RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Researchers at RTI International (RTI), a nonprofit research institute, and the Texas State Board of Pharmacy, released a paper today in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) discussing the changes in outpatient buprenorphine dispensing—a medication used to treat opioid use disorder—during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The research showed that while there was a decline in existing patients, the overall number of patients receiving an outpatient buprenorphine prescription in Texas increased due to a near tripling of new patients.
In March, the Drug Enforcement Administration relaxed restrictions on outpatient buprenorphine dispensing in response to the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic as both a public health and national emergency. Revisions included the ability for waivered clinicians to prescribe to new patients via telephone or telemedicine, to prescribe to existing patients by any method, and encouraging the use of electronic prescriptions.
The researchers found that there was no change in the number of clinicians prescribing buprenorphine for opioid use disorder, but there were positive changes among existing prescribers. In addition to increases in new patients, the number of days per prescription increased, and prescriptions were more likely to be ordered by electronic prescribing.
“The easing of federal regulations to decrease barriers to buprenorphine for opioid use disorder since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic is associated with positive changes in access to this lifesaving medication,” said Jessica Duncan Cance, a research public health analyst at RTI and lead author on the study. “We feel that the association between the recent changes in federal regulations and positive changes in the dispensing of buprenorphine for opioid use disorder in Texas supports a need for policymakers to evaluate whether these temporary changes should be made permanent.”
Buprenorphine is an evidence-based treatment for opioid use disorder consistently shown to reduce the likelihood of drug overdose and improve quality of life for individuals living with opioid use disorder. However, the dispensing of buprenorphine for opioid use disorder treatment in outpatient settings requires clinicians to obtain a “waiver” to prescribe and adhere to strict federal regulations.
The researchers studied data from the Texas Prescription Monitoring Program, which tracks all controlled substances distributed by Texas pharmacies to Texas residents. They studied changes in outpatient buprenorphine dispensing, comparing 90 days prior to the presidential declaration of COVID-19 as a national emergency (Dec. 15, 2019-March 13, 2020) and 90 days following the declaration (March 14, 2020-June 11, 2020).
To read the full paper click here.