Feb 2, 2024 - Health

U.S. permanently eases some opioid treatment restrictions

Illustration of a person at a computer wearing medical gloves with a lightbulb on the screen

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Pandemic-era policies that made it easier for patients to receive opioid addiction treatment will continue permanently, the Biden administration announced this week.

Why it matters: The changes mark the first time in 20 years the federal government has updated rules governing clinics that provide medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder.

  • Years into the nation's opioid crisis, only about 1 in 5 people with opioid addiction received medication to treat it in 2021.

Details: The finalized policy will allow patients to take home doses of the opioid addiction treatment methadone. Patients will also be able to start on methadone or buprenorphine, another opioid addiction treatment medication, via telehealth.

  • Before the pandemic, patients taking methadone had to go in person to an opioid treatment clinic each day to receive treatment. Those rules were relaxed during the pandemic to help reduce infection risk.
  • Federal health officials cited reports that those flexibilities increased treatment and patients' satisfaction with their care without notable increases in diversion of methadone, which itself is an opioid.
  • The policies could especially help people in rural areas, where providers are in short supply.

Of note: The rule ends a requirement that patients have a yearlong history of opioid misuse before getting admitted to an opioid treatment clinic.

  • It also allows nurse practitioners and physician assistants to order opioid use disorder medications where state laws permit it.

What's next: Congress is debating whether to expand addiction treatment as part of a government funding package that could pass in March, but lawmakers disagree on the details.

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