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Report Finds An Opioid Addiction Medication Is Scarce In Places Which Need It Most


To another story now - a medicine effective in treating opioid addiction is not available in many areas of the country hit hardest by the opioid epidemic. That is according to a report from the Office of Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services. NPR's Patti Neighmond has more.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: The medication buprenorphine eases symptoms of withdrawal from opioids.

PAUL EARLEY: Chills alternated with sweats.

NEIGHMOND: That's Dr. Paul Earley, president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

EARLEY: Nausea, vomiting - the brain feels kind of agitated and restless all the time.

NEIGHMOND: And after withdrawal subsides, the drug dramatically reduces the craving for opioids. Earley says a big advantage of buprenorphine is that it's convenient for patients.

EARLEY: You don't have to go to a methadone clinic every day to get a dose of the drug. It can be prescribed and picked up in a pharmacy, and that individual can take that in the privacy of their own home.

NEIGHMOND: Most patients take the drug every day for years, many for the rest of their lives. Along with counseling and behavioral therapy, Earley says the treatment doubles, even triples, the likelihood people remain drug-free.

The problem is doctors authorized to prescribe the medication aren't in areas of the country that need them most. Ann Maxwell is an assistant inspector general with OIG.

ANN MAXWELL: For example, 40% of counties across the country don't have a single provider who is approved to prescribe buprenorphine.

NEIGHMOND: In fact, more than half of all U.S. counties hardest hit by the epidemic lack access to this treatment. Even in counties that do have providers, accessing treatment can be a challenge, especially if they live in rural areas of the state. Take Arizona.

MAXWELL: Most of the providers are grouped around Phoenix. And so if you lived - if you happen to live in the southwest corner of Maricopa County, you'd be looking at an estimated 115 miles to drive in order to get to treatment near Phoenix.

NEIGHMOND: And overall, physician Earley says the infrastructure for opioid addiction treatment is inadequate.

EARLEY: Because of how deep and wide the opioid epidemic is, there are insufficient people with experience in prescribing buprenorphine almost everywhere.

NEIGHMOND: Earley supports proposals to increase the number of doctors specializing in addiction treatment and get them to high-need areas. One idea is to help pay off medical school loans when doctors practice in areas with the biggest problems.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FELBM'S "MAKTENE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Patti Neighmond is NPR's health policy correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.