The number of privately insured individuals addicted to opioids has skyrocketed in recent years, according to new research released this week.
Between 2007 and 2014, insurers reported an astonishing 3,203 percent uptick in the number of individuals classified as dependent on prescription painkillers and heroin. The data — gathered by health care transparency advocate Fair Health from billions of insurance claims — lends further credence to the assertion that this epidemic of addiction knows no stereotypes.
The number of private insurance claims indicates that it isn’t just the economically disadvantaged and those with Medicaid who make up the nearly 30,000 who die each year from opioid overdoses.
Fair Health also found that the epidemic is hitting both men and women and individuals of all ages — although the 19-35 age bracket is in the majority, comprising 69 percent of claims for dependence.
“What makes this study particularly noteworthy is that we are looking at health care claims of those who have private insurance,” says Robin Gelburd, Fair Health president. “We are talking about people who are employed, getting insurance through their workplace or have sufficient means to obtain health insurance. We’re not talking about public health programs. These are people who could be sitting next to you at work, or the young-adult children of your neighbors. This has now permeated the mainstream, if you will.”
Fair Health defines “dependence” as tolerance of the drugs (needing more and more to produce the same effect), withdrawal symptoms and repeated failure when trying to kick the habit. The number of claims tied to less severe “abuse” of these drugs also leapt from 2007 to 2014, although at a more modest 317 percent.
Heroin has been the biggest catalyst for this uptick in dependence, with overdoses of the street drug leaping by 510 percent during the study period. Men are more likely to become dependent on opioids, Fair Health found, although the gap between the sexes narrows for those ages 46-55. That gender difference appears to be shifting in some ways, however, with more women diagnosed as having opioid abuse disorder than men in 2014. Pregnant women have shown an upswing in drug dependence, too, up 511 percent over the study period, a trend that is helping to fuel the prevalence of neonatal abstinence syndrome.
Gelburd hopes hospitals will use this white paper as a catalyst to start conversations on the epidemic and look a little deeper into what’s causing the numbers to shoot up.
“We’re hoping that this data launches some interesting studies where people pose some questions or look under certain rocks to see social or societal drivers that are causing the data to present as it did,” she says.