Is the opioid crisis a major plague involvingmillions of drug-addicted Americans? Not so, says new researchpresented by Castlight Health.

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The benefits platform provider studied data from medical andpharmacy insurance claims and unearthed a trove of insightfulinformation about the use and abuse of opioids. While Castlightcharacterized opioid abuse as a severe crisis, its data suggeststhat the actual number of people who account for most of the opioidabuse is a small one. Yet that small number has created a seriousproblem.

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The big-picture finding: Just 4.5 percent of those who havereceived a prescription for an opioid drug are opioid abusers, and they account fornearly a third of total opioid prescriptions and 40 percent ofspending on opioid scripts in the U.S.

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Digging deeper, Castlight found that this abuser populationcosts employers nearly twice the total medical spending per year asdo non-abusers. Castlight estimated that opioid abusers take anearly $8 billion chunk out of employers’ budgets each year. Itestimated the total number of abusers at two million, and saidabuse drains about $65 billion a year from the Americaneconomy.

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Some of the findings were less than surprising.Examples:

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Baby boomers are four times more likely to abuse opioidsas Millennials, perhaps because they are older and experiencemore chronic pain.

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Patients with a behavioral health diagnosis of any kind are three times more likely to abuse opioids than those without one.

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Opioid abusers have twice as many pain-­related conditions as non-­abusers.

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Yet other findings may open new paths to addressing opioidabuse. For instance:

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States that have legalized marijuana at least for medicalpurposes report a significantly lower instance of abuse than stateswhere pot continues to be illegal (2.8 percent compared to 5.4percent).

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The nation’s lowest-income geographic areas have twice theopioid abuse as do the highest-income areas.

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The South is home to more opioid abusers as a percent of thepopulation than any other part of the country. Of the cities withthe highest incidence of opioid abuse, the first 13 were south ofthe Mason-Dixon line, with four Alabama cities in that group.

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What’s to be done? Castlight said a very good starting pointwould be more research like this report, to better define the scopeof the crisis and to create a targeted response where taxpayers andemployers could get better bang for their buck.

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“Harnessing powerful data and analytics can help employersbetter understand which employee populations have potentiallyhigher rates of opioid abuse, and engage them with the rightinformation at the right time so they can make better healthchoices,” the report concluded.

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Dan Cook

Dan Cook is a journalist and communications consultant based in Portland, OR. During his journalism career he has been a reporter and editor for a variety of media companies, including American Lawyer Media, BusinessWeek, Newhouse Newspapers, Knight-Ridder, Time Inc., and Reuters. He specializes in health care and insurance related coverage for BenefitsPRO.