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Commentary

ESG Investment Program

First Quarter 2019

Key Takeaways
  • ClearBridge is engaging companies in the drug value chain to better control opioid distribution and develop therapeutic alternatives to opioids.
  • We have a history of engaging health care companies on anesthesiology and the adoption of non-opiate approaches to pain management.
  • As the opioid epidemic has increasingly affected employers, some property & casualty insurance companies have been proactively working to detect addiction and tailor rehabilitation.
A Multifaceted Approach to the Opioid Crisis

Opioid abuse has become such a serious issue that it is included in the UN Sustainable Development Goal #3, Good Health & Well Being, which includes a target to strengthen the prevention and treatment of substance abuse, including narcotic drug abuse. Appropriately used, opioids are an important and effective treatment for chronic and acute pain. They carry, however, the serious risks of misuse, addiction, overdoses and death. There is no profile of a typical user or potential misuser: according to The Hartford, one in three people will be prescribed opioids in their life. Athletes and office workers, teenagers and adults, family members and neighbors — anyone could be involved or affected by opioid misuse.

Since the prescription of opioids began to increase significantly in the 1990s, the number of opioid overdose deaths has likewise risen (Exhibit 1). So has the economic burden: one study estimated the total economic burden of fatal overdoses, abuse and dependence of prescription opioids to be $78.5 billion in 2013 alone.1 The opioid epidemic causes more than 130 overdose deaths per day in the U.S.2  Opioids were responsible for almost two thirds of all drug overdoses in the U.S. in 2015; roughly half of these involved prescription opioids. Yet even while prescribing rates have fallen from peaks in 2010–2012, the amount of opioids prescribed per person is still high — three times higher than in 1999.3

 

Exhibit 1: Rise in Opioid Overdose Deaths

As of 2017. Source: National Vital Statistics System Mortality File.

 

As an active investor in public equities, ClearBridge pursues a multifaceted approach to support efforts to reduce opioid addiction. ClearBridge is engaging companies in the drug value chain to better control opioid distribution and develop therapeutic alternatives to opioids. We are also supporting portfolio holdings in the insurance industry that identify those most at risk of opioid addiction and prevent dangerous cases before they begin. Helping efforts to reduce opioid addiction also aligns with our efforts to support UN Sustainable Development Goal #3, Good Health & Well Being.

Finding Solutions Across the Drug Value Chain

Patient access to opioids and lack of education on usage risks are primary contributors to the opioid epidemic. As a shareholder of companies across the drug value chain, ClearBridge encourages and supports these companies with the ability and the responsibility to act. Our roles as an active manager include engaging with distributors on their efforts to prevent potentially irresponsible dispensation of opioid drugs and investing in pharmaceutical companies developing therapeutic solutions.

ClearBridge portfolio holdings in the distribution segment of the value chain are working to stop inappropriate diversion of prescribed opioids. The key is that they not be overprescribed, either in cases where one patient’s prescription contains too much opioids at once or for too long a time, or where too many people are getting prescriptions, some unnecessarily. Distributors are making changes to how they operate to help fight the crisis. CVS Health, for example, has worked with other distributors to build a network of shared records, so one user cannot simply go to a different pharmacy to get a prescription filled. The company has also developed programs for the safe disposal of unused opioids, preventing discarded opioids from finding a market.

In addition, we have a history of engaging health care companies on anesthesiology and the adoption of non-opiate approaches to pain management. We have engaged CVS, Amerisource Bergen and UnitedHealth on how their pain clinic managers ensure appropriate opioid use.

Patients are also prescribed opioids for dental health care; dental health care professionals write 12% of all opioid prescriptions, almost half of which are for adolescents. A recent Stanford study found that routine painkillers prescribed to teens after wisdom teeth removal could contribute to opioid addiction in young adults.4

UnitedHealth has launched oral health programs and policies to reduce opioid access in a number of ways, such as limiting the level of the prescription through the UnitedHealth oral pharmacy policy, as well as mailing information about the risks and proper use of opioid prescriptions to patients with dependents from the ages of 16 to 22 years. In addition, UnitedHealth will track the dental professionals who are among the top 10% opioid prescribers in their network and notify them of their status. After being contacted, these professionals have reduced prescriptions by 17%. The program has been updated to flag the top 20% oral health prescribers. 

While opioids are the most prevalent and cost-effectiveform of pain management for many use cases, we are also investing in companies developing alternative therapeutic solutions. Portfolio companies Pacira Pharmaceuticals, Alkermes and Heron Therapeutics are developing opioid substitutes which would allow use of non-systemic pain relief in surgeries – long-acting local anesthetics that work just as effectively as systemic versions might even prevent initial opioid use.

