The role of health plans in addressing the opioid crisis: A qualitative study

J Subst Use Addict Treat. 2023 Jun;149:209022. doi: 10.1016/j.josat.2023.209022. Epub 2023 Mar 17.


Introduction: Health plans are key players in substance use treatment in the United States, and the opioid crisis presents new challenges for them. This article is part of the HEALing Communities Study (HCS) funded by NIH, which seeks to facilitate communities' adoption of activities that might reduce overdose deaths, including overdose prevention education and naloxone distribution, medication for opioid use disorder, and safer opioid prescribing. We examine how health plans in one state (Massachusetts) are adapting to encourage and sustain activities that help communities to address opioid use disorder (OUD).

Methods: We conducted semi-structured interviews with managers of behavioral health services at eight health plans in Massachusetts that that have Medicare, Medicaid, and commercial lines of business. Two plans in this sample contract with a specialized behavioral health organization ("carve-out"). The interviewees also completed a survey on policies regarding access to treatment and opioid prescribing. Interviews were recorded and transcribed and analyzed using thematic analysis. Analysis of the data included intended influence of the policies at three levels: member level (micro), group or community level (meso), and system or institutional level (macro).

Results: All health plans developed strategies to increase access to treatment for OUD, primarily through eliminating or decreasing cost-sharing, eliminating pre-authorization for MOUD, and increasing supply of providers. Health plans encourage qualified practitioners to offer MOUD, but most do not provide incentives or training. Identifying high risk populations is a focus of health plans in this sample. Naloxone is a covered benefit in all health plans, although with variation in monthly limits and cost-sharing. Most health plans take measures to influence opioid prescribing. Health plans' activities are predominately aimed at the micro (member) level with little ability to influence at the macro (wider system-level changes).

Conclusion: This study provides insight into how health plans develop strategies to address the rise in OUD and fatal opioid overdoses, many of which are key in the HCS initiative. How active a role health plans play in addressing the opioid crisis varies, even within the insurance industry in one state (Massachusetts).

Keywords: Access to treatment; Health plans; Health policy; Opioid use disorder; Qualitative research.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Analgesics, Opioid* / adverse effects
  • Humans
  • Medicare
  • Naloxone / therapeutic use
  • Opioid Epidemic
  • Opioid-Related Disorders* / prevention & control
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'
  • United States


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Naloxone