UnitedHealthcare Confronts the Opioid Epidemic by Introducing Oral Health Programs and Policies

February 07, 2019
  • Approach includes pharmacy policy and informational campaigns for the public, dental health professionals and UnitedHealthcare dental plan participants 

  • Oral health professionals write 12 percent of all opioid prescriptions, including 45 percent of opioid prescriptions for adolescents1 – an age group especially vulnerable to addiction  

  • Efforts part of UnitedHealthcare's comprehensive approach to confronting the opioid epidemic, which causes more than 130 overdose deaths2 in the United States each day 

UnitedHealthcare, a UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH) company, has introduced oral health strategies to confront the opioid epidemic, building on a companywide approach to address the epidemic from all angles. The oral health approaches include:

  • Pharmacy Policy: All first-time opioid prescriptions written by dental health professionals for people age 19 and under are now capped at three days and fewer than 50 morphine milligram equivalents per day, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). Among the first dental plans to take this step for plan participants age 19 and under, this policy helps limit access to often unnecessarily large prescriptions and helps facilitate patient engagement to reduce the risk of misuse.  

  • Dental Plan Participants: All UnitedHealthcare dental plan participants with dependents ages 16 to 22 will receive information by mail about the risks associated with opioids, specifically in connection to wisdom teeth extractions. More than two-thirds (70 percent) of wisdom teeth extractions for people ages 16 to 22 result in at least one opioid prescription, so providing this information will help parents and young people better identify pain management alternatives and strategies to manage the frequency of use, dosage and proper disposal of unused opioids. A recent study from Stanford University found that teens and young adults can end up in a battle with opioid addiction following wisdom teeth removal.

  • Dental Health Professionals: Dental health professionals identified as among the top 10 percent of highest opioid prescribers in UnitedHealthcare's network – as measured by the number of days per supply and/or morphine milligram equivalents per day – last year received information about their status. Following UnitedHealthcare's outreach, prescribing patterns improved by 17 percent3. This informational campaign has now been expanded to include network dental health professionals that are in the top 20 percent of the highest prescribers in the UnitedHealthcare network.  

  • Public Service Announcements (PSAs): TV and radio PSAs – in collaboration with Shatterproof, a national nonprofit confronting the opioid epidemic – are now airing across the country, helping parents and health professionals understand the connection between oral health and the opioid epidemic.   

"Oral health is an important facet in the fight against the opioid epidemic and in helping reduce the misuse of these drugs, which is why UnitedHealthcare has introduced these programs," said Tom Wiffler, CEO, UnitedHealthcare Specialty Benefits. "Working together, we can help address this important national public health issue." 

The economic cost from the opioid epidemic exceeds $500 billion annually, according to a study from The Council of Economic Advisors.

UnitedHealthcare is also collaborating with health care providers and communities, and using powerful data and analytics to prevent opioid misuse and addiction, tailor ways to treat people who are addicted and support long-term recovery.

More information about UnitedHealthcare's efforts to address the opioid epidemic is available here.     

About UnitedHealthcare

UnitedHealthcare is dedicated to helping people live healthier lives and making the health system work better for everyone by simplifying the health care experience, meeting consumer health and wellness needs, and sustaining trusted relationships with care providers. In the United States, UnitedHealthcare offers the full spectrum of health benefit programs for individuals, employers, and Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries, and contracts directly with more than 1.2 million physicians and care professionals, and 6,500 hospitals and other care facilities nationwide. The company also provides health benefits and delivers care to people through owned and operated health care facilities in South America. UnitedHealthcare is one of the businesses of UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH), a diversified health care company. For more information, visit UnitedHealthcare at or follow @UHC on Twitter.

1 UnitedHealthcare pharmacy claims analysis representing more than 4 million claims, 2018
2 CDC/NCHS, National Vital Statistics System, Mortality. CDC Wonder, Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services, CDC; 2018.
3 UnitedHealthcare pharmacy claims analysis representing more than 4 million claims, 2018

opioid dental care
Key data points highlighting the often-overlooked connection between the opioid epidemic and dental care (Source: UnitedHealthcare).