CVS Health announced Thursday that it was limiting the amount and strength of prescription opioid painkillers it provides to patients taking the drugs for the first time, a step intended to help curb opioid abuse.
Through its pharmacy benefit manager, CVS Caremark, which has 90 million plan members, the company will introduce three new policies, effective in February. First, patients new to opioids will only get seven days’ worth of medication. The program will also limit daily dosages and require that immediate-release formulations of drugs be given before extended-release versions are prescribed.
Doctors can ask for exemptions for certain patients, CVS said, and employers and insurers can opt out of the program.
CVS said the new rules will bring the company in line with prescribing guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year. In a Health Affairs blog post, CVS officials estimated that 61 people at a company of 100,000 employees would avoid becoming addicted to opioids in a given year if those guidelines were followed. The estimate, they said, was based on commercial insurance data.
“The CDC Guideline should become the default approach to prescribing opiates, a scenario in which physicians would have to seek exceptions for those patients who need more medication or longer duration of therapy,” the officials wrote. “What is more, pharmacy benefit managers are better placed than others in the pharmacy supply chain to put this approach to the CDC Guideline into practice,” as opposed to medication wholesalers or retail pharmacists.
Based on the CDC’s recommendations, CVS’s new daily dosage limit is 90 morphine milligram equivalents, or MMEs, a measure of the strength of a painkiller.
As part of the new effort, CVS Pharmacy sites will also offer enhanced counseling and education campaigns about opioid safety and addiction.
The move by CVS could fuel the debate about whether doctors, PBMs, and pharmacies are reacting too stringently to the opioid epidemic, tightening access to prescription opioids so that patients with legitimate pain problems cannot get the treatment they feel they need. Another large PBM, Express Scripts, previously announced it was planning to limit the supply and dosage of opioids for first-time patients, a move the American Medical Association warned was a “blunt, one-size-fits-all approach” that took treatment decisions away from the doctor and patient.
Increasingly, heroin and the illicit use of synthetic opioids like fentanyl are responsible for fatal opioid overdoses, but many cases of addiction begin with prescription painkillers. In some cases, people will start taking leftover medicine originally prescribed to someone else.
CVS also announced Thursday it was adding another 750 medication disposal kiosks at its pharmacies around the country, roughly doubling the number that CVS has helped open as of now.
The roots of the opioid epidemic are multifaceted, but pharmacies and PBMs have been accused of allowing painkillers to flow into communities with few limitations. Earlier this year, Cherokee Nation sued CVS and other companies, alleging they helped fuel an addiction crisis in the tribal community.