Senators ask Department of Health and Human Services to ensure opioid treatment drugs available

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A group of Senators has asked the Trump administration to ensure that those recovering from opioid use disorder can still access medication-assisted treatment during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Friday, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Edward Markey (D-MA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) called the agencies to increase the number of patients physicians are authorized to treat with buprenorphine from 275 to 500 and to process requests for emergency patient –limit increases immediately.

The Senators said barriers to treatment, the risk of respiratory problems, and the dangers of treatment interruption are magnified for opioid use disorder patients during this pandemic, putting them at greater risk of relapse, overdose, and death.

“You can and should take immediate action to ensure that patients with OUD are not denied the medication they need, do not exacerbate the strain on our nation’s emergency departments and hospitals, and, most importantly, are not added to the COVID-19 death count,” the senators wrote. “We must empower our heroic health care providers to treat and save as many lives as possible in this time of crisis.”

The Senators said the unpredictable nature of COVID-19 and its strain on the healthcare system is why provisions granting DHHS Secretary Alex Azar power to increase patient-load were written into SAMSHA’s regulations.

“Those emergency provisions were intended to ensure continuity of treatment when “a State, tribal, or local system for substance use disorder services is overwhelmed or unable to meet the existing need for medication-assisted treatment as a direct consequence of a clear precipitating event,” the Senators wrote. “The coronavirus pandemic has already overwhelmed many of our state and local health care systems; many more will be unable to meet demand in the coming days and weeks. Moreover, the impact of COVID-19 on our health care system is unpredictable, which makes it all the more important that providers have flexibility to meet the needs of their patients.”

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