Cedar Rapids opioid panel highlights programs, need for initiatives

'We have a problem'

Joe Lock (second on right), president and CEO of Eastern Iowa Health Center, talks as Pramod Dwivedi (left), Health Dire
Joe Lock (second on right), president and CEO of Eastern Iowa Health Center, talks as Pramod Dwivedi (left), Health Director of Linn County Public Health, Lisa Gran (second on left), founder and CEO of Splashlight LLC, and Aaron Viertel (right), director of Clinical Management for TrueNorth Companies, look on during the Collaborating with Health Care Providers to Address the Opioid Epidemic panel hosted by the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition and CRUSH of Iowa at the Cedar Rapids Public Library in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, May. 22, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Linn County Public Health Director Pramod Dwivedi summed up this nation’s opioid epidemic with a nod to pop culture — “Houston,” he said, “we have a problem.”

The Cedar Rapids Public Library on Tuesday hosted a discussion that focused on efforts by health care and insurance professionals to address the opioid epidemic in the Cedar Rapids area.

Panelists at the discussion included Dwivedi; Eastern Iowa Health Center President and Chief Executive Officer Joe Lock; Lisa Gran, chief executive officer of Splashlight; and Aaron Viertel, director of clinical management at TrueNorth Companies.

The panel, moderated by former U.S. Attorney Kevin Techau, was hosted by the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition and the Community Resources United to Stop Heroin, or CRUSH.

Iowa had 183 opioid-related deaths in 2016, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

In March, the organization said more than 115 people in the United States die every day after overdosing on opioids. It cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures that report the total cost to the economy due to opioid misuse at $78.5 billion a year.

Each panelist Tuesday shared efforts being made to address the crisis in Iowa, such as the opioid steering committee led by the Linn County Public Health Department and the medicated assisted treatment program for those with substance abuse disorders at the Eastern Iowa Health Center. Both initiatives were established earlier this year.


However, the panelists identified a hurdle that still needed a solution — and that barrier comes from insurance companies.

Most experts have agreed the national opioid epidemic was caused by a combination of factors that included overprescribing by doctors and a push on opioid products from pharmaceutical companies.

It’s also been acknowledged in the past that companies that offer health care coverage for Americans are partially to blame. Prescription pills were the cheaper option for treating chronic pain, and too often, these insurance companies would not cover the cost of alternative treatments, such as physical therapy or acupuncture.

While that used to be true, TrueNorth’s Viertel said, insurance companies now are understand that they should be treating the whole person — behaviorally and physically.

“Yes, they’re coming along,” Viertel said in an interview with The Gazette following the panel. “But are they behind? I think we all are.

“This problem hit us, we ignored it and now it’s a crisis, so we’ll all have to work.”

But these companies still are among the biggest barriers to the issue, said Gran, who founded Splashlight, a company that aims to help companies identify and create cost-reduction programs for employees with high-risk health issues.

Gran said some insurers need a change in perspective on the issue of substance abuse, particularly when it comes to funding prevention and treatment options for its members.


“Ultimately, if you save one life or get one person off their prescription drug that is very expensive and they’ve been on for a year — if you look at the cost savings and value on investment, ultimately there’s a lot of cost savings and people are healthier,” she said.

Viertel was optimistic. Most insurance companies are focusing efforts on addressing the opioid epidemic among their members, he said.

“There’s good things insurance companies can do in light of the crisis now,” Gran said. “There’s a lot of attention, so they should have a really good opportunity to do good things.”

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