A major health insurer in Maine has reported a 15 percent decline in the number of opioid prescriptions written for its customers during the past year.

The announcement Wednesday by Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield follows growing evidence that overprescription and abuse of opioids such as Oxycontin and others have largely fueled the sharp increase in heroin addiction and overdose deaths that averaged more than one per day in Maine last year.

Anthem compared the prescriptions written from June 30, 2016 to June 30, 2017 to the same period a year earlier for Anthem clients.

The company credited its policies, including a requirement that those at risk of addiction must fill their prescriptions at only one pharmacy or through only one doctor to prevent patients from getting multiple prescriptions.

Maine also passed a law that limits opioid prescriptions. The law, which some experts said is the strictest in the nation, was approved in 2016 but did not fully go into effect until January.

The law follows on the heels of Maine Department of Health and Human Services Medicaid reforms that reduced opioid prescriptions to Medicaid patients.

Gordon Smith, executive vice president of the Maine Medical Association, a group that advocates on behalf of physicians before the Legislature, said the message is getting out. Smith has been traveling around the state for more than a year giving presentations to doctor’s groups discussing the science behind limiting opioid prescriptions as well as the state law.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there’s no evidence opioids are effective at treating chronic pain. But four of five new heroin users first abused prescription opioids, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

The opioid epidemic worsened in 2016, with 378 Mainers dying from drug overdoses, an all-time record. Nationally, about 60,000 people died from drug overdoses last year, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and more people are killed by drug overdoses than vehicle accidents in the United States.

Smith said doctors have been increasingly receptive to prescribing fewer opioids once they see the scientific research.

“I think we are seeing a precipitous drop in opioid prescribing,” Smith said. “It confirms what we’re hearing up and down the state.”

According to the American Medical Association, Maine had a 21.5 percent decline in opioid prescribing from 2013-16, but the Anthem numbers are the first to capture a time period after the new law went into effect.

Colin Manning, Anthem spokesman, said the insurer has been “pro-active” in reducing opioid prescribing.

“We have taken a number of steps that have gone a long way in reducing the number of prescribed opioids,” Manning said.

About 244,000 Mainers have health insurance through an Anthem plan. About 700,000 Mainers are covered by a private insurance plan, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Community Health Options, two other major health insurers in Maine, did not immediately have comparable statistics available to share with the Press Herald.

Anthem has some stricter policies than the new state law on opioid prescriptions, including limits on the pharmacies used by patients at risk of addiction, and a requirement of prior authorization by Anthem for new opioid prescriptions used for chronic pain.

By comparison, the Maine law does not require prior authorization for prescriptions, although it does limit the dosage and length of opioid prescriptions.

Mitchell Stein, a Maine-based independent health policy analyst, said that while it’s possible insurance companies could see a financial benefit from cutting back on opioid prescribing. But Stein said he views Anthem’s policies as mostly motivated by being a “good corporate citizen” to help solve a public health crisis.

“They are being civic-minded, and don’t want to be seen as contributing to make the situation worse,” Stein said. “This is such a horrible epidemic, that any action taken to solve the problem is a positive.”

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

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