As part of its battle against the opioid epidemic, Aetna launched the Guardian Angel program, designed to provide personalized guidance and support to members who have suffered an opioid overdose. In this article, Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini explains why this program is such an important part of our efforts, and a critical lifeline to our members.
Health care should be personal, and it should help us during our most vulnerable, difficult times. There are few instances when this type of support is more necessary than when people end up in the emergency room because of a problem they can’t control any more.
Unfortunately, we are seeing this scene play out more and more frequently across the country. Emergency department visits for opioid overdoses rose 30 percent in all parts of the United States from July 2016 to September 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In order to address one of the biggest public health issues of this generation, we don’t just need to do more – we need to think differently about how to solve this problem. We have to connect with people during the times that they are most receptive to help, such as after an overdose.
Aetna recently launched the Guardian Angel program, which is intended to reach our members during this critical time. As soon as we learn that a member has had an opioid-related overdose, a specially trained case manager – a registered nurse who used to work in an addiction unit and is a certified Mental Health First Aid instructor – reaches out to educate that person on treatment options in their area. While our nurse case managers can refer the member to a local health care provider, they can also provide access to nearby social support services. More than anything else, they can serve as a lifeline for members and their families.
The first “Guardian Angel” nurse case manager has connected with hundreds of overdose victims over the past few months. Through her outreach, we are seeing the widespread nature of this epidemic: Individuals as young as 18, up to those in their 60s, from every corner of the country. But we are also seeing people who want help. We have been able to initially engage with 40 percent of the people that we have reached out to, which is two to three times greater than our usual rate for telephone-based care management programs.
Much more important than the numbers, we are hearing stories of people starting on a road to recovery. Some examples:
- A 22-year-old woman from Colorado who had two overdoses on fentanyl-laced heroin, now attending group therapy five times a week.
- A 63-year-old woman from Ohio who has battled a painkiller addiction for more than a decade, agreeing to start treatment and connect with local health care specialists.
- A 38-year-old man from Missouri – a single father with a 9-year-old daughter – who asked our nurse case manager about starting on Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) immediately.
While these stories are encouraging, we understand that they are just a small step, and that we need to work with all parts of the health care system to address this epidemic. With that in mind, the Aetna Foundation announced two grants totaling $1 million to the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association (FADAA). Conducted in collaboration with the Florida Hospital Association and the Florida College of Emergency Physicians, the effort is intended to provide individuals with opioid use disorder with access to treatment services at a time when there is the greatest opportunity to intervene and address the addiction. This follows the model we developed with grants earlier this year in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, working with state leaders and community organizations to develop local solutions.
These programs, along with other elements of Aetna’s multifaceted approach to reduce opioid use and abuse, won’t solve the opioid epidemic on their own. But we know that they can positively impact people’s lives.
And I know from personal experience how important that type of support can be. After I suffered a severe skiing accident in 2004, doctors prescribed me a number of opioid-based painkillers. While it never got to the level of addiction, I absolutely needed help to figure out a way to manage my pain without prescription medication.
I was fortunate enough to meet people that helped me along my journey, and I’m forever grateful to them. My hope is that some of our members who are in these situations will eventually have the same types of feelings about the Aetna “guardian angel” who made a difference in their lives.