July 21, 2020

A proactive approach to addressing the opioid epidemic

Timothy C. is grateful for his doctor’s help in treating his opioid use disorder. During our 75th year, we reflect on our progress in addressing the epidemic.

“You know you have a problem when you can’t sleep at night and you’re irritable and you’re miserable, and you don’t want to be around people. That’s when you know the opiate has taken over,” Timothy C. said.

Longtime Kaiser Permanente member Timothy first started taking a synthetic opioid to treat a back injury. The drugs helped, but soon he felt like he needed more and more to get rid of the pain. It wasn’t long before he realized he had a problem.

“I tried to cut the medication out myself, and I couldn’t do it,” Timothy said. “I went through horrible withdrawals and felt terrible and couldn’t sleep, and my legs were kicking. That’s when I finally said, I can’t beat this stuff by myself. I need help.”

Getting help

Timothy went to see Lauren H. Grawert, MD, an addiction psychiatrist in our Mid-Atlantic States Region.

Working with Dr. Grawert, he began taking a medication that helps prevent opioid cravings and enrolled in a chemical dependency therapy program.

“The core of addiction treatment is therapy to learn how to live your life without drugs,” Dr. Grawert said. “There are a million little changes you have to make every day.”

The combination treatment worked for Timothy.

“Dr. Grawert changed my life, and I’ll be forever grateful to her,” Timothy said. “She listened to me, she heard the problem, and she knew that I was really struggling. I asked for help, and I haven’t touched an opiate or thought about doing an opiate drug in 3 1/2 years, and I’ll never go back.”

Ahead of the curve in addressing an epidemic

Timothy is far from alone in his struggle. In 2018, opioid overdoses killed more than 46,000 people in the United States, and Americans are now more likely to die from an accidental opioid overdose than in a car crash, according to a National Safety Council report.

The government declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency in 2017, but Kaiser Permanente has been a leader in opioid reduction for more than a decade.

As early as 2009, Kaiser Permanente doctors and pharmacists were concerned about potential risks associated with opioids. Providers from many different areas of care — including pharmacists, mental health and substance abuse specialists, and clinical researchers — collaborated to:

  • Limit opioid prescriptions, prescribing them when it’s safe and appropriate
  • Prescribe lower doses and shorter courses when opioids are medically necessary
  • Provide effective, patient-centered, nonopioid pain management alternatives
  • Help patients taper down to safer, lower doses — or discontinue use altogether
  • Eliminate brand-name opioids whenever possible to help prevent the drugs’ diversion into communities
  • Capture feedback throughout treatment and use critical health information to tailor care to a patient’s needs

Personalized care, strong outcomes

To supplement our opioid reduction efforts, Kaiser Permanente continues to look for new and better ways to address addiction and prevent overdoses. For instance, the drug that helped Timothy — a combination medication containing buprenorphine and naloxone — is helping many others detox more quickly and in an outpatient setting.

“People don’t have to take time off work, and they don’t have to be admitted to a hospital,” Dr. Grawert said.  

Our approach to care is tailored to each person’s unique situation, because giving people a chance for a better life — a chance to experience more healthy years — is why Kaiser Permanente exists.

“This is a story of success,” Timothy said, “and I’ll forever be grateful to Kaiser Permanente and to Dr. Grawert.”


How to get help

Our addiction care services are available to all Kaiser Permanente members, including our medication and detox services, which we’re providing with COVID-19 safety precautions in place. Our support groups, many of which are now virtual, are still going strong. Go to kp.org/mentalhealth to get connected to care.

Help also is available at SMART Recovery, and family and friends of those dealing with substance use disorders can access a number of resources through Al-Anon Family Groups.

For immediate help for a mental health crisis, including thoughts of suicide, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.


A history of leading the way

In 2020, our 75th year, we’re recognizing how our leadership in health and health care along with our focus on innovation — past, present, and future — support our mission of delivering high-quality, affordable health care. Our vision is to help our members and the people in our communities experience more healthy years. Learn more about our history of leading the way.