 

"Long-acting local anesthetics can work just as effectively as systemic versions and might even prevent initial opioid use."

 

Pacira Pharmaceuticals manufactures and markets Exparel, a treatment that can serve as an alternative to alleviate post-surgical pain, a primary introduction point for opioid use. The current standard of care to manage post-surgical pain is oral or intravenous opioids and there are few
alternatives that offer pain relief as effectively. Exparel is a long-acting formulation of a well-known local anesthetic injected directly into the surgical site during a procedure to block pain locally, rather than systemically. By being given Exparel during surgery, patients can either avoid the use of post-surgical opioids or significantly reduce their dose and duration of use.

We have also discussed efforts to address the opioid crisis with pharmaceutical maker Alkermes. The company sells Vivitrol, a long-acting injectable drug that reduces the effect and craving for opioids. The drug is used as part of rehabilitation protocols, along with detoxification and therapy/counseling, and is clinically proven to decrease abuse relapse rates. Vivitrol is used instead of opioid replacement therapies like methadone. In addition to traditional drug marketing, Alkermes has engaged at all levels of government and the justice system to broaden the use of Vivitrol to combat the growing opioid addiction problem in the U.S, including in federal prisons.

Heron Therapeutics is a pharmaceutical maker with two commercial anti-nausea treatments for patients going through chemotherapy. We are excited about the prospects for a next-generation non-opioid painkiller in Heron’s pipeline (HTX-011) for post-operative pain that is expected to receive FDA approval around the middle of 2019. Heron is benefiting from fast-track approval procedures that have been established by the FDA to encourage innovation and that we believe can bring non-opioid treatments to market in a timelier manner.

Insuring a Better Approach to Use of Painkillers

As the opioid epidemic has begun to have a more and more tangible impact on employers, property & casualty insurance companies, such as ClearBridge holdings The Hartford and Travelers Insurance, have been proactively working to detect addiction and tailor rehabilitation. Due to in-house triage personnel, insurers have a unique perspective on the crisis in that they often have the first look at treatment and prescription trends that might involve opioid use. Both The Hartford and Travelers are fighting the opioid crisis by holistically working with doctors on diagnosis and treatment for employees in filing workers’ compensation claims.

Both The Hartford and Travelers are pursuing innovative programs to combat opioid addiction by using predictive analytics to identify drug-seeking behavior. The Hartford uses an analytics model that incorporates nonmedical psychosocial factors, such as subtle verbal cues, to identify claimants at higher risk of addiction. Using this model, The Hartford has seen opioid use on its claims drop by 25% from January 2015 to July 2016; the average morphine equivalent dose per claim decreased by 9% over that time frame as well.

Travelers has developed an Early Severity Predictor® to identify when an injured employee develops chronic pain, so it can work with employees and their doctors to eliminate or reduce the need for painkillers.

These programs help monitor and reduce the risks of addiction, which not only saves livelihoods and lives, but also benefits employers in terms of reduced lost work time, lost productivity and lower insurance costs. Since 2015, The Hartford has been able to help workers’ compensation claimants reduce opioid use by 43%.

ClearBridge supports and encourages these practices and makes them part of our long-standing conversations with Travelers and The Hartford. Our ownership of these companies is an example
of cases where smart ESG practices serve the interest of both shareholders and society.

Marshall Gordon

Senior Analyst - Health Care
19 Years experience
11 Years at ClearBridge

Mary Jane McQuillen

ESG Head, Portfolio Manager
23 Years experience
23 Years at ClearBridge

Stephen Rigo, CFA

Senior Portfolio Analyst
19 Years experience
3 Years at ClearBridge

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  • All opinions and data included in this commentary are as of the publication date and are subject to change. The opinions and views expressed herein are of the author and may differ from other portfolio managers or the firm as a whole, and are not intended to be a forecast of future events, a guarantee of future results or investment advice. This information should not be used as the sole basis to make any investment decision. The statistics have been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but the accuracy and completeness of this information cannot be guaranteed. Neither ClearBridge Investments, LLC  nor its information providers are responsible for any damages or losses arising from any use of this information. 

  • 1

    Florence CS, Zhou C, Luo F, Xu L. The economic burden of prescription opioid overdose, abuse, and dependence in the United States, 2013. Med Care 2016; 54:901–6 

  • 2

    Wide-ranging online data for epidemiologic research (WONDER). Atlanta, GA: CDC, National Center for Health Statistics; 2017. Available at http://wonder.cdc.gov.

  • 3

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vital Signs: Changes in Opioid Prescribing in the United States, 2006–2015. MMWR 2017; 66(26):697-704.

  • 4

    https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2018/12/opioid-prescriptions-from-dentists-linked-to-youth-addiction-risk.html.