As COVID-19 spread throughout 2020, data shows that many people turned to alcohol to deal with stress and uncertainty related to the pandemic, as well as social isolation caused by lockdowns and other measures.
A study published in JAMA Network Open earlier this year found that alcohol consumption among adults increased by 14 percent from 2019 to 2020. Alcohol consumption by women increased by 41 percent. While moderate alcohol consumption can help manage stress, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to what’s known as alcohol use disorder.
According to the Mayo Clinic, alcohol use disorder is a pattern of alcohol use that involves problems controlling drinking, being preoccupied with alcohol, continuing to use alcohol even when it causes problems, having to drink more to get the same effect, or having withdrawal symptoms when you rapidly decrease or stop drinking.
Highmark’s claims data shows that more than 41,000 members were diagnosed with alcohol use disorder in 2019. Twenty-six percent of these member reside in western Pennsylvania, fifteen percent of these members reside in central Pennsylvania, seven percent of these members reside in northeastern Pennsylvania, seven percent of these members reside in Delaware and six percent of these members reside in West Virginia.
Alcohol use disorder can also be costly. Highmark spent more than $4 million in 2019 on members with alcohol use disorder who were hospitalized or treated in an Emergency Department.
Demographically, the data also shows that members with alcohol use disorder are 47 years old on average, and are primarily (70 percent) male, and more than 60 percent have two or more chronic medical conditions such as asthma and diabetes. Anxiety and depression were also present in members with alcohol use disorder.
“We are all under a lot of stress,” says Demetrios Marousis, director, Behavioral Health, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield. “The uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified our stress levels. And with lockdowns, social distancing and other measures put in place to slow the spread of COVID, many activities such as going to the movies, going to the gym, visiting with friends or traveling that were stress reducers in the past were unavailable.”
Marousis said the lack of outlets for stress reduction often led to alcohol consumption.
“But when the level of alcohol consumption becomes excessive and becomes a pattern as described by the Mayo Clinic, the individual may develop alcohol use disorder,” he said. “When members reach that point, Highmark offers treatment options as part of our benefits to help members deal with and overcome addiction.”
One new option for members is Ria Health, a technology-enabled telehealth medical practice that focuses on treating alcohol use disorder by combining medically assisted treatment with digital tools to help members track and record progress. The Ria Health team includes addiction medicine physicians, psychiatric nurse practitioners, psychiatrists, certified addiction counselors, and social workers to treat Highmark members.
The course of treatment typically includes consultation with a medical team, prescribed medication, virtual meetings with a personal coach and/or groups, and regularly tracking progress. All of this can be done on the member’s phone, said Marousis.
“While the level of access Ria Health offers is exceptional, we still see obstacles with our members getting appropriate behavioral health treatment in the form of stigmas in our society about getting help, that it is somehow a weakness,” Marousis said. “This can be particularly true with alcohol use disorder because, unlike illegal drugs, alcohol is so widely accepted in our society. But members need to know that there are treatment options such as Ria Health available to them that provide evidence-based care and are clinically effective.”
Highmark members can learn more about available behavioral health options by logging in to the member portal at member.highmark.com.
About Highmark Inc.
One of America’s leading health insurance organizations and an independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, Highmark Inc. (the Health Plan) and its affiliated health plans (collectively, the Health Plans) work passionately to deliver high-quality, accessible, understandable, and affordable experiences, outcomes, and solutions to customers. As the fourth-largest overall Blue Cross Blue Shield-affiliated organization, Highmark Inc. and its Blue-branded affiliates proudly cover the insurance needs of more than 6 million members in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York and West Virginia. Its diversified businesses serve group customer and individual needs across the United States through dental insurance and other related businesses. For more information, visit www.highmark.com.