Variability in opioid prescribing in veterans affairs emergency departments and urgent cares

Published:August 17, 2018DOI:



      The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) is the largest integrated health care system in the U.S., serving approximately 2.5 million Veterans in the Emergency Department/Urgent Care Centers (ED/UCC) each year. Variation in opioid prescribing by ED/UCC providers in the VHA is described.


      This is an observational study using administrative data from the VHA Pharmacy Benefits Management Services database to assess ED/UCC providers' opioid prescribing rates between October 1st, 2014 to June 30th, 2017 in 121 U.S. facilities. The opioid prescribing rate was defined as the number of opioid prescriptions written by the provider divided by the number of patients discharged from the ED/UCC by that provider, by quarter. A regression analysis was performed to estimate the association between time and prescribing rates by provider.


      Overall, the national trend in median prescribing rates decreased by 25.5% (p value = 0.00) from 9.1% ([range 1.5%–25.6%] to 6.4% [range 0.8%–21.8%]). The greatest rates of decline occurred between January 1st, 2016 to June 30th, 2017. The rate of provider opioid prescribing demonstrated wide variability between facilities (range: 0.5% to 39.1%). The prescribing rate for ED/UCC providers ranged from 0.2% to 100%. Between June 2016 and May 2017, 24 VHA ED/UCC providers were the highest opioid prescribers nationally in at least two of the four quarters (22%–70%), with rates two- to three-fold higher than their peers.


      ED/UCC providers in the VHA system nationally vary considerably in rates of opioid prescribing. A focused initiative tailored for ED/UCC providers is needed to decrease opioid prescribing variability.
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