Opioid Tablets (copy)

Opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen pills. File/AP

Three health care groups with some of the most powerful lobbying power in the Statehouse are announcing they will join in an effort to reduce the number of opioid prescriptions in South Carolina. 

The South Carolina Medical Association, the South Carolina Hospital Association and BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina are aiming to shift the conversation around pain and alternatives to opioid painkillers. The partnership is scheduled to last 18 months, though it could go on longer.

The three groups were already involved in Gov. Henry McMaster's Opioid Emergency Response Team. That team released a plan to tackle the epidemic in late June; it was formed after McMaster called the epidemic a public health emergency last year.

This new collaborative formalizes the relationship between the groups, said Schipp Ames, spokesman for the hospital association, in a statement.

The groups are still laying out a road map. The ultimate goal is to bring down the number of opioid prescriptions written in the state.

For three years between 2012 and 2014, South Carolina clinicians were giving more than one opioid prescription for every person in the state. The number dipped back down, though: About 89 prescriptions were dispensed for every 100 South Carolinians in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. March Seabrook, president of the S.C. Medical Association, said physicians own some, but not all, of the problem. He said the association is committed to being part of the solution.

"This is something that we can hopefully all sink our teeth in, that will bend the curve downwards in terms of opioid use and misuse," Seabrook said.

Dr. Matthew Bartels, chief medical officer for BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, explained the partnership will be about education and communication. As the largest private health insurance company in the state, BlueCross BlueShield is well-positioned to spread information about pain management.

"We look at this as our opportunity to speak to providers and the public about pain, in general," he said.

Bartels said the focus will be on alternatives, though that doesn't mean the insurer will change its current policies. Reimbursement for opioids will not change, and premiums will not increase.

There needs to be more acceptance of the reality of pain, said Dr. Kevin Walker, an anesthesiologist with the medical association. Some pain is normal.

Alternatives like physical therapy, massage and pain medications, like aspirin, will be given greater weight in the pain management equation, he said.

"They’re going to be in the forefront of the algorithm," Walker said.

Walker already runs a community forum on pain management. As information about the epidemic continues to spread, Walker said he has noticed more patients saying they would rather not be given an opioid prescription at all.

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.