WHY WE DID THIS STUDY
Concerns about the use of opioids in Medicare Part D and the availability of treatment for opioid use disorder have heightened with the onset of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. COVID-19 poses specific dangers for people using opioids, as respiratory diseases like COVID-19 can increase the risk of fatal overdose among those taking opioids and those with opioid use disorder are more likely to contract COVID-19 and suffer complications.
It is imperative that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) closely monitor opioid use during this unprecedented time. From 2016 to 2019, Medicare Part D saw a steady decline in opioid use, along with an increased use of drugs for treatment of opioid use disorder. This data snapshot describes opioid use in Part D during the onset of COVID-19, focusing on the first 8 months of 2020. For context, this snapshot also provides data on the first 8 months of 2019.
WHAT WE FOUND
- As the pandemic took hold, about 5,000 Medicare beneficiaries per month suffered an opioid overdose during the first 8 months of 2020.
- The number of beneficiaries receiving short-term opioid prescriptions dipped, with a particularly sharp decline in April.
- About 220,000 beneficiaries received high amounts of opioids in the first 8 months of 2020.
- At the same time, the number of beneficiaries receiving drugs for medication-assisted treatment of opioid use disorder increased slightly.
- The number of beneficiaries receiving naloxone—a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose-declined through April, but increased in the following months.
WHAT WE CONCLUDE
This data snapshot provides the first look at opioid use and treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic, an unprecedented and extraordinarily challenging time for this country’s healthcare system. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect millions of Americans, vigilance remains essential. OIG is committed to continuing our work on opioid use and access to treatment. CMS has also continued its efforts to prevent inappropriate prescribing of opioids and to ensure access to treatment during the pandemic. In addition to CMS’s continuing these efforts, it is essential that CMS—and HHS—monitor trends in prescriptions for drugs for medication-assisted treatment and naloxone and take appropriate action if the number of prescriptions begins to fall off.