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Growth in use of medications to treat opioid use disorders stalled during pandemic, study finds

The pandemic was accompanied by an increase of opioid overdose deaths

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — A new study published in JAMA Network Open found that expanding access to medications to treat opioid use disorders stalled during the COVID-19 pandemic. The study, by researchers at RTI International, a nonprofit research institute, specifically examined buprenorphine dispensing to Medicaid beneficiaries and found that, amid the pandemic, it flattened.

The stall in buprenorphine dispensing marked the end of a steady upward trend for Medicaid beneficiaries, according to the study. It also occurred while overdose deaths accelerated, reaching an unprecedented 100,000 overdose deaths annually.

“Our findings add to a body of evidence showing that people faced barriers to accessing opioid use disorder treatment during the first year of the pandemic,” said William Dowd, a research economist at RTI and lead author of the study.

Dowd and co-author Tami Mark, Ph.D., a Senior Fellow in behavioral health financing and quality measurement at RTI, used Medicaid data from all states from 2018 to the end of 2020.

Prior to the pandemic, fewer than 50% of Medicaid beneficiaries with an opioid use disorder received medication to treat their disorder, but the gap had been closing. Average units of buprenorphine per prescription increased during the pandemic but not enough to offset the decline in prescriptions, the study notes.

“Overdose deaths soared during the pandemic, and while we can’t directly link these findings to that trend, it is very concerning,” said Mark. “Longer-duration prescriptions were a good-faith effort on the part of policymakers and clinicians to offset fewer in-person visits, but ultimately the first year of the pandemic represented a setback to progress being made in getting patients with opioid use disorder access to lifesaving medications.”

View the full study