Drug-store chain CVS Health announced Thursday that it will limit opioid prescriptions in an effort to combat the epidemic that accounted for 64,000 overdose deaths last year alone.
Amid pressure on pharmacists, doctors, insurers and drug companies to take action, CVS also said it would boost funding for addiction programs, counseling and safe disposal of opioids.
The company's prescription drug management division, CVS Caremark, which provides medications to nearly 90 million people, said it would use its sweeping influence to limit initial opioid prescriptions to seven-day supplies for new patients facing acute ailments.
It will instruct pharmacists to contact doctors when they encounter prescriptions that appear to offer more medication than would be deemed necessary for a patient's recovery. The doctor would be asked to revise it. Pharmacists already reach out to physicians for other reasons, such as when they prescribe medications that aren't covered by a patient's insurance plan.
The plan also involves capping daily dosages and initially requiring patients to get versions of the medications that dispense pain relief for a short period instead of a longer duration.
CVS CEO Larry Merlo told USA TODAY that the company had often been asked to fill prescriptions of 30 to 60 of the powerful pills at a time for conditions that required a much more limited amount.
"We see that all too often in the marketplace, and we believe it’s appropriate to limit those prescriptions to a much more moderate and appropriate supply," he said. "We think this can help make an impact."
He declined to wade into the debate over the role of drug companies, physicians and others in causing the crisis.
"From my perspective, it’s not a blame game at this point," he said. "I think as health care stakeholders we all play an important role in being part of the solution."
Separately, CVS rival Walgreens announced plans for a new marketing campaign aimed at educating teenagers about the danger of opioids.
Taken together, the initiatives reflect an increasingly active role on behalf of two of the nation’s largest retailers in combating a deadly epidemic.
The White House has declared this week as Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week.
President Trump recently announced plans to declare the opioid crisis as a national emergency, though the official declaration was still under a legal review as of last week. The move could free up certain federal resources to tackle the epidemic.
With more than 9,600 locations, CVS said it would also empower its pharmacists to proactively educate patients about the dangers of opioids and encourage shorter prescriptions to prevent addictions.
"The whole effort here is to try to reduce the number of people who are going to end up with some sort of opioid addiction problem," CVS Chief Medical Officer Troyen Brennan said in an interview.
Pharmacists are the front lines of prescription drug distribution and so can play key roles in educating consumers about the dangers of opioids, said Mohamed Jalloh, spokesman for the American Pharmacists Association.
"Pharmacists are going to be stepping up their role to be able to spot questionable behavior," he said.
One area where the nation's largest drug-store chains are increasingly active is in providing safe ways to dispose of excess opioids. CVS said it would add safe disposal kiosks to 750 of its stores.
Walgreens, which does not have a pharmacy benefits manager like CVS and thus cannot limit prescription dosages on its own, has already stationed disposal kiosks at about 600 pharmacies throughout the country, spokesman Phil Caruso said.
Walgreens on Wednesday also launched a new marketing campaign dubbed “#ItEndsWithUs," featuring "13 Reasons Why" actor Brandon Larracuente highlighting the risks of opioids and new online resources.
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