Obama administration will expand access to opioid treatment drug

Pharmacist medication

In an effort to get more opioid addicts into treatment, the Obama administration plans to allow doctors to treat more patients with buprenorphine, a drug used to treat opioid use disorders.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will issue a final rule that will allow each doctor qualified to prescribe buprenorphine to as many as 275 patients, the White House announced today.

The rule, finalized today by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, allows practitioners with a waiver to prescribe the medication for up to 100 patients a year to now obtain a waiver to treat more patients. To obtain the waiver, practitioners must have additional credentialing in addiction medicine or addiction psychiatry from a specialty medical board or professional society, or practice in a qualified setting, HHS said in an announcement.

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The current 100 patient limit for prescribing buprenorphine has been a “barrier” to treatment, the White House said. “The rule aims to increase access to medication-assisted treatment and associated behavioral health supports for tens of thousands of people with opioid use disorders, while preventing diversion,” the White House announcement said.

While increasing the number of patients doctors can treat, the final rule falls short of the 500 patient limit proposed by a group of U.S. senators in a June letter to HHS.

The use of buprenorphine to treat addiction has been controversial. Critics say addicts are substituting one opiate to cure dependence on another, but proponents say use of buprenorphine is “evidence-based” treatment that works for people recovering from addiction to prescription opioids and heroin.

The lessening of the restriction to expand access to treatment is just one move planned by the Obama administration to reverse the country’s opioid epidemic. The White House is also reminding Congress, which is set to move to conference today on legislation for an opioids package, that the president wants $1.1 billion in new funding to help get more people into treatment.

Other steps planned by the White House include strengthening of prescription drug monitoring programs, enabling the safe disposal of unneeded drugs, and accelerating research on pain and opioid misuse and overdose. The government will now require all Indian Health Service opioid prescribers and pharmacists to check their state database before prescribing or dispensing any opioid for more than seven days, HHS said.

- read the White House announcement
- read the HHS announcement