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Biden Administration Struggles With Opioid Crisis Policies

Physicians scrambling to stop people from dying in the unyielding opioid crisis say Biden administration officials are working at cross purposes in their fight to reverse record numbers of fatal drug overdoses. Even as the administration implements a new law that makes it easier for doctors to prescribe a lifesaving drug to treat opioid use disorder, the Drug Enforcement Administration subjects the drug to such strict regulation that many are reluctant to dispense it. As a result, physicians and treatment advocates say, the DEA policy is inadvertently making it more difficult to reduce opioids’ toll: more than 80,000 lives in 2021, Politico reports. “It immediately becomes a bit of a paradox,” said Michael Lynch, an emergency physician and toxicologist in Pittsburgh who specializes in addiction medicine. While one arm of the government is trying to expand access to the drug, called buprenorphine, another is creating a choke point, he said. “Only so many of those prescriptions can actually end up getting filled.” The law, enacted in December, eliminated a requirement that practitioners go through time-consuming training to prescribe buprenorphine, which helps patients wean themselves from dangerous opioids like fentanyl or heroin. It also lifted restrictions on the number of patients doctors could treat with the drug.

Buprenorphine is itself an opioid, and access to it is controlled by the DEA. Doctors in several states said they have trouble getting patients’ buprenorphine prescriptions filled, as pharmacies and drug distributors try to avoid running afoul of the DEA system that tracks suspicious orders of controlled substances. Pharmacies and distributors are also anxious about legal jeopardy; members of their industries have already agreed to pay billions to settle allegations that their businesses fueled the national opioid crisis. DEA supports the new law and wants to see medication-assisted treatment accessible to everyone who needs it. The White House also said it is working on removing patients’ barriers to accessing buprenorphine. “Now that every prescriber of controlled substances can treat their patients who have opioid use disorder with buprenorphine, we are working with our federal partners to make sure people can access this lifesaving medication when they need it,” said Alex Barriger of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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