Sep 1, 2022 - Health

Pandemic telehealth reforms increased access to opioid-use disorder meds

Illustration of a phone wearing a doctor's coat and a stethoscope.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Pandemic-era reforms allowed more Medicare beneficiaries to use telehealth to obtain opioid-use disorder drugs, stay in treatment and avoid overdoses, a new JAMA Psychiatry study found.

Why it matters: The vast majority of people who need treatment for a substance-use disorder don't get it, and the researchers fear the addiction crisis could worsen if COVID-19 allowances on telehealth and prescribing aren't made permanent.

What they found: Researchers compared two cohorts of Medicare beneficiaries before and during the pandemic and found that more people during the pandemic had access to treatments like methadone, buprenorphine and extended-release naltrexone and had lower odds of having to be treated for overdoses.

  • But very few people were still receiving treatment 80 days after initiating it.
  • About one in eight Medicare patients studied received telehealth services for their opioid-use disorder during the pandemic, compared to one in 800 pre-pandemic.
  • Black people had lower odds of getting telehealth treatment for their opioid-use disorder and staying in treatment, and overdose rates were higher among Black people, Native Americans, Asian people and Pacific Islanders.

Go deeper: Treatment for opioid-use disorder and other substance-use disorders was heavily regulated prior to the pandemic, from in-person prescribing requirements to limited treatment center locations.

  • Some researchers fear that the expiration of pandemic reforms with the end of the public health emergency will reverse progress and are advocating for telehealth and take-home dosing to continue.
  • "This study adds to the evidence showing that expanded access to these services could have a longer-term positive impact if continued," Wilson Compton, deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and study author, said in a news release.
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