In 2012, the opioid crisis started to impact the life of Sharon White, now 53, from Lansdowne, Delaware County. White saw loved ones suffering from addiction and struggling to find resources to get better. She scaled back her commercial real estate business and decided to become a recovery specialist.
White got involved in the effort to expand access to naloxone — a medication that reverses opioid overdose — in the Commonwealth. In 2014, the General Assembly passed a law that allowed bystanders to administer naloxone when they witness an overdose. In 2015, Pennsylvania Surgeon General Dr. Rachel Levine signed a standing order for naloxone that allows anyone to buy naloxone without a prescription.
White went to a Walgreens next to her home, filled the required forms, and bought two doses of naloxone for $130.
A few months later, when White applied for a $50,000 life insurance policy, she was denied. A letter from Minnesota Life, now called Securian Financial, stated: “Our decision is based on your medication Naloxone.” Securian explained to the Inquirer editorial board that historically naloxone was on the prescription history of people who had addiction and that their physician was concerned that they were at risk of overdose.
Times, however, are changing. More than 46,000 people died of an opioid overdose in the U.S. in 2017. Flooding the nation with naloxone has become an integral part of the strategy to prevent overdose deaths. Last April, the surgeon general of the United States, Dr. Jerome Adams, issued an advisory calling on members of the public to obtain naloxone. Both the state and the city are giving out naloxone. In the fall, City Council passed a bill that requires every pharmacy in the city to stock naloxone.
But at the same time government entities are encouraging people to buy naloxone, reports suggest private insurers are flagging good Samaritans as high risk and denying them life insurance coverage.
The issue first surfaced in Boston in December when WBUR, Boston’s National Public Radio affiliate, reported that a nurse at Boston Medical Center’s addiction treatment program was denied life insurance because she bought naloxone. Following the reporting, the Massachusetts Division of Insurance instructed insurers to not deny insurance based on naloxone without further investigation.
In Pennsylvania, the state Insurance Department says it has not received any complaints on this issue — yet. That might be because some companies, such as Securian, changed their practices after the WBUR story. But as more people buy naloxone, without formal guidance from the state, people could be denied insurance down the road.
Instead of waiting for complaints, the Pennsylvania Insurance Department should be proactive. Rumors about insurance denial based on naloxone could discourage its purchase when it is needed most. Preventing this problem could be as simple as issuing guidance modeled after Massachusetts’.
Sharon White kept trying to get insurance. She was rejected a few more times, but after spending hours on the phone with underwriters, last week she finally got the policy that she wanted. She is doing her part to save lives. By issuing a simple guidance, the Insurance Department can do its part.
—The Philadelphia Inquirer