Policies to Support a Better Treatment for Heroin and Prescription Opioid Abuse: Unlike Methadone, Buprenorphine Can Be Taken at Home, but Greater Access is Key
Dec 17, 2015
Published in: The Milbank Quarterly, v. 93, no. 3, Sep. 2015, p. 561-583
Posted on RAND.org on September 10, 2015
Context: Opioid use disorders are a significant public health problem. In 2002, the FDA approved buprenorphine as an opioid use disorder treatment when prescribed by waivered physicians who were limited to treating 30 patients at a time. In 2006, federal legislation raised this number to 100 patients. Although federal legislators are considering increasing these limits further and expanding prescribing privileges to nonphysicians, little information is available regarding the impact of such changes on buprenorphine use. We therefore examined the impact of the 2006 legislation--as well as the association between urban and rural waivered physicians, opioid treatment programs, and substance abuse treatment facilities--on buprenorphine distributed per capita over the past decade. Methods: Using 2004-2011 state-level data on buprenorphine dispensed and county-level data on the number of buprenorphine-waivered physicians and substance abuse treatment facilities using buprenorphine, we estimated a multivariate ordinary least squares regression model with state fixed effects of a state's annual total buprenorphine dispensed per capita as a function of the state's number of buprenorphine providers. Findings: The amount of buprenorphine dispensed has been increasing at a greater rate than the number of buprenorphine providers. The number of physicians waivered to treat 100 patients with buprenorphine in both rural and urban settings was significantly associated with increased amounts of buprenorphine dispensed per capita. There was no significant association in the growth of buprenorphine distributed and the number of physicians with 30-patient waivers. Conclusions: The greater amounts of buprenorphine dispensed are consistent with the potentially greater use of opioid agonists for opioid use disorder treatment, though they also make their misuse more likely. The changes after the 2006 legislation suggest that policies focused on increasing the number of patients that a single waivered physician could safely and effectively treat could be more effective in increasing buprenorphine use than would alternatives such as opening new substance abuse treatment facilities or raising the overall number of waivered physicians.