Growth in Buprenorphine Waivers for Physicians Increased Potential Access to Opioid Agonist Treatment, 2002-11

Published in: Health Affairs, v. 34, no. 6, June 2015, p. 1028-1034

Posted on RAND.org on June 10, 2015

by Andrew W. Dick, Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, Adam J Gordon, Mark J. Sorbero, Rachel M. Burns, Douglas L. Leslie, Bradley D. Stein

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Opioid use disorders are a significant public health problem, affecting two million people in the United States. Treatment with buprenorphine, methadone, or both is predominantly offered in methadone clinics, yet many people do not receive the treatment they need. In 2002 the Food and Drug Administration approved buprenorphine for prescription by physicians who completed a course and received a waiver from the Drug Enforcement Administration, exempting them from requirements in the Controlled Substances Act. To determine the waiver program's impact on the availability of opioid agonist treatment, we analyzed data for the period 2002–11 to identify counties with opioid treatment shortages. We found that the percentage of counties with a shortage of waivered physicians fell sharply, from 98.9 percent in 2002 to 46.8 percent in 2011. As a result, the percentage of the US population residing in what we classified as opioid treatment shortage counties declined from 48.6 percent in 2002 to 10.4 percent in 2011. These findings suggest that the increase in waivered physicians has dramatically increased potential access to opioid agonist treatment. Policy makers should focus their efforts on further increasing the number and geographical distribution of physicians, particularly in more rural counties, where prescription opioid misuse is rapidly growing.

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