alabama’s chief medical officer (left) and Ana Novais, executive director of Rhode Island’s Department of Health.

PORTLAND, OR – State health officials shared wide-ranging innovations in their uphill battle against the opioid epidemic that is sweeping their states at the opening day of the National Academy for State Health Policy’s (NASHP) 30th State Health Policy Conference.

Officials explained they are experimenting with new strategies that use data, new treatment approaches, and reconfigured public safety responses to illegal drug use in a race against time as overdose deaths are expected to exceed the 63,000 recorded in 2016.

Kimberly Johnson, MD, director of the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, ticked off the various strategies and services that are being tried out in state incubator programs that show promise in tackling this national epidemic, including providing treatment on demand, decriminalizing illegal opioid use, creating safe drug use sites and needle exchange programs, improving diagnosis of people with opioid addiction, better use of data to identify drug use patterns in communities, and addiction treatment with medications, such as methadone, which is proven to lower relapse rates.

“The number one thing states can do,” she commented following her opening remarks Monday morning, “is to address prescribing practices among providers. But it really takes all of these strategies to stop this epidemic.”

While NASHP’s three-day conference addressed a host of state public health issues, the nation’s opioid epidemic was a frequent topic at various workshops. It remains the Achilles heel, officials noted, that exposes states’ conflicting and piecemeal public health approaches even while providing opportunities for innovation.

Ana Novais, executive director of Rhode Island’s Department of Health, highlighted her state’s effort to create a dashboard that pulls data from hospitals, police, emergency rescue workers, and providers to create an overdose reporting system. Armed with data, including the latest on fentanyl deaths and locations of overdoses, the state can launch responses that involve police, rescue workers, health care providers and community leaders.

In Ohio – where one in nine of the nation’s heroin overdoses occur — the Office of Health Transformation, led by director Greg Moody, is tackling opioid over-prescribing through a health care reform called value-based pricing that rewards Medicaid managed care providers who provide high-quality care at reasonable prices.

“We wanted to knit together strategies from different domains within state government to address the opioid crisis,” he explained to more than 200 officials who attended the session. To prevent future addictions, Ohio has spearheaded a payment innovation approach to discourage over-prescribing of opioids and reward “best-practice” painkiller prescribing in its Medicaid managed care program.

One of the quality measures Ohio uses to identify “high-value” health care providers is their opioid prescribing practice. The state examines how many opioids a provider – including dentists and orthopedic specialists — prescribe and for how long. Their prescribing practices are compared with the state average. Providers who prescribe above the average amount and duration of painkillers may not get referrals and may eventually lose financial incentives.

Pennsylvania’s approach to prevent future addictions is to provide Medicaid coverage for alternative pain management treatment, such as acupuncture and yoga.

Increasing access to medically-assisted treatment for addiction, educating providers to improve opioid prescribing practices, and building coalitions between public safety and communities to get people into treatment is daunting, officials noted. Some states are proposing to add a work requirement to their Medicaid programs, similar to what exists for adults receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), which concerned some policymakers. “We want to make sure that if people are working toward recovery that they are not excluded from Medicaid eligibility,” one attendee pointed out.

Another official pointed out that lawmakers in her state wondered how much funding to invest in the naloxone program if emergency personnel keep reviving the same people after multiple overdoses.

“This is a disease,” said David Kelley, MD, chief medical officer of Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services Office of Medical Assistance Programs, “does an emergency medical technician say, ‘you’ve had angina five times already, we won’t treat you this time?’ Addiction is a disease, we need to stop thinking how many times is enough.”

“We do have to deal with the political ramifications that people still think of addiction as a personal choice,” observed Mary McIntyre, MD, chief medical officer of Alabama’s Department of Public Health.

NASHP will be publishing many of the “State Innovations and Interventions in America’s Opioid Crisis” presentations and slides, and additional blogs in the weeks ahead at