Opioids are killing so many Americans that demographers say that they are likely behind a striking drop in life expectancy. Yet most of the more than two millions people addicted to opioid painkiller get no treatment. However, a small number of primary care doctors are starting to prescribe buprenorphine, a medication that helps suppress the cravings and withdrawal symptoms that plague people addicted to opioids. To really make a dent in this public health emergency, many more doctors may need to start prescribing buprenorphine.
A substantial amount of research has found that people who take buprenorphine are less likely to die and more likely to stay in treatment. It is an opioid itself, but relatively weak, activating the brain’s opioid receptors enough to ease cravings, yet not enough to provide a high in people accustomed to stronger drugs.
However, in half the counties in the United States don’t have a single buprenorphine prescriber. Doctors who do prescribe that drug have to follow strict federal requirements and live with the possibility that the Drug Enforcement Administration might inspect their office with no warning. Also, insurers require doctors who prescribe buprenorphine to jump through constant hoops to get the medication approved for their patients.
The Government and insurance companies must come up with solutions to minimize the red tape associated with prescribing buprenorphine. For now, doctors risk licensing discipline and insurance audits for using it to help addicts.