(AP) – The Biden government is easing decade-long requirements that made it difficult for doctors to treat opioid addiction with drugs.
New guidelines announced Tuesday mean doctors and other health workers will no longer need to spend extra hours prescribing buprenorphine, a gold standard drug that helps with cravings. And they no longer have to refer patients to counseling services.
Under the relaxed guidelines, prescribers can treat up to 30 patients at the same time with the drug. It comes in a pill or film that dissolves under the tongue. It costs about $ 100 a month. A common version of buprenorphine is Suboxone.
Because of the effects of opioids on the brain, people who depend on them get sick when they stop using them. Withdrawal can feel like a bad flu, with cramps, sweating, anxiety, and insomnia. The cravings for the drug can be so strong that relapses are common.
Buprenorphine helps by switching a patient from strong pain relievers or an illegal opioid like heroin to a regular dose of a legal opioid-based drug.
In addition to doctors, nurses, medical assistants, certified midwives, and some other types of nurses can also prescribe buprenorphine without first having received special training.
The Trump administration has tried to make a similar change in the past few days, but it could only have applied to doctors.
The Biden administration put the matter on hold for legal and policy review and eventually decided to extend the simpler guidelines to more prescribers.
“It offers more ramps to treatment,” said Brendan Saloner, an addiction researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “This will help in health centers, hospitals, prisons and jails – places where these people sometimes show up for treatment.”
More stringent requirements remain for prescribers who wish to treat more than 30 patients at a time.
The prescribing requirements come from the legislation of 2000 to prevent too easy access to a medicinal product with its own potential for abuse. But only a small number of doctors walked the steps and in many parts of the country patients could not find a prescribing doctor. Ironically, doctors could prescribe buprenorphine for pain without additional training.
The number of deaths from overdose in the US has increased during the coronavirus pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 90,000 overdose deaths in the twelve months to September, the highest number ever recorded in a year. Data is not yet available for 2020 as a whole and the figures are preliminary.
The change “will increase the number of prescribers and the number of patients receiving prescriptions,” said Deputy Health Minister Dr. Rachel Levine.