Where the opioid crisis stands and how it’s being combated across the nation

In a nation where an estimated 2 million people have an opioid use disorder, lawmakers and medical entities are looking at ways to combat opioid addiction.

On June 24, the State of New Jersey’s department of health started allowing paramedics to carry and administer buprenorphine to overdose patients, becoming the first in the nation to do so.

Buprenorphine, also known by its brand name “Suboxone” is what’s described as a medication-assisted treatment that can help people reduce or quit their use of opiates, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  It was approved for use back in 2002 by the Food and Drug Administration.

It’s one of three medications on the market that has been approved to treat opioid use disorder, according to the Food and Drug Administration.  The other two are methadone and naltrexone; all three require a prescription for use.

A study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) estimated that around 130 people die from opioid overdose every day; and between 20% and 40% of people with opioid use disorders use one of the prescribed medications.  The study suggested that if buprenorphine were available without a prescription that more people would benefit from its use, both individually and society as a whole.

According to the study, on an individual level, patients could better manage withdrawal symptoms and cravings.  In society, increased access could reduce health-care costs and lead to fewer cases of drug-related criminal activity.

A Geneseo, Illinois man with personal experience using buprenorphine, or Suboxone, called the medication a “lifesaver” after he said he became addicted to pain pills.  Scott Blaser’s battle with an opioid use disorder started after he suffered a sports injury in 2009, when he ruptured his Achilles tendon.  He said it wasn’t until 2012 that he realized there was a problem.

Blaser said the pain pills started to ruin his life as he attempted to get more and more.  Eventually a 30-day treatment program helped him wean off of pain pills.  To aid in his recovery, Blaser was offered Suboxone.  Blaser, who is a self-proclaimed advocate of the medication, said it “saved a lot of the people in the group’s lives.”

“To me it’s a lifesaver,” he said.  “It’ll save families too.”

The JAMA-published study does note some challenges that could be associated with over-the-counter access to medication like buprenorphine.

  • One concern is over adverse health affects, in a situation where someone might mix buprenorphine with another medication or alcohol.
  • A second concern is that buprenorphine could become a gateway drug.  For those who don’t have an opioid addiction, buprenorphine has the potential to create a euphoric experience.
  • Another concern is regarding physicians being able to monitor patients.  With the prescription requirement, doctors are able to assess the risk-to-benefit ratio and can help ensure that the medication is being used by the patient, not being given or sold to others.

“In the current model of prescribing, the burden of monitoring is on the physician,” read the study. “A behind-the-counter model would shift some of that burden to pharmacists, and the extent of a pharmacist’s liability risk regarding the dispensing of buprenorphine may depend on state law.”

In April of 2019, the State of Illinois was given $15 million in federal funding to help fight the opioid crisis.

Click here to see a summary of opioid use in each state.

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