STUDY: Drug that helps people addicted to opioids is harder to get

by Keaton Thomas, KATU News

The opioid epidemic has grown. The odds you die from an accidental opioid drug overdose are greater than dying from a car crash. Still, researchers at Oregon Health & Science University say that a potentially helpful drug for people with Opioid Use Disorder has become harder to get.

The drug we’re talking about is called buprenorphine. Doctors say it helps prevent withdrawal symptoms.

OHSU researchers published their study in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Tuesday. They looked at Medicare Part D insurance plans and found that 89 percent of the plans covered buprenorphine without restrictions in 2007, but that shrank to 35 percent in 2018.

Buprenorphine is covered by most insurance plans, according to the OHSU study.

Dan Hartung, the lead author and a professor at the OSU/OHSU School or Pharmacy, told KATU News restrictions could mean a patient can’t get their prescription for a few hours, or a few days.

He estimates there are 300,000 people with Opioid Use Disorder with Medicare Part D.

“This is critical for these individuals to be given access to this medication because they could be vulnerable to returning to illicit drug use, or relapse or things like that,” Hartung said. “Any delays like this are going to be problematic for patients.”

The authors wrote, “The reasons for restrictions on buprenorphine might reflect inaccurate perceptions of drug risk, societal norms related to the stigma of addiction, or financial considerations.”

Todd Korthuis, who specializes in addiction treatment at OHSU, says buprenorphine helps people with Opioid Use Disorder feel normal again.

“It gets them out of that swing of ups and downs with heroin use and allows them to get their lives back together,” Korthuis said.

Korthuis typically recommends people use buprenorphine for about a year. He says people can go “cold turkey” or use buprenorphine to quickly detox, but it is not as effective.

“The cravings typically return right away. The risk of overdosing and dying from their next use of heroine dramatically increases. Buprenorphine takes that away by creating a normal situation just like insulin would create for someone from having a diabetic hypoglycemic episode,” Korthuis said.

Cathryn Donaldson, a spokesperson for America’s Health Insurance Plans, an advocacy group for health insurance companies, told KATU News everyone should have access to the medication they need.

The main restriction cited in the study was prior authorization for the drug.

Donaldson said in a statement, “Medical management tools, such as prior authorization, mean safe and effective use of MAT. These tools can also ensure the patient’s progress is monitored and the treatment plan is adjusted when needed. It’s important to note that medical management approaches may vary across health insurance providers and across private insurance and public programs.”