By David Pittman, Washington Correspondent, MedPage Today
Published: June 20, 2013
WASHINGTON -- Medicaid programs and health insurance companies are hindering access to FDA-approved drugs that treat opioid addiction, according to a report released Thursday by the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM).
The 216-page report -- called the "most comprehensive" on addiction medications to date -- showed wide variation in state coverage of opioid addiction medications, with many Medicaid programs requiring other treatments to fail before covering addiction drugs.
Furthermore, private insurance companies use techniques like prior authorization to restrict access to drugs like buprenorphine (Probuphine), methadone, and naltrexone (Vivitrol), the Chevy Chase, Md. group said.
The restrictions come at a time when the CDC has declared prescription opioid abuse and addiction an epidemic, with nearly 4 million Americans addicted to prescription opioids.
"We have effective ways of treating these devastating illnesses," Tom McLellan, PhD, chief executive and founder of the Treatment Research Institute -- the organization that conducted the study -- said at a press conference here. "Let's start using them."
A little more than half of state Medicaid programs (28) cover all three drugs, the report found. "However, it is important to note that the extent of coverage varies greatly among the states, and access requirements attached to any or all of these medications differ from one state to another," the authors wrote.
For example, prior authorization is required by Medicaid in 42 states for buprenorphine. Coverage limits for lifetime benefits and daily doses are also common.
The study of private insurance carriers found similar barriers in their health plans, with spotty coverage of products such as buprenorphine/naloxone (Suboxone) and injectable naltrexone.
The report shows that "we could be saving lives and effectively treating the disease of addiction if state governments and insurance companies remove roadblocks to the use of these medications," ASAM president Stuart Gitlow said at the press conference.
Removing those roadblocks, however, may be difficult for states and health plans.
Congressional limits exist on the number of patients physicians can prescribe to at once. "I have 100, and I have a waiting list of 270," Gitlow said. "I'm not coming anywhere near meeting the need, and those patients have nowhere else to go because the only other docs prescribing are full."
Also, prescribers also need a special Drug Enforcement Administration waiver created by the Drug Addiction Treatment Act of 2000 to prescribe certain opioid addiction drugs.
The FDA subjects buprenorphine-containing products to a rigorous risk evaluation and mitigation strategy (REMS) with several elements to assure safe use, including patient monitoring and prescriber certification programs. The agency has deemed the risk-benefit profile of such products unfavorable enough to try to restrict their access.
The report also examined studies that evaluated buprenorphine, methadone, injectable naltrexone, and oral naltrexone and concluded a benefit in patient outcomes as well as costs.
"I can say with no hint of opinion here, it's simple fact, they are all effective," McLellan said. "They're effective not just in reducing opioid use, they're effective in so many other ways that are important to societies and families."
He called these medications "underutilized," saying about 30% of treatment programs use such drugs and about half of the patients in those programs receive such medication.
Gitlow and McLellan called on growing a coalition of interested parties, including the various addiction medicine groups, to raise awareness on the issue and educate the public and policymakers about their needs.