OIG: Part D opioid prescriptions dipped during onset of COVID-19 pandemic

About 1 in 5 Medicare Part D beneficiaries got an opioid through the drug benefit in the first eight months of last year, declining slightly at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new report found.

The report, published last month from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General (OIG), details opioid use as the pandemic took hold in March.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened concerns related to opioid misuse and overdose, as well as concerns related to access to treatment,” the report said. “Respiratory diseases, like COVID-19, are known to increase the risk of fatal overdose among people taking opioids.”

The report looked at opioid prescriptions from January through August of 2020. It found that for most months, about 1.1 million Medicare Part D beneficiaries are getting a short-term opioid prescription, which is roughly the same rate as in 2019.

But there was a significant decline in the spring of 2020. In April, the number fell to 727,505 beneficiaries, a major one-third decline.

“The decline is likely due to elective surgeries being postponed during the early months of the pandemic, particularly in April,” OIG said.

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On the other hand, the number of longer-term opioid descriptions were roughly the same rate, ranging from 3.2 million to 3.4 million a month. The totals were slightly less than in 2019.

In addition, there were about 220,000 Part D beneficiaries that got high amounts of opioids in the first eight months. Each beneficiary got the equivalent of 16 5-milligram oxycodone tablets every day for three months and have high risk of dependence and overdose.

“The number of beneficiaries receiving high amounts of opioids in the first eight months of 2020 decreased 15% from the same period in 2019,” the report said. “This downward trend is consistent with trends in previous years.”

Beneficiaries that also used medication-assisted treatment, however, did increase from January through August of last year. The number of beneficiaries getting the treatment increased from 121,000 in January to 126,000 in August.

“Despite these increases, concerns remain about access to drugs for medication-assisted treatment,” OIG said.

The report comes as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services enabled Medicare to cover treatment services for opioid use disorder such as drugs for medication-assisted treatment.