Why the New Opioid Legislation Is Critical to Fighting the Epidemic

By Sam Srivastava and Mostafa Kamal

This week, the federal government took a significant step forward in helping address the opioid epidemic with the signing of the nation’s first comprehensive opioid legislation.

The Substance Use Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment (SUPPORT) for Patients and Communities Act addresses a broad range of Medicare, Medicaid, public health and law -enforcement issues and aims to advance the recovery landscape for individuals living with opioid use disorder (OUD) and other substance use disorders (SUDs).

As longstanding advocates for access to mental health and substance use disorder treatment and services, we’re deeply appreciative of the bicameral, bipartisan work of the Congress to successfully drive this critical effort forward. The legislation contains a number of impactful policies we at Magellan Health, and many others, have pushed for, including those recommended in our testimony to Congress this past spring. These critical policies promote clinically appropriate opioid prescribing, support opioid misuse prevention, and enhance access to evidence-based treatment and recovery services.

The signing of this law marks a significant milestone and step in the right direction, and we believe there are several ways it has the potential to address some of the day-to-day challenges of the nation’s opioid epidemic. Three key areas stand out.

Safer prescribing patterns. The SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act encourages the use of safe and effective alternatives to opioids for pain management, which – in addition to clinically appropriate prescribing practices – are key in breaking the cycle of prescription opioid misuse. These include the establishment of grant programs incentivizing the use of non-pharmacological opioid alternatives, the required implementation of safety limits for opioid prescriptions, new electronic prescribing requirements in Medicare, and beneficiary screening requirements in initial Medicare prevention exams, to name a few.

Our experience demonstrates the power of these and other safe-prescribing interventions—such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s prescribing guidelines, which Magellan has already implemented—to reduce opioid misuse rates.

Americans consume 80 percent of all opioid painkillers produced worldwide—and the risk of addiction after just four or five days of treatment is high. Opioid prescribing rates have decreased in recent years thanks to nationwide efforts to ramp up provider education. Yet the supply of prescription opioids remains high – approximately 66.5 opioid prescriptions for every 100 Americans in 2016 – reflecting the work still needing to be done.

By exploring alternative therapies to pain management, including non-pharmacological digital therapies, we can eliminate the risk of opioid misuse and addiction, and also equip individuals living with chronic pain with the tools and resources needed to live healthier, more vibrant lives.

Boosted access to evidence-based treatment. One of the most effective, evidence-based treatments for OUD is medication-assisted treatment (MAT)—considered the gold standard for reducing the risk of overdose and death. When combined with psychosocial interventions, like cognitive behavioral therapy and contingency management, and recovery supports, including peer and family, MAT empowers the recovery journey while building resiliency.

Increasing access to MAT is critical to promoting recovery and preventing relapse. Today, while 900,000 U.S. physicians prescribe opioids, fewer than 35,000 physicians are certified to prescribe buprenorphine, one of three medications approved to treat opioid addiction.  Even fewer of these actually participate in prescribing MAT and, as a result, access to care is often limited or stigmatized. The SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act expands providers’ ability to prescribe MAT, including by expanding eligibility for certification to new provider types. With stigma also playing a role in the lack of widespread adoption of MAT, this provision is a solid and necessary step toward expanding access to treatment.

Reaching underserved communities. The SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act facilitates telehealth options for OUD treatment. In communities with limited resources for one-on-one OUD recovery support, telehealth services or a combination of virtual and in-office services provide the basis for the most evidence-based, person-centered and well-rounded approach to treatment. The package also authorizes pilot programs to provide temporary housing services for individuals recovering from OUD. We believe this is crucial to supporting those living with OUD and other SUDs, especially in rural and underserved communities, return to healthy and vibrant lives.

 The SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act provides practical policy solutions necessary for addressing this national crisis. From expanded treatment options, to more effective care coordination, to improved prescription drug monitoring programs used to enhance detection and prevention of opioid misuse in real time, this legislation is an important step in the right direction.

We applaud Congress and the Administration on this bipartisan effort and important law, which will have a deep and lasting impact on health for generations to come.

 About the authors:

Sam Srivastava is Chief Executive Officer of Magellan Healthcare, and Mostafa Kamal is Chief Executive Officer of Magellan Rx Management.

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