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CareFirst offers $1.5 million to help fight opioid crisis

12-13-17 BALTIMORE, MD-Mayor Catherine Pugh and Chet Burrell speaking about Carefirst's plans to help combat the opioid epidemic at City Hall. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Mayor Catherine Pugh and CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield CEO Chet Burrell speaking about CareFirst’s plans to help combat the opioid epidemic. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield will offer $1.5 million over two years to help find new clinical methods of addressing opioid use disorders surrounding the state’s opioid epidemic, the organization announced Wednesday at a press conference at Baltimore City Hall.

The insurance carrier’s interest in addressing the opioid crisis grew over the past three-to-four years as calls from members for treatment and opioid prescriptions increased.

“We have taken a number of steps, all with a goal towards helping with this societal problem,” said Chet Burrell, president and CEO of CareFirst. “We then said, ‘There must be an array of good ideas that we could help catalyze.'”

CareFirst hopes to be that catalyst by providing some seed funding for clinical-based approaches to treating addiction. Through that process, Burrell said, the company could find options to treat the epidemic that have not yet been explored.

The insurer will issue a request for proposal early next year to solicit ideas and approaches that could help address the crisis. The company will then bring those ideas to a panel of experts it puts together to figure out which ones would be worthy of trials.

Burrell said he became more personally aware of the struggles that prescription opiates can cause when his son was in a serious crash over the summer and needed the drugs to help manage his pain over a period of weeks. When it came time to come off the prescription, his son’s pain returned, accompanied by withdrawal symptoms.

“(His experience) was enough, watching him go through that, to convince you that it is very easy to become dependent and addicted,” Burrell said. “He is not, and we fought through that, but you could understand how somebody, even in a situation like that, faces a risk.”

Already, Burrell said, CareFirst has taken multiple steps to address the epidemic. First, the company has limited the length and duration of opioid prescriptions, allowing for reauthorization when necessary.

It has also established processes to get members who need help into treatment. That includes posting behavioral health coordinators in hospitals and in subregions of CareFirst’s coverage area that can divert members into the places where they can get help.

“What we found is, people call in to us from all walks of life that we cover, and what we needed was a way to intake, understand their need, and then they often struggle to get access to the provider that they really needed,” Burrell said.

For those people, CareFirst said, it has developed a network of specialized addiction recovery centers, mostly focused in out-patient care. Burrell noted that mobile technology can become more and more useful in treating addiction in an out-patient setting.

The company has also removed an obstacle to addiction treatment by waiving out-of-pocket costs, including deductibles and co-payments. Members must have a care plan, authorized by health care providers, and must stay on that plan, but as long as they do, they will not have out-of-pocket expenses.

“It takes away the excuse that you can’t do it,” Burrell said.

Mayor Catherine Pugh applauded CareFirst’s efforts as an example of partnership helping to address the crisis.

“It is about partnership,” she said. “I think what we’re showing today is that we can work with the philanthropic community, we can work with the business community. And, rest assured, when you put your money in our hands, we’re going to make sure that it gets used.”

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