Opioid Public Health Emergency Declaration Means More Telehealth Access

Simply put, it’s hard to overstate the impact that the opioid crisis has had throughout the United States. According to the most recent available Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, more than 33,000 people died of opioid overdoses (either prescription drugs or heroin) in 2015. What’s more, each day approximately 91 Americans die of opioid overdoses. On Thursday, October 26, President Donald Trump officially declared the opioid crisis to be a public health emergency. “Ending the epidemic will require mobilization of government, local communities, and private organizations,” Trump said. “It will require the resolve of our entire country.” And, as first reported by Fierce Healthcare and others, among other policy changes (the specifics of some of which are still unknown), the declaration will expand access to telehealth by permitting remote prescribing of drugs used to treat addiction.

What exactly does the declaration achieve? Along with the expanded use of telehealth prescribing, it opens up access to the Public Health Emergency Fund. It also permits the hiring of additional personnel to address the issue; further, Trump noted that his administration is working with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to develop “a new policy to overcome a restrictive 1970s-era rule that prevents states from providing care at certain treatment facilities with more than 16 beds.” While some advocates have argued that a public health emergency declaration will in effect achieve little, and have urged the President to take the additional step of declaring the epidemic to be a national emergency, American Telemedicine Association (ATA) President Dr. Peter Yellowlees praised Trump’s decision. “Allowing physicians to prescribe controlled substances by telemedicine to treat patients with addictions, using medication assisted treatments, is a very positive move and one that will certainly help more patients to access high quality treatment,” he said in a statement. Health IT Now Executive Director Joel White also weighed in, saying over Twitter that Trump had taken an “excellent first step.”

As we’ve previously reported, some providers treating patients struggling with addiction have seen positive results from the use of telehealth—especially with patients in underserved areas. For example, a Canadian study recently found that patients who had telemedicine opioid agonist therapy (OAT) visits as well as in-person OAT visits were more likely to stay in treatment than their counterparts who had only in-person clinical encounters. Those also noted that telemedicine-driven OAT could be of particular benefit to rural patients, many of whom are required to travel long distances to access treatment facilities. Along similar lines, in Congress, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have sought to direct additional resources toward fighting the opioid epidemic through the application of new technologies. The Addiction Recovery for Rural Communities Act, for example, introduced by Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL), would allot additional resources to rural communities struggling with addiction; the bill specifically stipulates that such resources can be used for substance abuse treatment provided via telehealth.

Click here to read Fierce Healthcare article on the opioid public health emergency declaration and its impact on telehealth.

Click here to read the White House remarks from the public health emergency declaration.

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