Opioid addiction: Laws, regulations & other factors can affect medication-assisted treatment access

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The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has stated that addressing opioid abuse is a high priority and is promoting access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT)—an approach that combines behavioral therapy and the use of medications—to combat the problem. Three medications are currently approved for use in MAT for opioid addiction—methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone. Methadone and buprenorphine are regulated like other controlled substances under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) when used to treat pain and have additional requirements that apply when used to treat opioid addiction. The third medication—naltrexone—is not a controlled substance and is therefore not subject to the CSA. Methadone is a Schedule II controlled substance, which indicates a higher risk of abuse. Buprenorphine is a Schedule III controlled substance, with lower risk, and so generally has fewer requirements. For example, when used to treat pain, methadone generally may not be dispensed without a written or electronic prescription. In contrast, buprenorphine may be dispensed based on a written, electronic, or oral (phone) prescription. When used for opioid addiction treatment, the CSA and implementing regulations impose additional requirements for methadone and buprenorphine:
Methadone may generally only be administered or dispensed within an opioid treatment program (OTP), as prescriptions for methadone cannot be issued when used for opioid addiction treatment.
Buprenorphine may be administered or dispensed within an OTP and may also be prescribed by a qualifying practitioner who has received a waiver from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Practitioners who received this waiver are limited in the number of patients they may treat for opioid addiction.
In addition to laws and regulations, several key factors can affect patients’ access to MAT for opioid addiction, according to articles from peer-reviewed and scholarly journals, documents GAO reviewed, and interviews with agency officials and experts. Specifically, through these sources GAO identified the following key factors:
The availability of qualified practitioners and their capacity to meet patient demand for MAT. For example, there were approximately 1,400 OTPs in 2016. However, sources GAO reviewed stated that they are lacking in certain locations. Furthermore, some MAT practitioners may be operating at full capacity, leading to wait lists that can affect patients’ access to MAT.
The perceptions of MAT and its value among patients, practitioners, and institutions. Some practitioners do not believe that MAT is more effective than abstinence-based treatment—when patients are treated without medication—despite science-based evidence, and there are concerns that the medications will be misused.
The availability and limits of insurance coverage for MAT. Patients with no insurance coverage for MAT may face prohibitive out-of-pocket costs that may limit their access to it, and coverage for MAT varies for those individuals with insurance. In some cases, state Medicaid programs limit the length of time that patients can use MAT medications.


Related Topics

  • Behavioral Health
  • Medications for Addiction Treatment (MAT)
  • Medical Care
  • Policy