Permanent Telehealth Flexibilities: A Game Changer in Addressing the Opioid Epidemic
Revolutionizing Treatment for Opioid Use Disorders
In a significant step towards addressing the opioid epidemic, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has finalized a rule making permanent telehealth flexibilities implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic. This action aims to improve access to care and provide a wider range of options for those suffering from substance use disorders. The changes include expanding eligibility for patients to receive take-home doses of methadone and permitting more provider types to order medications.
This move is expected to significantly reduce stigma and expand care access, particularly benefiting patients in rural areas or those with low income. Reliable transportation to treatment facilities has often posed a significant challenge to these groups, and the new regulation seeks to address this issue.
Telehealth: A Powerful Tool in the Fight Against Substance Use Disorders
Telehealth has emerged as a powerful tool in providing mental healthcare and treatment for opioid use disorder. The new rule allows opioid treatment programs to commence medication treatment via telehealth. This has the potential to prevent overdoses by ensuring timely access to necessary medications and treatments.
Moreover, the pandemic has prompted a rethinking of working conditions for healthcare professionals, including nurses and residents. Some have walked off the job and organized for the first time, highlighting the need for flexible and accessible treatment options for patients.
Updates to Opioid Treatment Program Regulations
The final rule also brings significant modifications and updates to certain provisions related to Opioid Treatment Program (OTP) accreditation, certification, and standards for the treatment of Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) with Medications for Opioid Use Disorder (MOUD) in OTPs. The rule makes permanent the flexibilities introduced during the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE), underscoring the focus on expanding access to care and evidence-based treatment for OUD.
In addition to this, the final rule also removes all language and rules pertaining to the Drug Addiction and Treatment Act (DATA) Waiver from the regulations pursuant to the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2023.
The Role of Congress in Expanding Telehealth Services
There is an increasing call for Congress to permanently extend telehealth flexibilities for opioid treatment programs, especially for prescribing buprenorphine remotely. The benefits of remote prescribing during the COVID-19 pandemic are significant, but many patients face challenges in accessing in-person treatment. The passage of the bipartisan TREATS and CONNECT acts would further advance telehealth for the treatment of OUD.
Biden-Harris Administration’s Continued Efforts to Combat Opioid Epidemic
The Biden Harris Administration has marked two years of advancements in HHS overdose prevention strategy with new actions to treat addiction and save lives. They have announced bold new actions to combat overdoses, including finalizing a rule that will expand access to life-saving medications for opioid use disorder and allowing certain grant funds to be used to purchase xylazine test strips. The administration has continued to dramatically increase the nation’s treatment and harm reduction capacity, with an average of 37,000 new patients per month seeking buprenorphine treatment.
Last year, President Biden invested nearly 8 billion to support the HHS programs implementing the strategy and bolstering the nation’s behavioral health infrastructure. HHS has updated opioid treatment program regulations for the first time in 20 years, seeking to dramatically expand access to life-saving medications for opioid use disorder and to reduce stigma. They have also approved federal grant funds to purchase xylazine test strips.
As the fight against the opioid epidemic continues, these adjustments to telehealth regulations represent a significant step forward. By making treatment more accessible and reducing the stigma associated with substance use disorders, there is hope that the tide can be turned on this critical public health issue.