By: Laura Summers
Note: The opinions expressed are those of the author alone and do not reflect an institutional position of the Gardner Institute. We hope the opinions shared contribute to the marketplace of ideas and help people as they formulate their own INFORMED DECISIONS™.
Right now it seems that all anyone can talk about is COVID-19, and rightly so. We are in the midst of a life-threatening public health crisis that has shut down our economy and forced Americans to change the way we do business, interact with our families, and live our everyday lives. And while the magnitude of these changes cannot be overstated, it is important to remember that our country and state continue to deal with other public health issues amidst COVID-19, issues that result in thousands of deaths per year and impact individuals, families, and local economies.
Just over 67,000 Americans died from a drug-related overdose in 2018.[i] Drug overdose is the leading cause of injury death in Utah,[ii] and opioid-related drug overdoses are a significant contributor to the rise in drug overdose deaths in recent history.
Fortunately, opioid use disorder (OUD) can be treated. Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) is “a combination of psychosocial therapy and U.S. Food and Drug Administration–approved medication”[iii] and has positive, evidence-based effects on OUD.[iv] However, large-scale adoption of MAT is still relatively new, and system gaps and barriers limit both access to and availability of this treatment.
On April 13, the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, with support from The Pew Charitable Trusts, released a study of MAT in Utah. This study (1) assesses the current availability of MAT in Utah using an inventory of medication treatment options in the state, and (2) highlights gaps in services, barriers to providing and accessing care, and considerations for improving the system—based on ideas developed from discussion groups and interviews held with a range of industry stakeholders.
One of the considerations for improving the system suggested by discussion groups is to increase the availability of MAT by promoting virtual treatment options and coverage of telehealth, tele-prescribing, and tele-psych services. It was noted that these virtual options are important for any area that lacks access to doctors who are certified to prescribe OUD medications or behavioral health therapists; however, this problem is typically magnified in rural areas where the nearest prescribing doctor, MAT program, or residential detoxification facility can be hours away.
Interestingly, some positive points that have developed from the public health emergency issued in response to COVID-19 are changes in federal, state, and facility-level policies to allow greater use of telehealth. And local support services, like Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness (USARA), are moving some of their services online and sharing information on other online recovery resources.
While the indirect impacts from COVID-19 are yet to be seen on rates of drug use and misuse, OUD is a public health concern that existed before and will continue to exist after this pandemic ends. Understanding system gaps and barriers that limit both access to and availability of MAT, and continuing successful policies and programs developed in response to COVID-19, will help to ensure an adequate and sustainable system of MAT in Utah.
Laura Summers is the senior health care analyst at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
[ii] Public Health Indicator Based Information System (IBIS), Utah’s Public Health Data Resource. Utah Department of Health.
[iii] Medication-Assisted Treatment Improves Outcomes for Patients with Opioid Use Disorder. (2016, November). The Pew Charitable Trusts.
[iv] Wakeman, S., Larochelle, M., Ameli, O., et al. (2020, February). Comparative Effectiveness of Different Treatment Pathways for Opioid Use Disorder. Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).