Medication treatment for opioid use disorder in the age of COVID-19: Can new regulations modify the opioid cascade?

J Subst Abuse Treat. 2020 Nov 14:108196. doi: 10.1016/j.jsat.2020.108196. Online ahead of print.


The temporary loosening of regulations governing methadone and buprenorphine treatment for opioid use disorder (OUD) in the U.S., instituted to prevent the spread of COVID-19, has created an opportunity to explore the effectiveness of new models of care for people with OUD. The opioid cascade describes the current status of the treatment system, where only a fraction of people with OUD initiate effective medication treatment for OUD (MOUD), and of those only a fraction is retained in treatment. Regulatory changes-such as availability of larger take-home supplies of methadone and buprenorphine initiated via telemedicine (e.g., no initial in person visit; telemedicine buprenorphine permitted across state lines)-could modify the cascade, by reducing the burden and increasing the attractiveness, availability, and feasibility of MOUD both for people with OUD and for providers. We review examples of more liberal MOUD regimens, including the implementation of buprenorphine in France in the 1990s, primary care-based methadone in Canada, and low-threshold buprenorphine models. Research is needed to document whether new models implemented in the U.S. in the wake of COVID-19 are successful, and whether safety concerns, such as diversion and misuse, emerge. We discuss barriers to implementation, including racial and ethnic health disparities, and lack of knowledge and reluctance among potential providers of MOUD. We suggest that the urgency and public spiritedness of the response to COVID-19 be harnessed to make gains on the opioid cascade, inspiring prescribers, health systems, and communities to embrace the delivery of MOUD to meet the needs of an increasingly vulnerable population.

PMID:33221125 | PMC:PMC7666540 | DOI:10.1016/j.jsat.2020.108196